EDITORIAL: Education convergence

By NEMS Daily Journal

Consider a public education agenda that calls for higher educational standards and yet more flexibility for states and local school districts in how to meet them, that seeks merit pay differentials for teachers based on student performance, and that calls for more charter schools.
It sounds like what many Republicans have been touting for years, but it’s actually the Obama administration’s approach to shaking up the educational status quo.
President Obama and Secretary of State Arne Duncan are defectors from the national democratic Party’s over-protectiveness of teacher unions. Their “Race to the Top” program has provided financial incentives to states willing to undertake reform heavily weighted with the criteria listed above.
Because Obama’s views converge with many Republicans on education, bipartisan progress is possible as the 2002 No Child Left Behind law comes under review in Congress.
While there are shades of difference in the approach of the administration and Republican leaders in Congress, longtime education-interested Republicans like Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander have said consensus is possible.
No Child Left Behind – President George W. Bush’s signature education legislation, crafted with the support of Democrats like the late Sen. Edward Kennedy – succeeded in focusing more attention on school performance nationwide. It also placed more emphasis than ever on standardized test scores, and the criteria for achieving success were rigidly prescribed with students in nine subgroups all having to meet yearly progress goals.
Goals were high – all students, including those in special education, were to be proficient in reading and math by 2014, for example. But the states were allowed to establish their own standards of assessment, and not surprisingly, most initially set the bar low to avoid failure.
Mississippi, to its credit, has strengthened its state accountability standards in recent years to get a more realistic picture. It’s important as lawmakers reshape federal education legislation that they strike a balance between overreaching, one-size-fits-all mandates and the need for schools to be striving toward higher, nationally recognized standards of performance.
Given the disappointing state of U.S. academic performance in worldwide rankings, that should mean new ways of doing things. As the Obama administration and congressional leaders negotiate, they will have to contend with the ideologues on both sides – tea party Republicans who believe the federal government has no role in education and liberal Democrats who believe more money is the only answer and who will resist holding teachers more accountable.
This is where the convergence of the president’s thinking with his normal Republican congressional adversaries can help strike a middle-ground agreement on a vitally important component of America’s future.