Photo courtesy of AP

Race to the Standstill: For the past couple of months, there has been plenty of talk about the possibility of some sort of detente between President Barack Obama and House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline on the former’s school reform agenda. But Obama’s proposed budget for the 2011-2012 fiscal year — and Kline’s response to it — shows that there will be more debate than detente when it comes to federal education policy.

In requesting $900 million more to continue Race to the Top (and focus it on spurring reforms in school districts), and asking for more money to fund the School Improvement Grant program and other initiatives, Obama has declared that he is sticking to his approach of competitive grant programs focused on spurring teacher quality reforms, expansion of charter schools, turnarounds and innovation. In turn, Kline has essentially declared that he wants to return to the mythical concept of local control and scale back any further expansion of federal education policy.

The real battle, however, won’t be between Obama and Kline as much as it will be between the two men and their respective camps.

Kline is going to end up tangling with his fellow Republicans, especially among school reform-minded governors, many of whom have successfully used Race to the Top and the accountability provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act to push their own like-minded initiatives. Kline’s fellow House Republicans — including Speaker John Boehner — aren’t exactly all for local control, and the chairman knows this. For all of Kline’s bluster about opposing the expansion of federal education¬† policy, he all but gave his blessing to the effort by Boehner and Sen. Joseph Lieberman to revive the D.C. Opportunity voucher program. And Kline himself is likely excited by Obama’s proposal to boost federal special ed subsidies by $200 million.

Meanwhile Obama will have to worry about his own re-election campaign. This means playing a little nicer with the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, who are still among the biggest players in Democratic Party politics. As seen in Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s remarks at this week’s summit on collaboration between school districts and teachers unions — and Obama’s own response to the efforts of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker to end public employee collective bargaining — the president knows that he must walk a fine line between battling the NEA and AFT and ensuring that they continue to provide union dues to congressional and presidential campaigns.

All this likely means that, for the moment, there will be lots of talk and little congressional or presidential action of real substance.

Gray Matters on School Reform: Anyone who truly thought that D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray was going to somehow pursue any form of school reform during his tenure should have paid close attention to the pronouncements of his education transition committee on the IMPACT teacher evaluation program. The hallmark of former chancellor Michelle Rhee’s tenure, IMPACT is a prime (if not perfect) model for the kind of performance management systems states and school districts will need to put in place in order to improve teacher quality.

But from the perspective of the transition committee, IMPACT is particularly flawed because it doesn’t have a strong professional development regime attached to it. Given that professional development for teachers in general is rather weak, that argument is a failure. The other argument — that teachers don’t trust it — also falls apart largely because it hasn’t been in place long enough. More importantly, considering that longtime veterans weren’t previously subjected to any sort of performance management, it is going to take time for them to get used to the reality that rigorous evaluation will be the norm and not the exception.

Let’s be clear: This was a review that had a predetermined result. Or, to be more clear, the fix was in from the get-and-go. Gray has always opposed IMPACT and has not been a fan of performance-based evaluations, largely because it was opposed by his allies, especially the city’s American Federation of Teachers local (which opposes any use of student data in evaluating teachers). More importantly, given Gray’s own poor relationship with Rhee — and his dependence on Rhee critics for political support — he couldn’t possibly keep all that she wrought. This isn’t to say that Rhee’s tenure was a stunning success (it wasn’t).

But given that Rhee did the hard work of finally subjecting teachers to more-robust performance management, overhauling IMPACT, the key to that effort, means going back to desultory evaluation systems that all but guarantee that laggard teachers keep their jobs. Given the politics involved and Gray’s unwillingness so far to fully embrace school reform, any overhaul of IMPACT will be more like a gutting and a trashing.

If the verdict on IMPACT isn’t disconcerting, then the decision by Gray to put Nate Saunders, the new president of the AFT’s D.C. local, on the search team for Rhee’s full-time replacement ought to realize that the Gray theme on education is back to the status quo with some sprinkling of charter schools to placate reformers in his own camp. No respectable reformer would argue for essentially granting a teachers union boss a vote on who will be the person with whom they will negotiate on the other side of the table. It is an absolute conflict of interest on every level.

If Gray wants to be taken seriously on school reform, he shouldn’t have given Washington a seat at the search committee table. Nor should he allow the AFT local’s own critique of IMPACT to be included in the final report that the transition committee will release. He should then tell Interim Chancellor Kaya Henderson to appeal the recent decision by an arbitrator to put 75 laggard teachers back onto the payroll — and fully declare that IMPACT will stay in place as is.

Certainly there are folks who argue that Gray deserves to be given the benefit of the doubt. Andy Rotherham declared as much this week. Rick Hess argues otherwise (albeit with less calm). I’ll have to largely agree with Hess on this one. Gray can talk all the game on school reform he wants, but past history and recent moves shows something different and more ominous.

National Association of Scholars Gets It Wrong on High Expectations: Dropout Nation’s commentary earlier this month about Harvard’s Pathways to Prosperity claptrap garnered some attention from the National Association of Scholars, the higher education reform outfit. From its perspective, Pathways “makes a needed case for not restricting the American dream to college graduates” and dovetails with its view that not every student should attend college.

But NAS doesn’t actually consider the underlying reason why so many aspiring collegians end up in remedial ed classes and flunking out in the first place: The low quality of curricula and instruction in elementary and secondary schools. Nor does NAS consider the reality that the same high level of reading, math and science skills needed for community college and four-year college completion are also needed for getting into apprenticeships and technical schools. Essentially, the problem isn’t that colleges are admitting kids unable to handle college-level work, it is that American public education doesn’t provide the kind of high-quality instruction and curricula that would allow students to choose any path in the first place. The Pathways report ignores the reality of what is actually happening in K-12 — a point made clear over the past few months thanks to the American Institutes for Research and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in its reports on curriculum standards — and falsely argues that students are actually getting college prep education.NAS didn’t factor any of this into its arguments.

The lack of thoughtfulness on the topic isn’t all that surprising. After all, NAS admirably focuses on such critical issues in higher ed as the weakening of academic freedom and Great Books curricula that has been the hallmark of college education in this country for most of the past four centuries. But the association also seems to reflect a bent among some conservatives — most-notably Charles Murray — that not all kids are deserving of a college preparatory education, an argument that is also implicitly at the heart of the Pathways report (and an echo of the early 20th century view that blacks and immigrants were incapable of college-level work that led to many of the problems at the heart of American public education’s failures today). This school of thinking runs counter to the reality that higher education (be it college, technical school or apprenticeships) are critical for poor and minority children to move into the economic middle class. It is also a viewpoint that condemns these young men and women of all races to low-quality education and low expectations.

NAS would do well to read Dropout Nation and learn more about the underlying problems that also complicate the otherwise laudable goal of improving the quality of higher education that they also seek.