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How to Spot a REAL Education Reformer

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THE FIELD GUIDE TO EDUCATION REFORM:
HOW TO SPOT A REAL EDUCATION REFORMER

These days, everyone is “for” education reform. But when everyone claims to favor “reform,” how can you tell the real reformers (“the doers” who are focused on real results for students) from the rest (“the talkers” who are more concerned about maintaining the status quo)? The answer is, listen carefully to what they say and observe closely what they do!

One of the most important things you can do as a parent or advocate for children is to stay informed on education issues and specifically your elected officials views and actions on education reform. In order to advance education, it’s vital to take time to spot the real reformers and seek out candidates that share your views, regardless of party or politics.

Let this toolkit be your guide to determine whether or not a candidate is truly walking the walk, or just talking the talk when it comes to real results for kids.

 

EDUCATION IN GENERAL
While specific details about what to watch for when candidates discuss certain education issues follows below, first are some general guidelines to spotting a true education reformer.

Real Reformer:

  • Knows that poverty is not an excuse for poor academic results because all kids are capable of learning to their potential.
  • Believes in accountability for schools and teachers, and makes it clear that accountability ultimately has to do with student success and student outcomes.
  • Emphasizes parents should have fundamental power over their children’s education.
  • Understands teachers and schools must be allowed to innovate in ways that transform student learning because the U.S. students are falling behind nationally and globally.

 

Faux Reformer:

  • Banters on about the dropout rate, the state of joblessness, homelessness, foodlessness and more as excuses for poor performing schools.
  • Uses the term accountability fifteen different times but never defines what it means.
  • Says they are “all about the achievement gap,” but offers no explanation to what that means or how they propose to address it.
  • Advocates for “early childhood education” without mentioning that existing schools that don’t work can’t do a better job just by having the kids early, and neglects to discuss how low-quality is an issue in most public pre-schools as well.

 

TEACHER UNIONS
When discussing unions, how does the so-called reformer behave?

Real Reformer:

  • Acknowledges teacher contracts are a disincentive way to attract, retain, or reward great teachers.
  • Knows that union contracts can prevent schools and teachers from being innovative and having control over how best to educate their students.
  • Believes that the special interest groups (i.e. The BLOB) that fight to maintain the status quo and who draw funds from the tax dollars funding public education for their political agenda, have outlived the usefulness of the associations they once had and have become obstacles to programs and activities that can best and most judiciously serve children.

 

Faux Reformer:

  • Issues gobs of praise for the teaching profession, for teachers in general, and begins to make excuses that the job is really much harder than most realize and never fully addresses what stands in their way.
  • Discusses, proposes, or advocates having an honest conversation with the union leadership, who (s)he sincerely believes wants what’s best for children.
  • Boasts of his/her own state’s enormous progress in building evaluations that got union buy-in.

 

SCHOOL CHOICE
When the so-called reformer talks about “school choices” pull out your binoculars for a close examination!

Real Reformer:

  • Believes parents should have a say in where their tax dollars are allocated when it comes to educating their child.
  • Proposes creating the conditions to allow a diversity of school choices to flourish, whether private, public, charter, parochial, online/blended or something we have yet to think of.

 

Faux Reformer:

  • Misleadingly claims that research indicates there is no proof vouchers work.
  • Says they are “concerned” that choice creams the best students and leaves everyone else behind (even though research points to the opposite, or a “ripple effect,” meaning the effects of school choice uplift the entire school system as a whole).
  • Makes statements like, “Of course every parent needs access to great schools. But unlike private schools we take every student and work hard to make sure our district is providing everything a student needs for the 21st century.”

 

CHARTER SCHOOLS
With over 2.5 million students in charter schools today, charter schools have become a much more commonplace education reform than when they first appeared on the scene in the early 1990’s. The flip side, however, is that figuring out who is a true education reformer when it comes to the topic of charter schools has become more difficult, as charter schools are in danger of being overregulated and loved to death, and are becoming too much like the school system of which they sought to break free.

Real Reformer:

  • Supports charter school laws that guarantee fiscal equity for every child and ensures the creation of truly independent authorizers that do not need local or state board oversight to act, rather than entrusting authorizing power to school boards alone.
  • Believes there is no magic formula for judging what a “good” charter school looks like during the application phase, understanding that many of the more well-known charter schools today started out as ideas on paper that were given a chance to succeed. Limiting the definition of what a “successful” charter school looks like limits opportunities for students.

