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Commentary: Testing and teaching

Here’s something I’ve noticed about education reform. Whenever anybody proposes anything, people tend to react in a knee-jerk fashion based as much on whom the speaker is as what they say. I noticed this yesterday, when I told a variety of people that former Washington, DC schools chancellor Michelle Rhee would be a keynote speaker at this week’s Mackinac Island conference. Teachers especially take a jaded view of Rhee.

They see her as anti-union, and are especially skeptical of her push for merit pay. I myself have had a somewhat jaded view of Rhee for different reasons. There is a fair amount of evidence that many of her claims have been exaggerated.

I was not impressed when her lobbying group, Students First, poured money into an unsuccessful knee-jerk attempt to fight a complex local recall election in Michigan two years ago. But Michelle Rhee said a lot of things to the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce’s conference yesterday that liberals and conservatives all need to hear. She began by noting that this may well be the first generation of Americans who will be less educated than their parents – which, if true, ought to frighten all of us.

SAT scores, she added, are the lowest they have ever been in history. And in category after category, from reading to science and math, American students are being outperformed by kids in economic competitor nations, including Korea and China.

There has been enormous criticism in Michigan and elsewhere over standards that require teachers to “teach to the test,” which they see as imposing a rigid and narrow focus. There have also been some highly publicized test cheating scandals, some in the Washington schools while Rhee was in charge of them.

But Michelle Rhee argues that while there undoubtedly have been abuses, that doesn’t mean we should give up accountability. And she asks how we can possibly judge the effectiveness of reforms without some way of measuring whether they work.

It’s hard to argue with that, at least as a basic principle. Rhee made other good points, including her observations that bad teachers don’t have a “right” to a job, and kids’ right to a quality education is the only right that should matter.

The Mackinac Conference is heavily tilted to a pro-business audience, and much of Rhee’s message was probably be far more popular with a Republican crowd than it would be with teacher and union groups. But Rhee knows that there are strong obstacles in both parties to any real reform. Democrats may be saddled with some union groups who are resistant to needed change.

But Republicans have a large, anti-intellectual faction best typified by those legislators who refuse to adopt the national Common Core curriculum. She noted that “people are saying ‘we don’t like it when federal government tells us what to do.’”

She said “I tell them get over it, that you shouldn’t like the fact that China is kicking our butts right now.”

What is clear is our system now isn’t working, and that we don’t have forever to suffer from what she called “analysis paralysis.”

When it doubt, FDR used to say, do something. Michigan’s kids won’t wait forever for us to get education on the right track.

And, you can bet, neither will the Chinese.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's Political Analyst.  Views expressed in the essays by Jack Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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