Fire Teachers and Replace Jefferson with Aquinas? A Bizarre Week in Education

It's notoriously risky to predict history, but I'd wager that last week will count among the most tumultuous in education for 2010. Not, however, for the reasons one might expect.

The action started last Monday, when Newsweek hit the stands with a cover story on education reform. Its solution? "We must fire bad teachers," written Bart Simpson-style eleven times on a chalkboard. According to Newsweek, teacher tenure - the fact that most teachers get lifetime tenure after a few years in the classroom - is the problem; eliminating it is the solution. Michelle Rhee, the visionary and reform-minded chancellor of the District of Columbia public schools, got a thumbs up. Randi Weingarten, outspoken president of a national teachers' union and defender of tenure, got a thumbs-down.

What to make of this? I agree that tenure should be eliminated for underperforming teachers - but only as part of a comprehensive plan that treats teachers like professionals and provides students with more support inside and outside of the classroom. "We must fire bad teachers" is an incredibly shortsighted approach to the problem. Of course, so is the unions' approach of defending tenure, come what may.

That was Monday. For the next few days the airwaves played host to a different debate down South. Members of the conservative-majority Texas Board of Education revised their state's social studies standards, officially approving them on Friday. They contain some oddities - questioning the separation of church and state, emphasizing St. Thomas Aquinas's political philosophy over Thomas Jefferson's - but the brouhaha over the Texas curriculum overshadowed something far more significant in Washington.

On Wednesday, the National Governors Association quietly released the first draft of its Common Core Standards. They form the blueprint for what may become national learning standards. Their importance was magnified on Saturday, when President Obama devoted his weekly radio address to education reform, then gave Congress his long-awaited plan for revising No Child Left Behind. "College- and Career-Ready Standards" are among his top priorities, and you can be sure that states will face strong incentives to adopt standards like the ones released Wednesday. Those standards, not the Texas curriculum, are where much of American education is headed.

What to make of this week? I think there are two important lessons. One is that the balance of power in education reform is shifting away from the teachers' unions. As both Democrats and Republicans increasingly support aggressive reformers like Michelle Rhee, unions will have to struggle to make themselves relevant. They may not be able to keep their heads in the sand on tenure much longer, and they shouldn't. Most reformers in Rhee's mold, while right about many things, don't adequately address the long-term needs of the teaching profession. Unions need to be more creative about suggesting ways that schools and communities can make teaching into a more realistic and attractive profession.

The other lesson is that even though we're headed towards national standards, states still matter. National standards are a great idea. The President supports them, it's likely that Congress will too, and that's all for the best. In a knowledge economy, kids in Alabama need to be able to read, think, and solve problems just as well as those in New York.

However, the Common Core Standards released Wednesday contain a notable omission: social studies. That's because the thorniest debates start when you start tinkering with social studies curricula - it's that age-old question of who gets to write history. Debates like the one we just witnessed in Texas will keep happening at the state level. Can you imagine Congress issuing a systematic credo of American history and then having to answer to their constituents about it? Not in this lifetime. They'll leave that to the Aquinases of the world - and to the Texas Board of Education.