How Long to Wait for Change?

September 26, 2011
Lydia Dobyns

Lydia Dobyns

Timing is everything. Digesting the new No Child Left Behind (NCLB) waiver program unveiled on September 23 by Education Secretary Arne Duncan, I can’t help but wonder how much closer we might be to deeper education reform in this country if Duncan had led with this waiver program at the beginning of the Obama administration.

How much more impactful would Race To The Top be if it had been launched after states and districts knew they had a clear path to come up with improvement plans that were achievable? As with other missed opportunities that become clear in hindsight, I know I’m not alone when I wish we could have a do-over. How many school district leadership teams would have taken the waivers as time out from the Annual Yearly Progress obsession to venture into strategies and tactics to better serve all students and especially the most underserved? Cheating scandals avoided. Good principals not ousted as a way to stave off takeover. Ineffective new charter schools not created, and so on.

Let’s admit we wasted the opportunity to put aside partisan differences and unite to take time out to embark on systemic change with working decent assessment and accountability measures. We are now racing to increase teacher effectiveness and comply with common core assessments, but they aren’t here today and 2014 looks doubtful. Yet, the government won’t open access to federal dollars without promises to adopt accountability measures not yet built, let alone tested.

So what’s my point? I wonder how best to utilize the time left with this Education Secretary, this Congress, and this president to create a climate that encourages and rewards transformational change in education. Should we let states drive strategies? I think so, and I think that is the subtext of the new waiver proposal, but states and Congress will balk at the mandates associated with giving states the power to drive change for their schools.

So policy makers, how about we set in motion policy changes that will place our best bets and give them time? I was a panelist at the NY Times Schools for Tomorrow Conference and heard a Finnish education leader say it took his country 40 years to achieve what many of us here in the United States admire and envy. We can’t afford to fail to meet the needs of the next two generations of students before achieving dramatically better results. We also can’t afford more Band-Aids or the belief that new silver bullets are the answer.