 

Faux Reformer:

  • Makes statements such as, “I like charter schools but they won’t work in my state because it’s (fill in the 
blank) ‘rural,’ ‘rich,’ ‘poor,’ ‘big,’ ‘small,’ or ‘doing great already!’ “ (Note: This is a favorite defense tactic of the faux reformer – the evasive maneuver).
  • Makes a statement like, “I’m for charter schools, just not those for-profit ones.” (Note: This is uttered a lot and the fact is, there’s no such thing!)
  • Says they supported lifting a cap on charter schools in their state, so of course they support charter schools. (Note: Be extra vigilant about this one. It’s a defense tactic used to camouflage themselves from the reality that their state has very few charter schools and that the ones they do have were created for the sole purpose of shifting the poorest performing students out of their schools).

 

PERFORMANCE PAY         
If this so-called reformer talks about “judging teachers based on student improvement,” ask this question: HOW MUCH?

Real Reformer:

  • Knows one critical component of honoring teachers as professionals is to have performance-based evaluations with teeth, with which money
follows success.

 

Faux Reformer:

  • Some so-called reformers back programs that base only a small percentage of a teacher’s salary or evaluation on performance measures. Some states that have adopted so-called teacher reforms leave it to districts to determine what comprises an evaluation (Observation? Peer review? Student scores? – Rarely) and permit so much discretion at the local level that the evaluations may be meaningless.

 

FEDERAL EDUCATION POLICY
Although the newest hot topic from a national perspective is Common Core, during the last few elections it was Race to the Top (RTT), federal waivers and No Child Left Behind (NCLB) policies stealing the show. But, because Congress has yet to reauthorize NCLB, don’t be surprised if you hear candidates mention this Bush-era policy.

Real Reformer:

  • Believes federal role should be one of assessment and data gathering, conducting nonpartisan, objective research to support policymaking, and ensuring that the most needy are supported and helped, provided that such support is predicated on student success, and not the status quo.
  • Real reformers believe that NCLB needs reform, that waivers should not go to any state that asks, and that without a demonstrated pattern of success, waivers are a return back to the days of “business as usual.”

 

Faux Reformer:

  • Believes RTT yielded path-breaking progress in their state, and credits it for increasing student achievement despite the fact that official research on whether or not RTT truly moved the needle on student achievement is still not completed.
  • Unconditionally “favor the waiver.” As of September 2014, only seven states do not have No Child Left Behind waivers granted from the U.S. Department of Education. States (and the District of Columbia) that have waivers are able to pursue their own course without consequence of losing money regardless if they succeed or fail. While many recognize the unintended regulatory frenzy that resulted from NCLB (often a result of flawed implementation not flawed goals), and however imperfect that law, real reformers still know it is driving accountability.

 

DIGITAL LEARNING
What are this so-called reformer’s policies on digital learning and technology-based instructional delivery?

Real Reformer:

  • Recognizes that technology and online learning are critical elements of a reformed K-12 education system.
  • Acknowledges the role businesses, which have transformed the nation’s infrastructure, can play in the creation and delivery of online learning.

 

Faux Reformer:

  • Believes online learning opportunities should be limited to district offerings only (because why stray from the status quo as the world around us advances and global competition becomes increasingly real with the advance of technology?)
  • Makes comments that they support online learning, while simultaneously recommending it be studied further.
  • Says they support giving every child a computer or tablet or suggests that merely renovating a building means they are for technology. (Note: Be really careful with this tactic – faux reformers still lack the knowledge that a device alone will not transform student learning).

 

CURRICULUM & STANDARDS
What about what’s taught, not just how it’s taught? Does matter actually matter? Many reformers-in-waiting think it’s about just the teacher, the approach, the infrastructure and not the materials. It is worth finding out more before you start interviewing he-who-loves-standards most but neglects the rest of the conversation.

Real Reformer:

  • Recognizes that the mere existence of standards at the state or national level doesn’t guarantee strong curricula, lessons, accountability or even a solution to the dropout crisis.

 

Faux Reformer:

  • Believe the Common Core alone is enough to transform learning.
  • Believes that the Common Core is a detriment to the American experience.
  • Watch out for doozies like these that could be muttered by phony education reformers:
    • “The reading wars are over. Literacy is important and our children must be exposed to as many books as possible if they are to learn to read.”
    • “We know that most kids will never use math after they graduate so let’s just make it fun for them.”
    • “We believe learning should be child-centered.”
    • “Technology in the classroom closes the gap for students.”
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