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In statehouses and cities across the country, battles are raging over the direction of education policy—from the standards that will shape what students learn to how test results will be used to judge a teacher’s performance.

Students and teachers, in passive resistance, are refusing to take and give standardized tests. Protesters have marched to the White House over what they see as the privatization of the nation’s schools. Professional and citizen lobbyists are packing hearings in state capitols to argue that the federal government is trying to dictate curricula through the use of common standards.

U.S. education reform
Indiana public school principal Ryan Russell sits in on the fifth-grade classroom of Jen Hess for a three- to five-minute “walk through” evaluation of her class.

New advocacy groups, meanwhile, are taking their fight city to city by pouring record sums of money into school board races.

Not since the battles over school desegregation has the debate about public education been so intense and polarized, observers say, for rarely before has an institution that historically is slow to change been forced to deal with so much change at once.

Forty-six states and the District of Columbia are implementing the Common Core State Standards, and nearly as many are developing common tests that are expected to debut in 2014-15.

More than three dozen states are working on incorporating student test scores into evaluations of teachers and principals.

And a majority of states are creating new accountability systems as part of the flexibility federal officials are offering through No Child Left Behind Act waivers.

All this change—and more—in education is happening against a backdrop of rapidly shifting demographics, technology that is changing lives at blazing speeds, and an economy still recovering from the Great Recession.

At the same time, education is caught in a push for state and federal budget austerity and faces a Congress so gripped by gridlock that some educators are wondering if the withering Elementary and Secondary Education Act will ever get rewritten.

“As the country has become more polarized and the inability to compromise has become seen as a badge of honor, it shouldn’t be a surprise that we’d see a more polemical debate in education, because it reflects the rest of the country,” said Joshua Starr, the superintendent of schools in Montgomery County, Md.

Though he supports the “right” standardized tests, Mr. Starr has become something of a hero to the anti-testing movement after calling in December for a three-year moratorium on standardized testing until the common core is fully in place.

“I’ve got a big mouth, and I’m not afraid to open it. One of the things that concerns me is not enough practitioners speak up publicly,” he said.

As policymakers, “we are not focused on the actual problems,” he said. “We still fall into this quick-fix, silver-bullet mentality.”

Unusual Alignments

For historians, today’s debates are reminiscent of the development of the system of common schools in the early 19th century, and the centralization of city schools in the early 20th century.

“Every school reform has been about centralization or decentralization, and this is the first wave of federal centralization,” said Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor of history and education at New York University, pointing to the No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law in 2002, and federal support for common standards and tests. “Now we’re waiting to see … whether there’s a rebellion against it.”

These movements spark such intense feelings, Mr. Zimmerman said, because people are so intimately connected to their schools.

“Some of the ‘corporate’ rhetoric is about, ‘Who are you, Bill Gates, and who are you, Eli Broad, with your big stack of bills coming in and telling us how to improve our schools?’” Mr. Zimmerman said, pointing to the leaders of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Broad Foundation, which are major philanthropies that work in education.

The fault lines in today’s current education policy landscape don’t fall neatly along typical partisan—or ideological—divides.

Skeptics and outright opponents of such measures as the common standards and high-stakes common tests include, on the left, progressives who are fierce defenders of the public schools against what they see as corporate interests and, on the right, staunch conservatives who think the federal government has reached too far into local schooling.

The resulting coincidental coalitions include the progressive activists of Parents Across America and champions of limited government at the Heritage Foundation.

Even as antipathy to the common core fosters some otherwise unlikely alignments, support for charter schools and so-called “parent trigger” laws brings together many Democrats and Republicans in the name of more choice and power for parents.

The lineup on the side of such proposals includes long-standing and new advocacy groups like Stand for ChildrenDemocrats for Education Reform, and StudentsFirst(founded by former District of Columbia Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee). And it features such influential conservative groups as the American Legislative Exchange Council.

Critics of market-oriented approaches, such as the education historian Diane Ravitch, assail “corporate reformers” and their ideas for sparking what she calls an unprecedented effort to privatize public education through school closings, voucher programs, and charter schools.

Such efforts are not helping boost student achievement, she argues. Instead, she and others want more emphasis on civics and the arts, more school funding and community wraparound services, and smaller class sizes.

“There have been many debates about how to fix and how to improve public schools; these debates have gone on since 1900,” Ms. Ravitch said. “But now the debate is about privatizing public schools. This is different in every respect.”

