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The Blueprint: A Rose by Any Other Name

The Obama administration officially conveyed it’s blueprint for reauthorization to Congress last week, even while seeking ideas from teachers. So what else is new, you might ask? Apparently, while seeking input, the plan was also being written, as I have suggested in the past, jaded cynic that I have become.

Secretary Duncan told the House Education Committee last week that these ideas did not come from Washington “experts,” but rather from teachers and principals and other stakeholders. I think it would be more accurate to say that “these ideas represent our interpretation of what we heard from teachers, principals, and other stakeholders.” That is quite different.

The Blueprint is a 41 page concept paper laying out the administration’s vision for replacing NCLB. I have many problems with what I read, and I can’t be too far off base since both the NEA and the AFT have expressed deep concern and disappointment with many elements of the plan. You should download the plan and read it for yourself and share your reaction with us.

The media and inside the beltway education policy wonks have already declared that there is initially broad-based bipartisan positive reaction, and that the primary opposition is coming from the teachers unions. This is generally how the script unfolds in the contemporary education reform debate. What is different in this instance is that two important voices in the debate have expressed deep concern with the proposal: Diane Ravitch (NYU historian) who I wrote about in a recent post, and Linda Darling-Hammond (Stanford University) whose recently published book The Flat World and Education: How America’s Commitment to Equity Will Determine Our Future has been deemed a significant roadmap for the future.

The combination of the Obama budget proposal and the Blueprint envision a radically different tilt away from formulaic distribution of federal education dollars to one which forces more and more competition for desperately needed money in a far from level playing field.

These are first impressions, but here are a few substantial concerns. If you have read any recent posts of mine you know I am not a great fan of Race to the Top. The Blueprint treats RTTT as revealed truth and has become the basis for the administration’s proposal. It mistakenly presumes that the fundamental philosophy imbedded in NCLB – the notion that rewards and punishment are the only pathway to change – is really not a bad thing, but rather misapplied. That if we correct the misapplication of identifying too many schools as failing and apply a more focused flogging on the teachers in a smaller percentage of “persistently  underperforming schools” – let’s say 5% – that we will have made things better. Well, no, that is not what has been said. Flogging never changed any workforce for the better. As one blogger characterized it (Diane Ravitch cited this recently), they can’t fire poverty, so they decided to fire teachers.

The problem with the Obama administration on education, is that they are proving again how wise our mothers were when they often told us, “It’s not what you say that is important, it’s what you do.”

The most fundamental flaw in our education system is the unevenness of it all. Equity, a level playing field, is the only true foundation that will provide a springboard for transforming our system. According to Darling-Hammond, the nations to which we look as top performers, such as Finland, Singapore, and South Korea, have taken a totally different approach to transforming their schools.  The focus on teachers has been real rather than rhetorical, as has been the focus on curriculum and pedagogy.

Finland’s approach should be instructive.

Finnish education policies are the result of four decades of systematic, mostly intentional development that has created a culture of diversity, trust, and respect within Finnish society, in general, and within its education system in particular … Education sector development has been grounded on equal opportunities for all, equitable distribution of resources rather than competition, intensive early interventions for prevention, and building gradual trust among education practitioners, especially teachers. (Sahlberg, Finnish analyst, as quoted by Darling-Hammond, The Flat World and Education, p.168)

Consider the last four tumultuous decades of reform in the United States and what the descriptors might be if we had to write a paragraph to capture it. We have, as our critics frequently lament, gone in the opposite direction. But the cause of the decline cannot be laid upon the backs of teachers for, unlike the nations mentioned above, teachers in our country have never been professionally empowered. I am in the midst of reading Linda Darling-Hammond’s book and have found it to be incredibly useful. She was my candidate for education secretary and her book only underscores our loss.

Her book carefully lays out the current reality in public education. She examines three states as exemplars of approaches to reform: Connecticut, North Carolina, and California. Connecticut broke new ground in the 80’s with the Education Enhancement Act, by elevating the quality of its teaching force, developing strong standards and assessments. We know the story. She also examines three high fliers on the world stage: Finland, South Korea, and Singapore. What Connecticut shared with these three nations, at least in the 80’s and into the 90’s, was the enlightened notion that the best path to transformational change, genuine systemic change, is the slow and steady approach.

There is much more to say on the so-called Blueprint, and as the poet said, “There will be time.” In the meantime, after you read Diane Ravitch’s book, go out and get a copy of Linda Darling-Hammond’s book. It is well worth the effort.

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