By Mike Klein
Three kids go to school. One way under achieves, one achieves okay but nothing spectacular and the third kid achieves off the chart, leaving the other two way behind. So which kid do you suppose will get the most resources if the school system has to pick and choose its priorities?
Georgia state representative Ed Seltzer found himself in the same ballroom with U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan one morning last week at the Foundation for Excellence in Education annual conference. Here is what Setzler asked when the microphone was passed his way:
“I’ve heard folks say in different settings that high performing kids will take care of themselves (and) we don’t need to focus so much on them. I would submit if we’re going to be great as a nation in the next century in innovation we need a strategy to make sure the top performing kids are really being challenged to be all they can be as well,” Setzler said. “Is there a focus within your department on these top-performing kids to take them to the next level as well?”
Here is the short version of Duncan’s response, significantly edited for length:
“Part of what disturbed me under No Child Left Behind is there was a focus on that proficiency cut score right in the middle, so lots of incentives to work with those 5 percent of kids around the middle to put them over the bar and make it look like you were doing something, and no incentives to do something for kids at the top or the bottom.
“For me it’s not about the top or the bottom and the middle. It’s about all kids,” Duncan said. “I want to look at growth and gain, how much kids are improving. Whether it’s that gifted child or whether it’s that child in the middle or that child with special needs, I want to know how much that child is improving.”
Later Setzler sent an email from the ballroom that said, “I wanted to seed his inner conscience with the imperative to not leave behind our top performers.”
The two-day education reform conference was presented by the Foundation for Excellence in Education and its chairman, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. With an emphasis on breaking molds, celebrating innovation wherever it occurs and challenging status quo, the conference heard from the best reform minds in the business, including outgoing Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels whose next posting is as the incoming President of Purdue University.
Daniels is a celebrated hero to education reformers. In partnership with Tony Bennett, his elected state superintendent of education, Daniels championed and achieved nearly all of the goals that he established eight years ago. His overall reforms package was so successful that Daniels acknowledged, “We ran the table on education reform,” during his speech.
Teacher seniority no longer rules in Indiana schools; teacher quality will be measured in part on student performance. Collective bargaining has been reduced to wages and benefits. “The shackles and the handcuffs are going to be gone from our contracts,” Daniels said.
By his description, “We took the lid off charter schools.” Indiana parents can now choose which public school they want their children to attend. “It’s a wonderment to drive down an Indiana road and see billboards advertising for students by the public school systems,” Daniels said. “We feel a new era has dawned. We’re very excited.” That new era also includes full universal private school choice.
Not everyone is equally excited. Daniels is leaving soon for Purdue University after eight years. Bennett, the state schools boss, ran for re-election to a second four-year term last month and he lost. Daniels said his view is that Bennett’s defeat was less about rejection of education reform and more about effective use of social media by Bennett’s pro-union opposition. “The last twitch of the dinosaur’s tail can kill you,” Daniels said.
“The process of reform will never be over. We will always be learning or modifying,” Daniels told the audience of several hundred educators, legislators and policy makers. “Sure there’s a school improvement rationale for universal choice. The more competition among public schools with charter schools and nongovernment schools the more likely that everybody gets better.
“But there’s a social justice issue, too. We’ve got to be a country whether it’s education or health care or other important realms in which we trust and enable average citizens at whatever station of life to make decisions for themselves,” Daniels said. “Free society is not going to work very well if people, whatever their motives and whatever their smarts, are making decisions for the rest of us.”
(Click here to learn more about the Foundation for Excellence in Education.)