Today’s education debates are different, but for different reasons, others contend.

Paul Manna, an associate professor of government at the College of William and Mary, said, for instance, that major players such as companies and foundations have emerged from the sidelines because of the sheer size and nature of the challenges confronting the country.

“The stakes are higher,” Mr. Manna said, referring to the rapidly changing economy and the crucial need to prepare students for college and careers.

What’s more, he said, the influx of new immigrants, which is shaking up the U.S. demographic mix, has been profound.

“There’s an astonishing transition that’s underway,” he said.

Indiana might be ground zero for too much happening too fast.

Tony Bennett, a Republican, was elected superintendent of public instruction in 2008 and used his four years in office to usher in big changes—from implementing the nation’s most expansive tuition-voucher program to creating a new A-F school grading system. He was also a major champion of the common standards, approved by the state board of education in 2010.

He was booted out of office after just one term, losing to Democrat Glenda Ritz, a common-standards skeptic, in a surprising about-face for a state whose voters tilt to the GOP.

And now, state lawmakers have voted to slow down implementation of the common core in a bill that was headed last week to the desk of Gov. Mike Pence.

“I don’t care what they’re called. Good standards should be in place,” said Ms. Ritz, who is particularly concerned about the quality of the common math standards. “There’s a dialogue in the education community here about the standards themselves. That dialogue did not get to happen in 2010.”

‘More Screaming’

Elsewhere, policy issues and proposed changes are provoking angry responses locally that then reverberate nationally.

In Chicago, parent and teacher groups are protesting plans to close a record 53 schools. In Charlotte, N.C., and Providence, R.I., students, parents, and other activists have dressed up as zombies to protest standardized testing. Teachers in a Seattle high school in January refused to give district tests.

Blogs and Twitter have helped carry those messages beyond those particular cities.

“There’s vastly more screaming in every imaginable medium,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington think tank that favors charter schools, as well as common academic standards and testing.

Local school board races, which usually draw little attention, are now on the front lines—including in Los Angeles, New Orleans, and Nashville, Tenn. Groups such as StudentsFirst and large donors such as former New York City Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein have invested large amounts in selected local races. (Big-money candidates haven’t always won.)

“They’ve either promoted or bought into the theory that if you just shake things up, things will get better,” Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, itself a force in politics at all levels, said of such players. “But instead of addressing the issues head-on, they fight.”

Just last week, Ms. Weingarten, in a speech in New York City, called for a temporary halt to all high stakes tied to the common core to give educators time to implement the standards.

Issues Obscured?

The rhetoric around these fights is becoming sharp, even personal.

In Alabama, one critic of the common standards warned state lawmakers that the federal government was developing technology to read students’ faces during tests to determine what they ate at home, according to media coverage of a legislative hearing.

During a rally in front of the U.S. Department of Education’s headquarters last month, a Miami-Dade County, Fla., teacher leading an effort to get parents and students to “opt out” of standardized testing leveled a racial insult—from the main stage—against Ms. Rhee, who is Asian-American.

“I fully understand the sentiment that is coming from parents and teachers and schools around the frustration with testing,” Ms. Rhee said in an interview. “But the bottom line is, the answer is in the middle. Tests are not evil. That reasonable point of view is what gets lost.”

She added: “Let’s not turn this into a debate about how I want to corporatize education. The polarization is not helping.”

As he addressed the American Educational Research Association in San Francisco last week, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was booed for his stands on a number of issues, including testing. Later that same day, he got a warm reception at a “summit” of the NewSchools Venture Fund, which raises money from philanthropies to seed education entrepreneurs, charter organizations among them.

The problem is that “the legitimate debate about these issues—and there is one—gets lost,” said Chris Minnich, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, which helped lead the initiative that produced the common standards.

The role of private philanthropies in promoting education policies and initiatives has also been a flashpoint.

Educators and activists point, for example, to the Gates Foundation, which has helped drive teacher-effectiveness programs and common standards, and the Walton Family Foundation, which has funded charter schools and groups that advocate parent-trigger laws.

Education Week, a publication of the nonprofit Editorial Projects in Education, has been criticized for receiving grant support from Gates, which currently helps underwrite coverage of the education industry and K-12 innovation, and Walton, which helps support coverage of parent empowerment. (The newspaper retains sole control of the content of that coverage, its editors emphasize.)

To be sure, the pace of change accelerated when President Barack Obama took office and put Mr. Duncan, a former Chicago schools CEO, at the helm of the Education Department.

