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Reflections of a School Reformer

Bob Wise served as president of the Alliance for Excellent Education from 2005 until his recent departure. His work at the nonprofit advocacy organization put him in the middle of the nation’s major school reform battles over the past decade and a half. Trained as a lawyer, he served as West Virginia’s governor and then represented the state in the U.S. Congress for 18 years before moving to the Alliance. He ran for governor on the slogan, "Education is the only passport from poverty." FutureEd Director Thomas Toch recently asked Wise, now a FutureEd senior fellow, to reflect on the evolution of the school reform movement during his time at the Alliance.

Q: You had been governor of West Virginia for a year when the No Child Left Behind Act was enacted. What was your experience with the law?

A: I nearly made a terrible mistake. I had talked myself into being the first governor to block the implementation of NCLB, on the grounds that it was an unfunded federal mandate. But my education advisor talked me off the ledge.

I realized the power of NCLB about a year later when I went to pick my son up at the public high school that he attended in Charleston [W.Va.], a well-regarded, high-performing high school. He came out and looked at me, smiled wryly and said, "Guess what Dad?" he said, "We did not make AYP [Annual Yearly Progress, required of every school under NCLB]." Over his shoulder, in big bold blue letters on the wall of the school, was National Blue Ribbon High School of Excellence. What NCLB did, I realized in that moment, was focus on groups of students that were not getting the same kind of education opportunities that my son was getting, even in his school. It forced us to focus on groups we had overlooked.

Q: As president of the Alliance you were a strong supporter of the 2010 Common Core state standards and the PARCC and Smarter Balanced state testing consortia that were aligned to the standards.

A: Yeah, I was in from the beginning.

Q: Why?

A: It meant that everybody was going to have higher standards, which were necessary for the information economy. And it truly did measure apples to apples. Now West Virginia is able to see how it's doing versus Ohio, versus California, and so on. And it was cost-effective because we wouldn’t have 50 states spending millions of dollars every few years to buy new assessments.

Q: Many argue that local school boards, local educators, principals, and individual teachers in classrooms are the best people to set education standards and to decide what and how to teach students because they're closest to the kids.

A: If you're a district leader or a school leader that's working every day on the problems that you have, plus moving your district forward, you don't have time to stay up with what the OECD says or with the kind of work skills that are necessary. And indeed, that's why you contract them out. Why do people buy assessments from a number of private companies? Why do they hire folks to come in and perform professional development? Because they don't have the resources, nor should they. Gilmer County, West Virginia, which has less than 1,000 students, or an L.A. Unified, is their time best spent trying to develop standards and, incidentally, duplicating the work that 14,000 other school districts are doing? Or is it better that the state is working with them to say, "These are the overall standards. And now add what’s needed locally?”

Q: Are you disappointed at the opposition to the Common Core standards from both the right and the left?

A: When I watched progressives and Glenn Beck join hands in opposition to Common Core, I said, "Whoa, we've built a coalition." I had not intended to build that coalition.

Q: Why do you think it happened?

A: The Common Core by itself was tough but manageable [politically]. But if you think of the Common Core as the train, it unfortunately got loaded up with teacher evaluation, new assessments, and a number of other reforms we were pursuing at the same time. It was a lot.

Then there was the complaint that those of us who advanced the Common Core did not consult enough with the state legislators. We did with governors, obviously, they signed on, and we did with chief state school officers, who were directly involved. But there's a limit to how many people you can put in the loop. Trying to reach roughly 7,000 state legislators is pretty tough. And they turn over like crazy. At the same time, the [Obama administration’s] decision to make adoption of the Common Core a requirement for federal funding [under the Race to the Top Act] gave those opposed to the federal funding something to really rally against.

But the Common Core was not lost. When you look at ESSA, every state is required to have college- and career-ready standards, and in most states, it's basically the Common Core.

Q: Is it reasonable to say that Arne Duncan was too ambitious in trying to advance the Common Core at the same time he was pressing ahead on teacher evaluation based on student achievement and on the new Smarter Balanced and PARCC testing consortia? Was there too much freight on the train?

