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A Bipartisan Resolution: Keep Reforming Education

For inspiration this New Year season, I am going to quote at length one of the most encouraging and challenging pieces of Congressional testimony I’ve ever heard.

It was delivered in May 2009 by Scott Gordon, CEO of the Mastery Charter Schools of Philadelphia, one of six programs awarded $1 million by Oprah Winfrey’s Angel Network this year for pioneering work in turning around failing schools.

Mastery works in high-poverty neighborhoods, but the fact is that most school systems in the country need a dose of what’s been so effective in Philadelphia.

As former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush noted in the keynote address Dec. 1 at his Foundation for Excellence in Education, right now only one-third of U.S. students graduate from high school ready for college or careers.

Another third don’t graduate at all, and another third require remedial work either in college or the workplace. “Those numbers are shameful,” he said.

And they are dangerous to the country’s future, as demonstrated by the latest report of the Program for International Student Assessment, which ranked U.S. students 23rd in the world in science, 32nd in math and 17th in reading.

The U.S. trailed all its major competitors and trading partners in Europe and Asia, notably in advanced regions of China.

In Philadelphia, as Gordon told the House Committee on Education and Labor, of 20,000 students who enter first grade each year, only 3,000 are likely to graduate from college.

Half never graduate from high school, and of those who do, two-thirds don’t score “proficient” on Pennsylvania’s assessment exam.

“An absolute catastrophe,” Gordon said. “Year after year. Our house is on fire. … We are failing generations of youth in urban schools across our nation.”

But Mastery’s record demonstrates that “we don’t need to tolerate this failure,” he said. At three failing schools that Mastery took over, with the same students in them, assessment scores increased by 35 percent per grade in every subject. Violence decreased 85 percent.

And 93 percent of Mastery’s first three graduating classes went on to higher education, 67 percent to four-year colleges.

“It can be done,” Gordon told the committee. “It can be done quickly at scale. There are no excuses.

“How? First, we need urgency and accountability. Set the bar high. College readiness must be the bar for nearly all our youth.

“You will hear critics say that standardized tests do not appropriately assess a child’s learning preparedness — that they result in ‘teaching to the test.’

“Why don’t we hear the same outcry against Advanced Placement tests? Or the SAT or ACT” college entry tests?

Next, Gordon said, “we need to ruthlessly focus on outcomes. Grow what works and eliminate what doesn’t. We exercise this type of common sense in every area of our society except education. …

“High-performing organizations set clear goals. They hold management and employees accountable for results. They measure progress continually. They hire the highest-quality talent and promote the best. And exit non-performers.

“In contrast, at most public schools, pay is based on seniority or educational degrees that have no proven relationship with student outcomes. … As a field, we don’t attract the best and brightest. We don’t fire the worst.”

Gordon didn’t explicitly point the finger at teachers unions: the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association.

But they are the ones that systematically fight charter schools, oppose testing and accountability, and insist that salaries, promotions and layoffs be based on seniority, not merit.

There is encouraging evidence that state, local and national leaders, on a bipartisan basis, realize that the schools have to stop being run for the benefit of the adults who work in them and need to prepare children for global competition.

The Obama administration has mounted a “Race to the Top,” and states are responding by instituting reforms.

Bush, a Republican, said, “Spurred on by a race to the top, more states have focused on reform than ever before and, equally important, dozens of states are not waiting for the race to the top to bring about reform.”

He added, “I hope that Republicans in Congress work with the Obama administration to make this the one place to prove to the American people that Democrats and Republicans can put partisanship aside [to] define common ground for a long-term strategy to assure that more children learn.”

But there is a danger that, in the next Congress, an unholy alliance of convenience will develop between the teachers unions, which want to block reform, and tea party Republicans, who want to cut back on domestic spending and get Washington out of education.

Such an alliance was foreshadowed in a recent editorial in the Wall Street Journal by Diane Ravitch, a former reformer in President George H.W. Bush’s administration who has now become a union loyalist.

She wrote, “The question today for Republicans is whether they are a party that endorses top-down reform from Washington, D.C., or … respects the common sense of the people back home and their commitment to their local public schools.”

At the local level, of course, teachers unions tend to rule. And, as a result, America is 32nd in the world in math and only a third of high school graduates are capable of doing college work.

As Gordon told Congress, America’s “house is on fire.”

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