Armed with nearly $100 billion in education aid from the 2009 economic-stimulus package passed by Congress, Secretary Duncan used $4 billion to entice states into embracing common standards, charter schools, and teacher evaluations tied to student test scores through his Race to the Top contest.

He’s advanced that general platform more recently by granting states waivers from compliance with many of the core tenets of the NCLB law if they adopt the Obama administration’s preferred improvement ideas—even as education research paints a mixed picture about whether such measures as charter schools and merit pay have much effect on student learning.

For supporters of those ideas, a frequent argument is that the “status quo” isn’t working either.

In an interview, Mr. Duncan shrugged his shoulders at the backlash against high-stakes testing and common standards, declaring that “if a state wants to dummy down standards, they have every right to do that.”

His ideas for improving education—from tying teacher evaluations to student test results to embracing charter schools—have clashed head-on with many who gave President Obama major political support. Like unions.

“You have to give credit to President Obama and Secretary Duncan. They challenged their core constituency,” said Patricia Levesque, the CEO of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, an advocacy organization started by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

“But you also have so many governors who made education reform a priority … and the growth of education advocacy groups,” she said. “There’s a lot more bipartisanship on education.”

Scope of Dissatisfaction

If Ms. Ravitch—one of education’s most prominent speakers and writers—is the face of the progressive, anti-corporate reform movement, then Pearson has become the face of the antagonist.

The giant testing and publishing company, based in London and New York City, is being hammered over what some educators and activists see as its undue influence on teaching, learning, and testing.

In one recent example, in Texas, critics upset in part with Pearson are trying to persuade lawmakers to scale back standardized testing in a state that served as inspiration for the NCLB law.

“Our social mission as a company and everything we do is about improving people’s lives through learning. The public trust is fundamental,” said Shilpi Niyogi, the executive vice president for public affairs at Pearson. “So we absolutely take the protests and the concerns and the level of anxiety out there very seriously.”

Whether these education debates are taking place only on the fringes or among policy elites, or represent a growing, broader backlash, is unclear.

Polls paint a complicated picture of teacher sentiment, for example. On the one hand, there is evidence morale is low. Just 39 percent of teachers reported being “very satisfied with their jobs,” down 23 percentage points in five years, according to the 2012 MetLife Survey of the American Teacher.

But on the flip side, teachers give themselves high marks for their general well-being, ranking No. 2 behind physicians for their physical, emotional, and financial health, according to the 2013 Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index. That means, for example, that teachers report having a lot of daily positive experiences.

While a majority of the public supports using student achievement as a factor in teacher evaluations, an even greater proportion reports having confidence in teachers in general, according to the 2012 Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll.

As a more anecdotal indicator, a 2011 Save Our Schools rally in Washington—organized by educators and others unhappy with high-stakes testing and other policies—drew about 3,000 people, but subsequent protests drew far fewer. The “opt out” protest against standardized testing at the Education Department last month drew a couple dozen people.

Other Priorities

For Larry Ferlazzo, a teacher of English-learners in Sacramento, Calif., and many of his colleagues at Luther Burbank High School, the common core—in English/language arts and math—is accepted as the new way of doing things.

But, he said, “if you ask teachers and principals what [are] the most important things that can be done, new standards would not even make the top 20. How about social services, new technology, and time for teacher collaboration?”

For students and parents, at least in Mr. Ferlazzo’s classroom, daily concerns are pretty basic.

“They’re more concerned about paying the rent this month,” said Mr. Ferlazzo, who also writes a blog for Education Week Teacher.

Jonah Edelman, who co-founded Stand for Children, agrees that parents, for the most part, have other fundamental concerns. He helps organize parents in states to support policies such as the common core, preschool funding, and new teacher evaluations—and the organization supports candidates in local and state elections.

“At the parental level, there’s less ferment,” Mr. Edelman said. “The parents we work with want the same thing as all parents want. They want high-quality schools that will help their kids to be successful.”

But more and more parents, who may not have the political clout of large unions or companies, are starting to get active.

“I do feel like we are at a point where large numbers of people are completely fed up,” said Pamela Grundy, a parent of a 6th grader in Charlotte, N.C., and a co-founder of Parents Across America, which is fighting high-stakes testing and other “corporate reforms.”

“The key is the money, which we don’t have nearly as much of,” she said. “We have to do more grassroots campaigns, and it takes more time.”

This story appears courtesy Education Week. Reproduction is not permitted.

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