A: The department had to put a lot of economic recovery money into the public education system in a short period of time and the natural question was, What can we get for it? But the Department of Education and others probably let [the federal initiatives] run too long in some instances.

Q: What’s an example?

A: The requirement that teachers evaluations use value-added scores. But I don’t blame it on Arne. The teacher evaluation tide was running strongly before he became secretary.

What bothers me is when states pounded their chests and said, "Well, we're going to roll back PARCC or Smarter Balanced because it's a federal initiative." They’re probably the best performance assessments that we've ever had, at the lowest price. And the federal government is not dictating what's in them, it's just paying for the development of them and saying, "Here, you can use these."

[Read More: How the Common Core Changed Standardized Testing]

States that are dropping the tests are losing millions of dollars, not only the investment in PARCC and Smarter Balanced. They're going to have to go buy new assessments, and they're going to have to retrain the teachers in them. So money that should be going to classroom teachers, money that should be going to curriculum and development, is getting wasted on useless political gestures.

If you want to do more work on formative assessments, testing that helps teachers in real time in classrooms, I’m with you. Not every test has to be high stakes. But it makes no sense to kick PARCC and Smarter Balanced to the curb simply because they came with federal funding.

Q: What is your take on the opt-out movement, the campaign to reduce standardized testing and the accountability that flows from it?

A: It's sort of like opting out of measles vaccinations. It has a bad outcome for everybody, not only those who opt out but for those who aren’t going to get a true analysis of school performance as a result.

Q: Teacher unions have strongly opposed reformers’ efforts to increase transparency and accountability in public education.

A: I came from West Virginia, which was at one point the epicenter of industrial unionism. So I know why the teacher union movement developed. Teachers saw the mine workers and steelworkers and machinists getting significant pay raises and said, "Okay. They're doing well, we're going to start acting like them." But the economy has changed so much that most industrial unions have now moved to a different model, certainly the building and trade unions have. The teacher unions are going to have to move too. They have an opportunity to say, ''We're not only going to be about just the economic conditions that we have been about, because we believe that we're a profession. The unions have an opportunity to not only be about advancing members’ economic interests, but also working to make teaching a respected profession.

[Read More: What Teachers Protests Can--and Can't--Accomplish]

I would love to see the NEA and the AFT negotiating two contracts with school districts. A basic contract they've always negotiated. The second that guarantees to provide school districts highly trained teachers and provide high quality professional development to teachers. If a teacher is not working out in a school, then we will meet with the teacher about what the teacher needs to change, or we’ll provide a replacement, the way the building and trade unions do.

This, by the way, would provide unions two streams of revenue, rather than just one. One is the traditional membership dues. The other is the district saying, ''I want a contract with you.''

Q: Am I hearing this from a Democrat in a strong union state?

A: Any teacher who's a true professional understands the need for transparency and is willing to be held accountable by the right measures. What does accountability mean? Does it mean that I get put on a list for automatic suspension? Or does it mean somebody first comes and helps me improve? Do I get a mentor? Or just a pink slip? A positive step for the teacher unions would be to advance the concept that "We want to be involved in the discussion of what it is that a teacher needs to be able to do." To be involved in upgrading teachers’ skills, and to be responsible for doing that.

Q: How should we think about the recent teacher strikes?

Teachers, in most cases, need to be paid more, just at the base level. But then you can start talking about building a career ladder for teachers that provides different pay scales. It's interesting to note that in almost every state, the teacher unions have signed off on stipends for teachers that are nationally board certified.

Q: How should we think about the politics of school reform today?

A: No Child Left Behind was passed on a bipartisan vote. When the blowback began to develop against the law, people in both parties began running for the shadows on reform. It’s unfortunate. Now we’re in a different era. NCLB left us with some tools, including useful data. There's an agreement from a moral and an economic perspective that historically underserved students must get high quality education. There is agreement on what learning outcomes ought to be. We have the means to customize education to a greater extent than in the past. All of that tells me this is an important time.

[Read More: Strengthening Standards, Teaching and Tests in a Deep Red State]