Demanding More of Presidential Candidates

Can meaningful reform of the public school system come about only if problems with the status quo are exaggerated? And will Americans favor substantive changes only if the reforms’ weaknesses are hidden? by Kevin G. Welner

These are serious questions, particularly given the materials produced by “Ed in ’08,” the $60 million campaign backed by the Gates and Broad family foundations that hopes to make education a high-profile issue in the 2008 presidential race.

Our schools could certainly benefit from a serious national discussion of education policy. Such a debate might help Americans better understand the strengths, weaknesses and needs of the current system. But little of value will come from this discussion unless we take on difficult questions about all proposals and unless we honestly describe the realities, good and bad, of American schools.

The Ed in ’08 campaign asks every presidential candidate to weigh in on three priorities that “hold great promise for improving education:” (1) rigorous, consistent national curriculum standards; (2) merit pay for teachers, as well as higher pay for teaching in disadvantaged schools and in critical subjects; and (3) a longer school day and school year. Alas, notwithstanding the Ed campaign’s enthusiasm, the research on the three proposals is decidedly mixed.

Poor Grounding

The materials produced by the Ed campaign include useful information and ideas. For instance, they stress that a policy that only adds hours spent at school would not be productive unless the new time is spent sensibly and productively, and they offer some examples of schools that appear to make effective use of the additional time.

But other aspects of these materials are truly problematic. In support of the recommendation for national standards, the campaign presents some alarmist but misleading numbers suggesting poor academic performance and weak current standards. Moreover, the campaign’s conclusion that national standards would improve the status quo must be taken largely on faith.

Consider this exaggerated statement from Ed’s materials: “Seventy percent of 8th graders are not proficient in reading — and most will never catch up.” This 70 percent figure is based on the 2003 National Assessment of Educational Progress. However, the process of setting proficiency levels for NAEP has been condemned as fundamentally flawed by the U.S. General Accountability Office, the National Academy of Education and the National Academy of Sciences. In a nutshell, the figure is virtually meaningless.

Similarly, the Ed campaign warns that “according to a recent analysis of education standards, more than two-thirds of students attend classes in states with mediocre expectations for what their students should learn.” That analysis, it turns out, was conducted by the Fordham Foundation, which had the unsavory honor of receiving the 2006 “Truthiness in Education” award by the Think Tank Review Project (which I co-direct). The review of this report noted that the criteria for judging English standards were a bit unusual — penalizing states for “relating lived experiences to literature” and for “addressing contemporary social issues.”

The review also uncovered selective use of data and found the Fordham report seriously lacking in methodological rigor. The reviewer’s overall conclusion was that policymakers would be “ill-advised to base any decisions about policy or practice on the grades assigned by this report.”

Let’s consider again the questions that began this column about not disclosing or discussing the weaknesses of a reform idea. The devil often lurks in the details of great-sounding ideas, and seemingly superb policy ideas are often only loosely coupled with the policy implementation that follows. The appeal of merit pay, for instance, may lessen when one starts looking at details. How does one determine merit? Might the incentives lead teachers to game the system? Might the incentives undermine teacher collegiality? How much extra money is needed to influence teachers’ performance?

Presidential candidates considering a policy proposal should be asking these questions. But if the Ed campaign declines to offer detailed explanations, important caveats and thorough citations to peer-reviewed studies, what level of detail and empirical support could Ed then justifiably expect of the presidential candidates?

Addressing Complexities

The Gates and Broad foundations should be applauded for their efforts. Presidential candidates should indeed put education at the forefront of the national debate. Hopefully, however, that debate will be grounded in the best knowledge about how to make schools most successful.

The nation’s schools will benefit if our candidates openly debate a range of possible reforms, including those set forth by the Ed campaign. But let’s also expect these candidates to address the complexities and even the potential drawbacks of their proposals and carefully explain how those proposals will work to benefit our children.

Kevin Welner is associate professor of education policy and director of the Education and the Public Interest Center at the University of Colorado, 249 UCB, Boulder, CO 80309. E-mail: welner@colorado.edu