Best & Worst in 2011 Education

Developments ranged from more charter schools to disruptive unions.

Scholars at the Hoover Institution have now pinpointed the best and worst educational developments of the year, from growth in parental choice on one hand to the unruly union victory in Ohio, plus the Atlanta cheating scandal, on the other.

This annual Hoover Institution research helps to guide future educational reform. The analysis “evaluated hundreds of events, laws, programs and studies” in creating the list, explained Williamson M. Evers, Hoover research fellow and project coordinator of the education task force’s “Best and Worst” project.

The list of “five best” points to such positive events as increased parent choice of schools, greater transparency and teacher accountability. Heading the list was the reinvigoration of school choice through opportunity scholarships and vouchers. Result: Private school choice moved ahead in many parts of the U.S.

The worst development of the year, as graded by the task force of experts, was the misreporting of the Atlanta public schools cheating scandal. “When educators couldn’t successfully teach their students, they doctored the students’ test papers; but the news media let the cheating educators off the hook,” said Evers.

Regarding best developments, the study said, “Despite the attractive choice that private schools (especially Catholic schools) offer in many inner cities and not withstanding the Supreme Court’s resolution of issues of federal constitutionality, private school choice remained largely taboo politically until this year.”

In what history may see as a watershed, private school choice moved ahead, for example, in the District of Columbia “where the scholarship program was resuscitated in Congress by Speaker John Boehner; Indiana, where scholarships were made available” to about half the students in the state; and “Ohio, which lifted a too-tight cap on its program for kids exiting low performing schools.”

Second in best events: the rollback of collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) in Wisconsin, Indiana, New Jersey, Idaho, and (temporarily) Ohio was marked progress.

Improving education is bogged down by union contracts that “impede sensible decisions about hiring, firing, deployment, and compensation of educators. CBAs also drive up costs. Moreover, many public sector workers are generously compensated--and enjoy relatively secure jobs—and their gold-plated benefit systems are bankrupting states and school systems. Voters and courageous state leaders finally put these issues on the table in 2011.” Five states made major reforms in the relevant statutes. (Ohio’s were undone in a November referendum.)

“Besides actual progress in modifying and limiting the scope of CBAs, states have now made CBAs into a normal area of reform."

In the Atlanta cheating scandal, it was “truly harmful for standards-based education reform....What the public should have learned from the Atlanta fiasco is that cheating is easily having a huge bank of publicly available questions of which a subset appears on each year’s test” proctoring rooms where tests are given and online test administration.

The public has been misled into thinking that testing is somehow bad because it “creates so much stress that well meaning educators are pushed to the limit and eventually succumb (for the child’s sake, of course,) to the temptation to cheat, lie, and break the law.”

The cynicism of educators and administrators in Atlanta was “appalling” and a systematic, system-wide effort to mislead parents, public officials and the community that they were doing a good job.

Second in the list of worst events, the Hoover scholars listed “Bungling of reauthorization of No child Left Behind by a slowpoke Congress and a Constitution-oblivious President." Obama “has turned to backdoor legislation-via-waivers. Such waivers will enact his pet decree."

The waivers have major constitutional and legal problems and have created “even more bad blood with Congress. Public schools need accountability....But, thus far, Congress and the President have bungled this.”

On the good side, California’s State Board of Education rules allow a “parent trigger” to operate. If a petition signed by more than half the parents in a school requests it, a public school must be turned into a charter school or at least some other “transformational remedy.” Four more states have followed this approach, and similar measures are under consideration in dozens of other states.

Also of educational benefit, D. C. Chancellor Michelle Rhee’s path-setting teacher-evaluation system was left in place by the new mayor, despite union opposition. It is being used to judge teacher performance and authorize dismissals “based on classroom ineffectiveness.” It also offers money rewards for teachers doing the best job. “It should serve as a national model,” the Hoover study said. Fat chance of selling the Obama Administration on such a sound idea.

Finally, among the “best developments,” Hoover listed Indiana’s record of reform. During 2011, the state did away with collective bargaining for teacher benefits and work rules. It allowed all universities to authorize charter schools. And a scholarship program for low-income students was adopted.

It should be noted that nearly 30 years after the release of the stunning report “A Nation at Risk,” the “rising tide of mediocrity” in education still exists and still threatens our future, despite the scores of billions of dollars plowed into education at the federal, state and local levels.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress, for example, found only one-third or fewer eighth graders proficient in math, science, or reading. The high school rate of graduation was less than 70 percent. And 76 percent of high school graduates were not prepared for first year college courses.

Among the year’s worst, the study says, is that “Jerry Brown is moving California from bad to worse.” Brown has signaled that he would like to do away with tests altogether.

He had come to the strange conclusion that test scores don’t measure “good character” or “love of learning.”

Finally on the dark side, was the union’s victory in Ohio, overturning Governor Kasich’s bargaining reforms. On the election in this November, the unions had stirred police and firemen into warning that crimes would rise and homes would burn.

The state’s school districts face a deficit of close to $8 billion by 2015. Polls show that Ohio voters want benefits for public employees “to resemble those in the private sector.” In time, that means teachers will have to pay (to use an Obama turn of phrase used against millionaires) their “fair share.”

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