A blue-ribbon panel of experts on public education emerged Thursday from two days of closed-door policy discussions for the new administration to find an unwelcome present from Congress: Billions of dollars in the fiscal stimulus package aimed at education had been stripped out by the Senate.
"Needless to say, we're very disappointed to see this taking place," commented Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators and one of 14 panelists at the Courageous Leadership for Shaping America's Future IV forum in Washington, D.C. (Watch the press conference here.) The forum focused on ways to ensure quality education for America's children in the 21st century, explained Alan M. Blankstein, president and founder of the HOPE Foundation, which co-sponsored the event along with the parent of Miller-McCune.com and publisher Corwin Press.
While the Senate bill has not passed Congress, and legislation in the House contains more attractive language for educators, the news still cast a shadow over recommendations on positive steps to reform American education.
The panelists overall are pleased by the positive reception President Obama has so far given education, noted Bob Wise, the former governor of West Virginia and the current president of the Alliance for Excellent Education. "We're encouraged with the aggressive leadership of the Obama administration that indeed we will see this change," he commented at a press conference Thursday afternoon at the National Press Club.
Nonetheless, he added, any change is inevitably tied to the stimulus package. "This relates not only to what Congress is discussing today, but to what Congress will be discussing tomorrow and many more tomorrows to come.
"Education," he added a moment later, "is the new currency for recovery."
While the forum definitely had its eyes on D.C., panelists acknowledged that change will occur at a more granular level. Still, the loss of federal funds to leverage change could be devastating for advancing reform, explained Roy Roemer, the former Colorado governor and superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, now chairman of Strong American Schools.
Some $15 billion in discretionary funds that may be cut out of the stimulus package would have allowed federal, state and local governments, as well as the private sector, to "experiment in some very difficult areas" on improving standards for students and assessing the results.
"It's not just the money that's cut for education but the leverage for change that we lose."
Blankstein identified collateral damage in three areas: the loss of the immediate stimulus in a year when an estimated 250,000 teaching jobs may be lost; the loss of future productivity from better-educated students; and the "drain" that those who don't complete their education will place on the nation in the future.
Passing the education stimulus, he said, "is a way to make sure we don't pay twice."
The conferees developed six recommendations for education reform:
- Assure Readiness: Success in the classroom requires that children arrive ready to learn — cognitively, physically and psychologically. "We want young people to enter the classroom ready to learn every day and every year," explained Karen Pittman, executive director of the Forum for Youth Investment. To meet that goal, she continued, required expanding thinking beyond the campus to include basic services for nutrition, safety and health for all children before school and enrichment opportunities even after students start heading home in the afternoon.
- Provide Rich Learning Environments for All Students: All young people in America deserve rich learning environments that challenges their thinking, promotes learning by doing and focuses on higher-order thinking skills that encourage life-long learning and prepare young people to be engaged, collaborative citizens.
- Improve Overall Standards, Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment: Policies and systems must be in place to promote best practices in teaching, reward high performers, and provide opportunities for feedback and development for those in need of improvement.
- Improve Overall Teacher Quality: Policies and systems must be in place to promote best practices in teaching, reward high performers, and provide opportunities for feedback and development for those in need of improvement. Asked if that included merit pay, John I. Wilson of the National Education Association said the panel rejected "simplistic approaches" like merit pay and compensation for improving test scores. "We want for every child to have high performing teachers, and the fact of the matter is we know there are low-performing teachers ... but the enemy is mediocre teachers." Therefore, he favors "career development systems" for teachers to "send a message that this is a worthy profession." While the system would include opportunities for teachers to make up to $100,000 a year, it would also include more rigorous preparation for those hoping to become teachers.
- Ensure the Development of 21st Century School Leaders: School leadership should be focused on a combination of student learning, progress, and culture building, while enhancing the quality of teaching.
- Generate and Use Research Effectively: Ensure the use of existing research and advance new research topics that address issues specific to 21st century challenges.
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