"I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power." - Thomas Jefferson 1820

"There is a growing technology of testing that permits us now to do in nanoseconds things that we shouldn't be doing at all." - Dr. Gerald Bracey author of Rotten Apples in Education

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Friday, August 5, 2011

Progressive Conservatives and Education Reform

Whether you like or dislike the recent action in Washington regarding the debt ceiling, it must be acknowledged that Tea Party members in Congress had a big influence on the process. They stood apart from many traditional Republican House and Senate members in holding to conservative principles, which was no surprise to tea party members around the country. Republicans are traditionally thought of as the party of conservatives, but tea partiers felt an alienation between themselves and some Republican candidates after years of disappointing performance in office, and thus offered and supported their own candidates who more closely matched their values.

The term RINO was used a lot to describe some Republicans who talk the party talk but vote on the other side of the aisle. That moniker may have described a few Republicans who were easily dismissed by conservative voters. But there was yet another subset of Republicans who, even though they considered themselves conservatives, were also rejected by the voters. These are progressive conservatives.

Progressive conservatives look like conservatives on most social issues such as marriage, procreation, and faith. Because they publicly stated they supported the conservative position on these issues, conservative voters were left scratching their heads when they saw these people's votes on related issues. The problem is that PC’s still believe it is government’s role to solve the problems in our country, even when those problems cross into the social realms. So, while they can cite scripture about taking care of the poor, they won’t leave that to individuals and churches, but will instead support government programs to funnel money and resources to the poor. (And remember, “poor” in America is a relative and often broadly defined term.) They believe in a free market and capitalism, but not a totally free market and capitalism with a required dose of social consciousness. They believe the states have a role in education but don’t trust that the states are up to filling that role. They will talk a lot about the need for education reform, but voters need to pay attention to exactly what goes into the progressive conservative’s definition of education reform.

An article in the American Thinker looked at Teach For America’s Kaya Henderson and Students First's Michelle Rhee, both strong advocates for education reform. Their focus has been on teacher quality and TFA has been working to flood the education field with their quality members. Rhee supports tenure reform, charter school expansion and changes to the teacher negotiating process that reduce the power of unions. She has been spreading the word across the country about tying teacher performance to high test scores, even though the DC school system, which she headed from 2007-2010, is now involved in a teacher cheating scandal with regard to test scores. It must also be noted that DC’s student test scores have been dropping since Rhee instituted her sweeping changes to the make-up of the DC teachers.

However, with those two major problems hanging over her, you have to wonder why schools would jump on her reform bandwagon. And there is another problem with her reform package. All these reforms go after only one part of the education equation: teacher impact. There are many other elements of student success, which is what her Student's First program supposedly focuses on, that have been examined and tested that are not in her basket of programs including:

  • Health
  • Housing
  • Family income
  • Genetics
  • Language
  • Spending
  • Social Promotion
  • Alternative Teacher Certification
  • Early Childhood Intervention/Schooling
  • Geography
  • Choice
  • Class size
  • Daily hours
  • Merit Pay
  • Teacher diversity
  • Political Correctness
  • Multiculturalism

Is Rhee a progressive conservative? Maybe. The definition needs some fine tuning. Does she play a little fast and loose with policy? Most likely. Does she get under the skin of the bureaucratic establishment? Yes! Does she have THE answer for education reform? Not yet.

In the spirit of our country’s founding, where state sovereignty allows individual states to try their own governing experiments and adjust for their own demographics, trusting that they would find what works best for them, we should look at the various reform programs tried in the different states and find which ones work best. A place to start is Florida which uses a package that includes: school accountability, literacy enhancement, student accountability, teacher quality, and school choice. Florida is “closing the achievement gap that has eluded allegedly more progressive states. When it comes to education progress, Florida is a star performer. Moreover, its success has come in spite of a challenging student demographic profile and relatively modest resources.”

Most of the significant change came in the “accountability” part of their reforms. Their students are required to take an annual test, the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) and schools are graded on those test results. Student progress is measured from one year to the next (unlike NCLB) which prevents an entire school from being compared to another school with a "preferred demographic portfolio."

Students who cannot pass the reading proficiency portion of the FCAT are not promoted on to 4th grade. Florida committed to improving student literacy, hiring reading coaches and creating academies to train teachers in reading instruction. They also require seniors to pass a demanding examination if they want to receive a high school diploma.

In contrast, several teachers here in Missouri have confided to me that they were told by their administration, when they had students in 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th grades who could not read well and were struggling because of it, not to worry about focusing on the reading. The student “would eventually get it.” Whether this policy came as a result of lack of funding to provide reading remediation or, misplaced compassion that held that instruction in such basic skills in the upper grades would be demeaning or, a true lack of understanding of the development of reading skills, it led to literally hundreds of frustrated students and teachers over the years.

It should be noted that many FL parents and teachers are extremely unhappy with these measures, and the Florida legislature is already looking at phasing out the FCAT (a NCS Pearson product) and relying on end of term exams instead. Teaching to the test, which didn't always match classroom curriculum, and too much pressure on the students are the main complaints. This is the major problem with all such standardized tests. The difference in Florida's situation was what they did with the scores. Schools were "offered a specific fiscal incentive ... to try to reach as high a grade as possible. Bonuses were given for obtaining an A or raising one’s grade from one year to the next. Conversely, schools receiving an F grade twice over a four-year period were asked to carry out a variety of reforms."

Florida is also able to boast that on NAEP tests they have now risen from ranking of 43rd in the country to 8th, so they need to be careful not the throw the baby out with the bath water. Something they are doing is right. Could it be that when we put a little pressure on our kids to perform they do perform, but we have a culture that listens to them complain about it?


  1. It is interesting you talk about progressive conservatives. We are full of them in Missouri. Look at "Educated Citizenry 2020", the blueprint for Missouri education. It is full of "progressive conservative" signatures. It is very close to Race to the Top goals and mandates.
    It is time to start calling out these "progressive conservatives" out for what they are. They LIKE Arne Duncan's plan for education. They have a blueprint for universal kindergarten. They love teacher redistribution. One politician, Scott Dieckhaus, has stated he would like to see local school boards done away with. Scott Rupp, Republican candidate for Secretary of State, took the DESE director to task for NOT applying for Race to the Top funding. THAT'S a conservative position? To want MORE federal money for MORE mandates?

  2. Great article! Time for folks to wake up and smell the RINO dung. Actions speak louder than words. Jane Cunningham is also a RINO in Conservative clothing. Her name is all over Missouri's version of Ract To The Top (Educated Citizenry 2020). The "Education Senator" has snuggled up to Arne Duncan and BO's education agenda at the expense of your children's education and your parental rights.


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