As Governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney’s record on education mirrored that of President Bush, including rigorous standards, assessments, and charter schooling. He even supported No Child Left Behind. But as Andy Rotherham noted in TIME nearly a month ago, “As the presumptive nominee of a party that is increasingly allergic to a robust federal role in most areas of domestic policy, Romney talks a good game about national problems but is unable to propose actually using national policies or strategies to help solve them. The former moderate from Massachusetts now finds himself to the political right of President George W. Bush on education.”
Well, it appears that the Governor has made up his mind, and Romney is finally talking about education. His ideas were outlined in a campaign document released by Politics K-12 yesterday and formally announced today in a speech at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to The Latino Coalition. While the internal campaign memo is more “message points” than a detailed plan, the few details that have been released are worrisome.
Romney’s main strategy to reform and improve K-12 schooling in America is two-fold: release information to parents about school quality and then give them unlimited choice. It’s as if the last decade never happened. Romney literally wants to party like it’s 1999.
Thanks to NCLB, we are now up to our ears in school, teacher, and student data: assessment results, disaggregated student data, demographic information, graduation rates, average teacher salaries, and teacher quality data. Data, especially disaggregated student data, and the creation of state longitudinal data systems are, in my opinion, the most important legacies of NCLB. For any given school, parents can now access at least one school report card with a multitude of information about school performance. Could this information be shared in a better way? Could the quality of the data be improved? Could additional information – like NAEP scores or college outcomes – be added to paint a more complete picture? Of course. But let’s not kid ourselves: data and transparency alone will not solve America’s education problems. Once you have the information, everyone – parents, teachers, principals, administrators, school boards, state officials, and federal lawmakers and bureaucrats – needs to be able to use and understand the data, identify problems and effective strategies to solve them, and then build capacity and support to execute these strategies.
So I’m with Governor Romney: we need data and transparency first and foremost. But now that we have it and know where the problems are, where is the strategy? Romney’s solution seems to be unlimited parental choice – including charter schools, schools in other school districts, private tutoring providers, online schooling, and private schools. Seriously? Too often today, a child’s success depends on their zip code and family background. Choice is one way to break that trend by offering low-income and disadvantaged students (or in this particular case, Title I and special education students) a way out of poor quality neighborhood schools – although choice has often been little more than a political football, as John noted in his earlier post.
But Romney’s plan is flawed because it ends there. By using choice as the only mechanism to improve school quality, a child’s success will still depend on their zip code and family background. Some parents will choose a great school for their child, will hear their child’s name called in the lottery when this great school is oversubscribed, and will have the means to transport them to this great school if it’s far away from where they live and work. But that’s only some parents. Some children’s names won’t be called in the lottery. Some parents won’t be able to get their children to that great school located in another town or district. Some parents will make bad choices. Some parents won’t choose at all.
For these students – the ones left behind in dropout factories and chronically low-achieving schools – what is their future? Romney’s education plan would continue the standards and assessment movement, but drop the accountability. States and districts would not have to intervene in any ineffective schools to address low achievement, high dropout rates, or large achievement gaps. And that’s unacceptable. While no one – the federal government, states, or districts – has figured out exactly how to systematically improve underperforming schools, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. And the federal government can, and should, help in this process. It can allocate funds to support school turnarounds, conduct research to determine successful approaches and disseminate these strategies to educators and administrators, and require states and districts to be engaged in meaningful reform in a certain percentage of the lowest-performing schools. I don’t think that is too much to ask.
Governor Romney’s plan focuses on demand: parents will demand better information about school quality, parents will demand to enroll their students in the best schools, and parents will demand that schools are held accountable for results. But that’s not how the world works. Supply matters. Too many schools are low-performing and not meeting the needs of students, particularly those who are disadvantaged and most in need of high quality education. Some schools do a great job, but there are not enough of them. Romney’s response would be to create new options: eliminate charter caps and laws that limit digital learning options. But over years of charter school expansion (including those online), the quality of these programs varies widely. They are about as likely to be successful as traditional public schools, and the start-up costs are not insignificant. To improve education in this country, we must find a way to improve the schools we have – and that’s a burden that should fall on everyone, not just parents. Governor Romney, we need an education plan for 2012, not 1999.