At the heart of the debates that continue to rage over improving the nation’s schools is a fundamental question: who controls education? Superintendents? Governors? The U.S. Department of Education? An article in the New York Times Magazine (“Building Better Teachers” March 2, 2010)provides a different answer: teachers. Teachers have the ultimate responsibility for education, which is the reason why reform of teacher education and mandating new measures for teacher accountability have become white hot political topics. Too many children are failing at even the most basic levels of reading and math proficiency; too many K-12 schools are doing a completely inadequate job of preparing students for collegiate-level learning.
While educators and politicians may agree on the nature of the overall problem — student learning outcomes are dismal in certain communities — agreement breaks down at the point where government begins to dictate the solution. Increasing numbers of city, state and federal political and educational leaders believe that the only solution to educational reform is wholesale replacement of teachers in failing schools, along with new methods of evaluation that hold teachers responsible for student academic achievement as measured by standardized tests.
The political support for removing teachers in failing schools came to a head in recent weeks when President Obama spoke favorably about the actions of a Rhode Island school board that fired all of the teachers in a school whose students were performing poorly. Union leaders immediately protested, illustrating another dimension of the struggle for educational reform: behind-the-scenes, much of the battle for control is b etween organized labor and political management. Individual teachers are pawns between powerful opposing forces.
The Obama Administration is also putting considerable money clout behind its intention to lead education reform. The “Race to the Top” is a $4.35 billion initiative that will reward some states for creating reforms according to a template dictated by the U.S. Department of Education. Some powerful private interests are behind this initiative, including the Gates Foundation that has poured millions into educational reform in cities all over the country. Read Washington Post columnist Valerie Strauss’s take on the Race to the Top.
All of this is on my mind this morning as I contemplate a discussion yesterday at the annual meeting of the American Council on Education. While K-12 reform is the current political emphasis, some political leaders want to impose the same kinds of accountability measures, including standardized curricula and testing, on colleges and universities. The federal government is not an insignificant financial partner in our business — nearly $180 billion annually flows to college students and universities in the form of federal financial aid as well as institutional grants.
While acknowledging our obligation to provide a strong natioanal return on that investment in the form of a well-educated population, we leaders in higher education are firmly united on this point: institutions of higher education must control our own educational programs, not the federal or state governments, and we must be strong advocates on the central role of our teachers — our faculty — in determining curricula and outcomes.