Saturday, July 3, 2010

Wayward Seyward

I mentioned in my previous post that when I saw Seyward Darby had written an article entitled "Obama: Don't Touch Education Reform," I had a bad feeling. Bad and, as it turns out, damned accurate:
But this particular measure has evolved in some decidedly unappealing ways. When it was first introduced, numerous education advocacy groups asked Congress to impose constraints that would effectively compel states to reform their layoff systems. As I explained recently, most states and school districts follow a misguided "last-hired, first-fired" rule. If they must let teachers go for budgetary reasons, they start by booting those teachers who have spent the least time in the classroom. Teacher quality doesn't factor into the decision at all. Congress, though, refused to go along with the proposal—and the Obama administration didn't intervene. "Right now, the most important thing is to stop the bleeding," Senator Tom Harkin, chair of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, said in early May.

That was bad enough. But then, this week, House Appropriations Chairman David Obey proposed that the government pay for the legislation, in part, by taking money from other Education Department funds—and not just any old funds, but the money set aside for some of Obama’s most important school reforms. Under Obey's plan, which the full House ultimately adopted, $500 million would come from Race to the Top, a competitive grant program and probably the most talked-about aspect of Obama's education agenda; $200 million would come from the Teacher Incentive Fund, which supports performance-based compensation plans; and another $100 million would come from money for charter schools. Sounding a bit like Harkin, Obey reportedly said, "When a ship is sinking, you don't worry about redesigning a room, you worry about keeping it afloat."


And if the push for other funding fails? The administration will have a tough choice to make. But one thing's for sure: Letting Congress chip away at the education reform agenda now would place it on a slippery slope in the future. And that's something the country can ill afford.

"Tough choice"? Let's review:

1. We are on the verge of adding a Roman numeral to the end of the Great Depression. Under these circumstances, mass layoffs of teachers is insanely pro-cyclic. It doesn't matter which teachers you pick, the immediate economic effect is the same. Even if you had a reliable metric that could identify poor teachers, this would be the worst possible time to get rid of them;

2. You don't have a reliable metric that can identify poor teachers;

3. Much of the threatened reform package is actually a continuation of policies that have a long (sometimes decades-long) and horrible track record.

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