Parent power, teacher power, local power, and a word from Michelle Rhee

In case you missed them, a few notable events from the last month (or so):

An amazing story from Erik Robelen at Education Week begins…

Overriding the governor’s veto, New Hampshire’s Republican-led legislature has enacted a new law that requires school districts to give parents the opportunity to seek alternatives to any course materials they find objectionable. The measure, approved this month, calls on all districts in the state to establish a policy for such exceptions, but sets two key conditions. First, the district must approve of the substitute materials for the particular child, and second, the parents must pay for them. Although at least a few states, including New Hampshire, already have laws giving parents some explicit recourse in particular subjects, such as sex education, this policy appears to be more expansive in its potential reach.

Robelen quotes Fordham’s curriculum guru, Kathleen Porter-Magee, leaning toward parents:

I don’t think it’s crazy to say parents should have a say in what their kids are learning, especially when it affects issues about their faith and belief system,” Ms. Porter-Magee said. “The problem is that the bill is written so broadly.

This is certainly not the first shot fired in what will be a prolonged battle to decentralize education, but it surely brings the fight to the curriculum trenches. 

***

Teachers really really do count. Kudos to Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times for appreciating the stakes of the debate over the Chetty-Friedman-Rockoff study called The Long-term Impact of Teachers.

Kristof called it, “a landmark new research paper [that] underscores that the difference between a strong teacher and a weak teacher lasts a lifetime.”

For those of us who have seen teachers in action—the good, the bad, and the ugly—the research confirms what we all know. It is now up to our policymakers, as it has always been, to provide us a system of governance that gives us great teachers. 

Here are a few things that I think we need to do:

  • Revitalize teacher education, including eliminating regressive certification laws.
  • Get meaningful teacher evaluation rubrics, with significant attention to student learning outcomes.
  • Abandon Last In First Out rules for teacher retention as well as kissin’ cousins like transfer rights within a district.
  • Give principals the duty – and autonomy – to create a school environment that encourages excellence and collaboration—and compensates good teachers accordingly.

It is not enough to sing the praises of great teachers. Our policymakers must do the heavy-lifting that will train them and retain them. 

***

Michelle Rhee is pretty smart. Though this video by a DC group of parents and teachers is unabashedly anti-Michelle Rhee (“the sad legacy under Rhee”) and meant to “contradict her simplisms,” it did lead me to this exchange between Rhee and Ida Lieszkovszky for State Impact Ohio:

Q:  One of our listeners wants to know what impact on a student’s success or failure in school does their home environment and socio-economic status have? Or do you think that a student’s success or failure in school is entirely the teacher’s responsibility?
A:  A kid’s success in school is not entirely contingent upon any one factor; it’s actually both. When you have the home and the family working in concert with the school and the teacher, that’s the best-case scenario, when everyone’s on the same page. And so we should try to do everything we can to try to incent and encourage more parental and familial involvement in schools. Can teachers overcome all of the ills of society? Absolutely not. Can they make a big dent in the potential life outcomes of kids if we’ve got great teachers in the classroom? One hundred percent.

Seems a very un-simplistic statement about a complicated issue.   

***

A curriculum tussle in Tucson. And, finally, another curriculum tussle pitting local interests and state authorities. According to this Associated Press report, “Arizona's schools chief ordered that a portion of a Tucson school district's state money be cut off after he issued a decision Friday that the district's ethnic studies program violated state law.”

Apparently, Tucson’s sin was to create a Mexican-American Studies program, which an administrative law judge, supporting the state’s Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal, ruled against because the classes were designed for one ethnic group and, according to the AP, “promot[ed] racial resentment and advocat[ed] ethnic solidarity instead of treating students as individuals.”

The case poses existential governance questions, but they are nothing new. As someone once said about America, “E pluribus unum,” which, roughly translated, means, let the fight continue.

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