Several recent initiatives suggest that a fundamental shift in thinking on education policy is underway in the US. Various types of school choice and teacher accountability have gained substantial support – even, in many cases, from the teacher’s unions that used to be against them. The Obama White House is promoting its signature education initiative, Race to the Top, which offers massive federal grants to states willing to allow more charter schools, tie teacher pay to student learning, and more quickly remove from the classroom teachers who perform poorly. This policy mirrors as much as it advances the trends now underway.
Examples of the national shift in public education policy can be seen as follows:
In New York City, some kinds of choice are today an accepted political realities supported by voters and parents, as this recent article explains. Another (lengthier) article in the New York Times Magazine, provocatively entitled the “Teachers Union’s Last Stand,” provides a broader view of this trend.
In Denver, Colorado, a new law on teacher effectiveness was approved despite the long-standing relationship between the Democratic Party, which dominates state politics, and teachers unions. As one Colorado writer observes: “The protracted fight (over the bill) led to something very valuable: an unprecedented coalition of business leaders, education reformers and civil rights groups that came together with a bipartisan team of Colorado governors to say this was the right thing to do for kids.” This New York Times article details the new wave of teachers reforms that the Colorado law has come to represent.
In Washington, DC — now the US city with the highest percentage of charter schools in the country — School Chief Michelle Rhee has become the national face of aggressive school reform (and even posed on the cover of Time Magazine with a broom in hand) and the most popular advocate of ending teacher tenure in exchange for merit pay programs along with easing of rules for firing ineffective teachers.
As the New York Times Magazine article suggests, there are at least four reasons that account for this sea change: 1) the emergence of new cadre of “outside the box” thinkers with big ideas for reforming education; 2) the coalescence of a new class of progressive politicians (including both Democrats and Republicans) with the political will / backing to challenge the teachers’ unions and embrace evidence-based reforms; 3) the innovation and bankroll behind powerful philanthropic organizations such as those of Gates and Broad; and 4) the charter-school “movement,” which has engaged a new population of parents as well as broadened the debate on school choice and use of public monies.