Two firebrand stalwarts of the “market-based” education reform movement addressed a roomful of state legislators and state officials Monday morning on the cusp of the 2011 legislative session.
Colorado Succeeds, a non-profit coalition of business leaders pushing education reform, brought Paul Pastorek, Louisiana’s state education chief, and Tony Bennett, his Indiana counterpart, to town to send legislators a forceful message.
Their message came through loud and clear, without the usual political niceties and olive branches. Bennett, sporting a crew cut and a folksy, no-nonsense manner, was especially blunt in his assessment of the educational landscape and how to alter it. Pastorek, while no less pointed, was a bit more nuanced in his remarks.
“Our attitude is we have them on the run and it is now time to charge,” said Bennett, speaking of those he termed the “naysayers” who are digging in their heels and fighting changes to teacher compensation and tenure, school choice and pension reform.
“Never has education been more ripe for transformation, and if you stop to take a breath you’re going to lose that opportunity to move forward,” Bennett said. “You’re going to give the naysayers the opportunity to remobilize and circle their wagons and fend you off.”
Among the “naysayers” in Bennett’s book is the Indiana State Teacher Association, which last spring declined to endorse Indiana’s Race to the Top application. As a result, in what education policy expert Rick Hess called “a terse but profoundly gutsy statement,” Bennett pulled his state out of the second-round R2T competition.
Pastorek seconded Bennett’s call to action. “It is not time to slow down. It is time to pick up the pace,” he said. Colorado’s Senate Bill 191 has created a template for other states to use to reform “human capital systems” including tenure and evaluation.
“The human capital reform issue is just one of the reform issues that have to be done in tandem with other issues, and unless you get a number of these issues moving you’ll ultimately get backsliding,” he said.
While the politics of profound change are extremely difficult, Pastorek expressed optimism that the nation is approaching an education reform tipping point.
“We have finally begun not to reform but to transform education in the United States,” he said. “Public education has been a monopoly for over 100 years and until we dismantle the monopoly, create a competitive environment and create a place where creativity and initiative thrive in the school building, we are never going to be successful.”
Bennett and Pastorek endorse controversial and what some see as simplistic changes, such as assigning schools letter grades. Colorado Succeeds endorses this strategy, which was launched and quickly abandoned here by Gov. Bill Owens in the late 1990s.
“Change will not occur until the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of change,” Bennett said in defense of his position on grading schools. Some district superintendents complained that letter grades would make their jobs difficult. Others said it would be inhumane to grade schools in such a stark way.
“If it’s so inhumane to do it to schools, let’s not do it to kids either,” he said.
Choice, value-added evaluation and tenure reform are extreme hot-button issues, Pastorek said. “I am vilified and told I am the devil incarnate for saying the things that I say. But I’ll be damned if we are going to back off at this point because we have made this much progress and I know, I know these things are the right answers because we are seeing how they work,” he said.
Asked what advice they would offer the State Board of Education as it embarks on the search for a new Colorado commissioner, both men said steer clear of “career bureaucrats.” Pastorek said the traditional search method, hiring a firm to cast a wide net, is not the way to find the right person.
“I know that’s what y’all have done and I hate to tell you that. But I think it’s a waste of time,” Pastorek said. He said if the state board gives careful and specific directives to the search firm about the kind of candidates it wants, such a search can be successful.
State board member Angelika Schroeder told me as the gathering ended that the state board would take the kind of active role in the search process that Pastorek suggested.
If the board ends up hiring a commissioner that bears any resemblance to Patorek and Bennett, members will face serious blowback from teachers’ associations and other mainline interest groups.
But it sure would make life interesting in the education reform world.
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