Obama says he wants to improve four educational practices: data usage, student goals, teacher recruitment, and the approach to turning around troubled schools. A close look at each, however, reveals dramatic possibilities for good or for trouble.
Measuring Student Performance. Collecting student data and requiring evidence of results seem simple enough. Why should schools waste time and money on reforms that haven't been shown to help? Many schools already are crunching data to improve lesson plans. Every week, teachers at Graham Road Elementary School in Northern Virginia meet to plot on computers students' answers to each question on standardized quizzes given to the different classes in each grade level. There's so much detailed information that kindergarten teachers sometimes have to tape together 7 feet of paper spreadsheets for each child. Then, they arrange for tutoring for any student falling behind and draft lessons for larger groups with common problems.
Principal Molly Bensinger-Lacy says the tedious data crunching helps kids. Although more than 80 percent of her school's 400 students come from low-income minority families who don't speak English at home, more than 90 percent of the students are reading and calculating at grade level.
But gathering student data can create new problems, too. Thousands of parents in Palm Beach County, Fla., are protesting as expensive and time-wasteful their schools' new every-three-week tests designed to create data points for teachers.
The Obama administration's plan for permanent records that track a person from childhood through adulthood also raises fears of Big Brother. A recent Fordham University study of existing student databases found that many states violate federal privacy laws. For example, Fordham found that many states' student files went far beyond grades and test scores to include Social Security numbers, pregnancies, police records, and family wealth indicators.
Creating National Standards. National standards also seem sensible enough, given that the average high school senior is likely to have moved at least twice. Certainly, letting states choose their own passing grades for the No Child Left Behind initiative turned into a race to the bottom as some states apparently made their requirements easier so more students would pass.
National standards also appear to be garnering widespread support. Led by the National Governors Association, a "Common Core" of 48 states (Alaska and Texas are the holdouts) is drafting goals that every grade will be expected to meet. Setting a high bar for high school graduation helped raise Massachusetts students from slightly above average to worldbeaters, says Paul Reville, the Massachusetts secretary of education. The Bay State's fourth graders recently scored second in the world on standardized science tests, topping Russia, Taiwan, and other powerhouses.
High standards aren't a slam-dunk, however. Critics have complained that the governors' proposed standards aren't tough enough, are too tough, or are altogether wrong and should instead focus on harder-to-test but more important skills, such as critical thinking.
Even believers like Reville worry that other states and schools won't do the expensive and politically unpopular work of enforcing high standards. By publishing embarrassing early results and refusing to graduate students who didn't pass state tests, Massachusetts "showed we meant it," Reville says. Massachusetts also poured billions of extra dollars into schools serving low-income and minority students to boost them up to the standards.
Teaching Teachers. There's no doubt that the teaching profession needs dramatic reform. Although a growing number of teacher training programs are trying to attract better applicants and provide more practical skills, "many, if not most" are doing a "mediocre job," says Secretary Duncan.