Jeb Bush on Education Reform

I don’t know whether his hat is edging into the 2016 presidential election ring, but I do know that Jeb Bush gave a heck of an education keynote on Tuesday morning at the national summit convened in Washington by his Florida-based Foundation for Excellence in Education.

At this annual bipartisan-but-predominantly-Republican soiree aimed at state legislators and other key ed-policy decision makers—this year’s was by far the largest and grandest of the five they’ve held so far—Bush pushed hard for putting the interests of children first and did so in language plainly intended to appeal across party lines. A later session, which I had the pleasure of “moderating,” brought much the same message from John Podesta of the Center for American Progress. Though nobody expects Podesta to vote Bush for president (or anything else), in practice they agree on about 90 percent of the ed-reform policy agenda and maybe 70 percent of the strategy for attaining and sustaining it.

Bush opened by citing Charles Murray’s new book and lamenting the loss of upward social and economic mobility in American society and the damage it is doing to our values as well as our competitiveness. “We have these huge gaps in income,” he said, “with people born into poverty who will stay in poverty….This ideal of who we are as a nation—it’s going away, it’s leaving us,” adding that “There is one path that can change this course…And that is to assure that we move to a child-centered education system where we have no excuses for the fact that we have these big education gaps that will yield income gaps and lives that are constrained because people don’t have the power of knowledge.”

Bush’s formulation of a “child-centered” system has five essential elements.

    High standards. He termed them “I’m-not-kidding-standards” and then launched into a powerful endorsement of the Common Core State Standards for English and math, noting that “If we’ve learned one lesson from reform it is this: We continually underestimate children. Setting high standards and demanding results drive student academic gains…It will take some adjustment, but our kids will rise to the challenge of these new standards if we give them the opportunity and tools to do it.”

    Results-based accountability at every level of the system, including letter grading of schools on the basis of their performance. “It seems to me,” he said, “that lessons learned in life ought to be applied to education. We reward the things we want more of. We especially reward excellence. We’re not as happy when there’s mediocrity, and we create strategies to turn mediocrity into improvement. And when there’s failure, we should have no tolerance for it. That is the simple basic accountability system that should be applied in every school district in this country…[But] robust accountability doesn’t just end with grading schools. It also recognizes that the parents need to have power…I’m really excited about the parent-trigger movement…where parents that have no power and have been cast aside for way too long now have been given the power to say, ‘If my school is not working I want a say on how to change it.’”

    Differentiation of teacher performance based on professional skills and student results, not tenure or union membership, coupled with differentiated compensation linked to those evaluations. The traditional system for rewarding teachers is “based on an industrial unionized model that is completely inappropriate for the 21st century…There are incredibly fine teachers that get paid less even though they’re doing the Lord’s work consistently over time, and there are teachers that are mediocre that get paid more because they’ve been there longer….We should move to a system that rewards and elevates the profession of teaching as a profession and moves away from this system where longevity of service is the determining factor of how much money you make.”

    A panoply of quality school choices, public (including charters, of course) and private alike, accessible to all students—especially those in greatest need of alternatives to today’s worst schools—coupled with a thorough system of transparency and comparability to help parents make wise selections. “School choice,” Bush explained, “is the catalytic converter to accelerate these [other] things at a faster pace.”

    Shrewd—but universal—use of technology to individualize instruction, customize student progress, engage kids, and augment teachers. “Digital learning,” he predicted, “is ultimately going to be commonplace across the fifty states, and it will be a joyous occasion when it does. Imagine a classroom in a blended learning environment where rich digital content comes from the very best providers, where teachers are managing the learning experience for students, where it’s competency based, where we don’t sit our little butts in a seat for 180 days and say, ‘Okay, now it’s time to take three months off,’ and then come back and sit our butts down…for another 180 days. [Instead, we must] move to a system where if you master the material, you’re not held back. And if you haven’t mastered the material, you’re not pushed along. That’s what technology offers: the ability to customize the learning experience in a powerful way.”

It was the first education speech I can remember where I found myself agreeing with every single word.

Yes, I’d love to see Jeb run for president. But whether he does or not, his clarity, courage, persistence, and adroit, open-handed, open-armed leadership are some of the most valuable assets that today’s education reformers have.

-Chester E. Finn, Jr.

This blog entry first appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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