Yet over the nineteen months of his term, Obama has done nothing of the kind. Rather, he has unfurled an education agenda that has delighted reformers, upset the unions, and in the process delivered more on his promise of transcending partisan divisions in the service of pragmatism than he has on any other issue.
The splashiest element of that agenda has been Race to the Top. Capitalizing on lean economic times and scarce tax revenues, RTTT employed a meager sum—$4.3 billion, less than one percent of the total of all federal, state, and local education spending—to create a competition among the states to adopt a series of reformist measures, from expanding charters to tying teacher evaluations to test scores to boosting curriculum standards. A frenzy of activity ensued, as more than 40 states took part, with two winning the first round in March and nine more, including New York ($700 million), and D.C. scoring in the second in August.
Those states were ecstatic with the injection of cash into their depleted coffers, but Duncan believes that the reforms instigated by RTTT will outlive the momentary windfall—and are likely to stick even in states that didn’t finish in the money. “My prediction is that when the last [RTTT] dollar is spent, you’re not gonna see states dumbing down their standards again,” he tells me. “I think we’ve crossed the Rubicon.”
Equally salutary in the eyes of reformers has been Obama’s willingness to defy his party’s education orthodoxies in other ways. Perhaps the most notable example involved an appallingly underperforming high school in Central Falls, Rhode Island. When the school’s board of trustees decided to sack all of its 77 teachers after the local union rejected a plan that included a longer school day and after-school tutoring, Obama supported the mass firing. “If a school continues to fail its students year after year after year, if it doesn’t show signs of improvement, then there’s got to be a sense of accountability,” he said.
“You cannot overestimate or overstate the power that comes with a Democratic president saying things like, ‘Choice and competition are good,’ and, ‘We should put more money in charter schools,’ and, ‘If teachers are ineffective, we should fire them,’ ” exults Rhee. “Never did I expect in my lifetime to hear a Democratic leader saying that, let alone a president.”
The positive fallout from Obama’s policies and his new vernacular has been tangible. “When we rolled out our new teacher-evaluation program last year, we said 50 percent of the teachers’ evaluations would be based on how much student growth they saw,” Rhee says. “People went nuts. ‘How is that possible? Why 50 percent? How are you gonna measure it?’ Now stuff like that is taking place all over the country. Two or three years ago, if you had said that would happen, people would have told you that you were high on crack. But here we are. And that’s huge.”
Yet what Rhee and other reformers understand (though they are sometimes loath to admit it) is that more-rigorous evaluations, higher standards, and greater accountability will only get you so far. Toward the end of “Superman,” in a quiet moment, Guggenheim intones, “The one thing those who work in the trenches know is that you can’t have a great school without great teachers … Look past all the noise and the debate, and it’s easy to see: Nothing will change without them.”
Years of research has shown that Guggenheim is right, that no variable is more critical to the success of students than terrific teachers. But maybe the most inconvenient truth when it comes to education reform is that the ability to fire bad teachers, or identify those who require help, or pay more to entice those who are superb to deploy their skills in the venues where they’re needed most, will change the quality of the teacher corps only on the margin. A real revolution in education will require a more foundational change—one that addresses the way in which the nation goes about turning people into teachers in the first place.
The ridiculousness of how we do it now is a bugbear of Geoff Canada’s. “We say to these young people, ‘We’re going to make a deal with you,’ ” he explains. “ ‘We are not going to pay you a lot of money, but we are going to give you a lot of time off. You’ll always get home before dark. You won’t work weekends, and you’ll have every summer off.’ It’s a terrible message we’re sending that these perks come with their job. What kind of people does that attract to the profession?”
The answer to Canada’s question is distressing and depressing. Whereas the best public-school systems in the world—Finland, Singapore, South Korea—recruit all of their teachers from the top third or better of their college graduates, in America the majority come from the bottom two-thirds, with just 14 percent of those entering teaching each year in high-needs schools coming from the upper third. And the numbers may be getting worse. According to a recent survey conducted by McKinsey, a meager 9 percent of top-third graduates have any interest in teaching whatsoever.