These are amazing times in public education. For openers, there’s the huge competition for $4.35 billion in federal money. Of the 41 competitors in the Race to the Top, only two were chosen in the first round. The message seems clear: go home and clean up your act.
Now, I don’t know how many of you out there looked at any of the original proposals. I read into four of them and can tell you that the writers (using that term loosely) have invented a wonderful substitute for Ambien, a perfect cure for insomnia. I think the average proposal came in at somewhere between 800-900 pages—of turgid prose. Had I been sentenced to read all of that stuff, I think I would have thrown up my hands, torn out my hair, screamed, and then given the money to the states with the shortest proposals.
I hope this time the Duncan team will tell the competitors in the second round: “30 pages max! If you can’t say it in 30 pages or less, don’t bother. Put all the rest in appendices, thank you.” (I recall the wisdom of “If I had more time I would have written a shorter letter,” attributed to Mark Twain and others.)
A second remarkable event is the new contract between the Washington Teachers Union and Michelle Rhee. It took 2+ years, but it may have been worth the wait. Assuming it’s ratified by the City Council and the members of the union, this contract essentially ends the tyranny of seniority and introduces a strong dose of pay-for-performance. Does the contract have implications beyond Washington? I think it does, and I base that on Randi Weingarten’s remarks at the press conference. She went out of her way to brand this as ‘unique,’ using that adjective four times in the space of a couple of sentences to try to convince listeners that it applied only to DC and no other cities, states, towns or unions. As Hamlet noted in watching the overheated acting in the famous ‘play within the play’, “Methinks the lady doth protest too much.”
Change is here, and it’s no longer possible to talk about paying teachers simply based on years in the classroom and number of college credits. Those days are over, I think thanks largely to Rhee. What the new systems will look like, I don’t know, but I am willing to bet that anyone arguing for ‘seat time and credits’ will be laughed out of town.
And finally, Detroit, where I am now preparing a report for PBS NewsHour. This city’s schools are a mess. How bad? On the most recent NAEP results for cities, only three percent of 4th graders scored at a proficient level in math. That’s not a misprint: 3%!
Most people I’ve talked to blame the State for what it did when it took over and ran the schools from 1999-2005, but that’s about all Detroiters agree on. Detroit has an Emergency Financial Manager, Robert Bobb, who has extraordinary authority, thanks to the Governor and the Legislature.
Since arriving just over a year ago, Bobb has closed schools and turned over a lot of rocks—and found corruption under quite a few of them. The Detroit School Board is suing, saying that Bobb has no authority over academics, only finances. Bobb responds that anything that money touches—and it touches curriculum, of course—is under his authority.
Members of the Board are also upset that unnamed private foundations are paying $145,000 of Bobb’s annual salary of $425,000, and that’s in court as well.
Lost in the shuffle, I fear, are children and young people, even though everyone claims to be putting the kids first.
What’s going to happen? I have no idea. If this were a baseball game, you have to say that it’s only the second or third inning. But, unfortunately, it’s not a game.
(Photo credits: Top – David Clow – Maryland; Bottom – Stephen Voss.)