In last week's State of the Union speech, President Obama outlined three major goals: "encouraging innovation," "rebuilding America," and the perennial "reforming education." The president praised his administration's Race to the Top program as "the most meaningful reform of our public schools in a generation." To refresh our memory about Race to the Top he described it, rather crassly, this way: "To all 50 states, we said, 'If you show us the most innovative plans to improve teacher quality and student achievement, we'll show you the money.'"
That sounds like a more genteel version of It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Stanley Kramer's 1963 comedy in which a colorful and diverse group of strangers form teams and scramble over each other in a cross-country race to find a buried treasure. Hijinks ensue, but in the mad, mad educational world it isn't so funny.
Public education has been in the process of "reformation" ever since the federal government got its hands on it in 1968, and presidents ever since have had something to say about it in almost every SOTU address. But no one ever stands up on the floor of the House chamber to ask why public education is taking so long to get reformed.
Obama actually dropped a clue in the speech: "You see, we know what's possible for our children when reform isn't just a top-down mandate, but the work of local teachers and principals; school boards and communities." That's the generality; for a specific he mentioned Bruce Randolph School in Denver: "Three years ago, it was rated one of the worst schools in Colorado. . . . But last May, 97 percent of the seniors received their diploma. Most will be the first in their families to go to college."
What he didn't explain was exactly how the school turned itself around. Bruce Randolph opened in 2003 as a middle school in the Five Points area of northeast Denver. Within just a few years, it received a failing grade according to standards set by the No Child Left Behind Act. (While NCLB has its problems, without it that school might never have been rated at all.)
On National Public Radio's All Things Considered, Larry Abramson filled in the backstory: "But the experience of this school highlights just how complicated and fragile these turnaround efforts can be. The transformation hinged on giving the staff of Bruce Randolph more autonomy from the central administration of the Denver city schools. So the president's remarks are a bit of a swipe at the big-city school systems."
They say that like it's a bad thing. But there's more. The transition principal, Kristin Waters, asked for autonomy, not only from district regulations, but also from union rules. Denver Public Schools granted that permission-and so, to their credit, did the Denver Classroom Teachers Association.
The first thing Waters did was require all teachers to reapply, and from the applicants she selected only six. Those were the teachers who seemed to her the most flexible and the most dedicated to student welfare. She applied the same standards to every new teacher she hired. The school reopened for grades six through 12, and achieved that 97 percent senior-class graduation rate in 2010.
NPR pointed out, skeptically but fairly, that the senior graduation rate didn't tell the story, since most dropouts don't wait until 12th grade to drop out. Still, while test scores at Randolph remain low, and cultural problems abound (the school was the first in Denver to dispense contraceptives to students), a failing school owes its improvement to freedom rather than management.
As recent documentaries like The Lottery and Waiting for Superman have shown, nothing hinders school improvement more than rules and regulations. Unions are notorious for their rules, and the National Education Association is one of the Democratic Party's largest contributors. And, even though the federal government supplies less than 10 percent of total school funding, it's responsible for much more than 10 percent of the regulations. So we can't expect the president to be too specific about what really works. Race to the Top is a good idea on its face, but in reality it's a little like saying, "Gentlemen, start your engines! But don't touch your steering wheels!"