Why Can't We Talk About the Real Issues?

Education historian Diane Ravitch describes her blog as "A site to discuss better education for all." Apparently, however, she does not want to discuss what it would take to improve traditional public schools because it would require her to take on sacred cows, like mediocre schools of education and rigid labor laws.

Instead she would rather just attack charters and call for more funding, as she did in Salon in response to an article I wrote in the Huffington Post urging teacher unions to be more open-minded about education reform. I argue to my pro-union friends (believe it or not, I have several) that reformers working hard to improve traditional public schools are your best allies, even if you disagree on some specific policies.

The fact is, if we don't improve traditional public schools, more parents will choose charter schools, private schools or home schooling. As it is, the parents of nearly 10 million children have opted out of the traditional public school system. Millions of parents with means also flee underperforming urban schools for better-performing and better-funded suburban schools, leaving big city school systems with a disproportionate share of low-income students.

Now, think about the politics of education funding. Today, over 70 percent of voters do not have kids in public schools, which increasingly serve Black, Brown and poor children. Politicians won't keep raising taxes for urban school systems their constituents don't use. In fact, as of last fall, 35 states today were still funding education at pre-recession (2008) levels. Over time, as more people leave the traditional system, we will reach a tipping point and funding will dry up.

The best hope for traditional public schools, and the teacher unions, is to get much better, faster. We know it can be done. We have seen what happens when labor and management collaborate. But we have to be willing to talk about tough issues.

Why are teacher training programs so poorly regarded? Why do rookie teachers all feel overwhelmed regardless of whether they have had five weeks or five years of training?

Why is professional development so bad? I rarely hear a teacher say anything positive about PD programs. The best PD is self-designed by teachers, so why don't we all do that? What are we waiting for? Why spend billions each year on programs that teachers say don't work?

Why does California grant tenure after just 18 months and why can't we talk about raising the bar without being accused of attacking teachers? Many of us in the reform community are fine with due process. We just think tenure should be more rigorous in some places and tenure removal for due cause should not take years and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Why can't we factor in effectiveness and seniority when deciding which teachers to let go when layoffs are needed? Why can't we institutionalize mutual consent, where principals and teachers choose each other instead of being forced into a school culture where they may not thrive and succeed?

Why can't we figure out how to fairly and effectively evaluate teachers, reward the best ones, support those working to get better and ease out those who are unsuited for the field? How can we make it more attractive for the best teachers to voluntarily work in our toughest schools? Can we at least consider paying them differently? Got a better idea?

If you even mention the idea of teacher evaluation, you're accused of attacking teachers. Yet, if you get a teacher alone in a cone of silence, every one of them can tell you about colleagues who don't belong in the classroom. And all of them can tell you about incompetent principals, yet they oppose interventions in under-performing schools if it results in any staff changes.

Why can't we coalesce around a responsible, thoughtful system of assessments and a reasonable, fair role they would play in holding ourselves accountable? The falsehoods and misinformation around testing is overwhelming. The opt-out movement says nothing about the vast majority of tests imposed at the local level and only targets the few that are tied to accountability. So is it really about reducing over-testing or is it really about evading accountability?

And what's the alternative--no accountability? We tried that for the entire 20th century and we all know what happened. Children at risk were ignored, millions dropped out every year and millions more graduated unprepared for college or work. It's still happening in too many places and no one is held accountable.

Professor Ravitch and her anti-reform allies can criticize charters as much as they want, and some of those criticisms are justified and we should definitely talk about it. But they cannot deny the extraordinary student outcomes of the best of them and they are in deep denial if they think charters are going away.

Inner-city parents who are desperate for better educational options have tasted the power of choice and they will not give it up. On the contrary, they are demanding more of it and the sector is poised to deliver.

The longer we ignore the barriers to improving traditional public schools, the more parents will choose alternatives. Like it or not, school reformers and teacher unions are on the same side and they better start talking.

Peter Cunningham is Executive Director of Education Post, a non-partisan communications organization dedicated to building support for student-focused improvements in public education from preschool to high school graduation. He is a former Assistant Secretary at the U.S. Department of Education. He served in the Obama administration.