Done Reforming; Focusing on Getting Smart

Summer education politics are unusually interesting this year with what Rick Hess called Duncan’s Backdoor Blueprint.  As is typical, Andy Rotherham’s more measured annotated take adds detail.  Hess responds with a clever (and frightening) future take exploring the Duncan Precedent.  Rick and Andy are closer to this debate than I am.  Far from the beltway, five things are becoming clear:

  1. States will matter more.  As Fordham’s Mike Petrilli points out state elections matter.  With an unraveling and eventually weakened ESEA, state education policy will be more important than ever.  States will continue to aggregate control from districts over the key policy levers: standards, assessment, accountability, data, and funding.
  2. RFER leadership. The Tea Party may have hijacked the news, but it is Republicans for Education Reform (Petrilli calls them Rhee-publicans) that have become a driving force in American education and Obama’s strongest allies.  Not a formal group likeDFER, but pushing a similar agenda, RFER’s intellectual roots stem from Jeb Bush’s Florida formula. His foundation’s Chiefs for Change has become a very important leadership support group. [I also appreciate that while Jeb was the best EduGov under the standards agenda, he’s now the leading advocate for the innovation agenda.]
  3. New tests=new frame. The predominant frame for American K-12 education this decade will be the new tests developed by two Race to the Top-funded consortia.  They are dealing with a tough set of constraints (as described herehere, and here) but will introduce tests that reflect the higher standards of the Common Core.
  4. Train wreck ahead. Speaking of the Core, Rotherham predicts a train wreck around the introduction of higher standards.  The WSJ reported yesterday that, based on an NCES report, most states have failed to raise the bar.  That means these new Core-aligned tests will be a real shock to the system.  Some states are starting to ratchet up the degree of difficulty, but the level of reported failure will be shocking for most of the country in 2014.
  5. New Normal.  This week’s financial gyrations make clear that we’re in for several more years of what Duncan last fall called the New Normal—higher expectations and lower funding.

When you put all that together, it makes clear the importance of the learning innovation agenda.  We can’t get dramatically better results from a cheaper version of what we’ve been doing for decades.  Our schools, particularly our secondary schools, are obsolete.  We need new tools and new schools that help students and teachers succeed.
As interesting (and maddening) as education politics are, I’m going to leave the reporting and analysis to Michele & Alyson, RiShawn & Whitney, Rick & Andy.  I plan to stay focused on the future of learning—that’s where the solutions will emerge, not from the tired (often intractable) edreform debates of the past.
Next week, our team will be launching, a site devoted to innovations in learning.  We will continue to focus on K-12 applications, but will expand our coverage of innovations in informal, early, and adult learning.  We will cover learning entrepreneurs, investors, technologies, and strategies. We will build a community of learners optimistic about the potential of connecting more young people to the idea economy through personal digital learning.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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