Author: RiShawn Biddle

The Harkin-Enzi Plan for Gutting No Child is a Failure for Kids

Let’s say this: The revamp of the No Child Left Behind Act proposed by Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Tom Harkin and Wyoming Republican Mike Enzi isn’t…

Let’s say this: The revamp of the No Child Left Behind Act proposed by Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Tom Harkin and Wyoming Republican Mike Enzi isn’t all bad. After all, the bill proposes to make President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top initiative a permanent element of federal education policy, bringing in the kind of competitive grant process that has forced states such as Tennessee and California to expand charter schools, use student test data in evaluating teacher performance, and enact other reforms. The plan also keeps two other Obama initiatives — the Promise Neighborhoods effort modeled off the efforts of the Harlem Children’s Zone, and the less-than-innovative I3 initiative — alive for the next five years.

The Harkin-Enzi plan also brings to the table the “mutual consent” concept of teacher transfers pioneered in New York City that allows principals to control selection of their teaching staffs and end the penchant for laggard long-tenured teachers to use seniority-bumping rules to get classroom assignments and force out younger, often more-talented colleagues. And it requires states to use three years of student achievement data in looking at achievement gaps throughout their schools, which makes sense.

All that said, the Harkin-Enzi plan is still four steps back for two steps forward.

As Dropout Nation pointed out yesterday in its criticism of the No Child proposed by Enzi’s colleague, Lamar Alexander (and its criticism of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s No Child waiver plan), gutting No Child’s accountability measures (and limiting what’s left of accountability to just the nation’s 5,000 failure mills and the 5 percent of schools with the widest racial- and socioeconomic-based achievement gaps) will do little more than allow school districts — especially those in suburbia — to ignore their obligations to provide high-quality instruction and curricula to poor and minority children. The fact that the proposal is rather toothless in requiring states to adopt  “college and career-ready” curricula  — especially since they don’t have to adopt Common Core standards — means that the Harkin-Enzi plan guts accountability in exchange for nothing. And once again, the crisis of educational failure among young men of all racial and economic backgrounds has been ignored altogether.

Simply calling this plan a step back is an understatement. No Child has been the single-biggest advance in education policy, both at the federal level and among states and local governments, since the Defense Education Act of 1958. For the first time in the history of American public education, schools were forced to set clear goals for improving student achievement in reading and mathematics; it finally focused attention on using data in measuring teacher quality; it made it clear to suburban districts that they could no longer continue to commit educational malpractice against poor and minority children; and it focused American public education on achieving measurable results instead of damning kids to low expectations.

Through the Adequate Yearly Progress accountability measures, the low quality of education across the nation’s public schools — including urban districts and in suburbia — was exposed while it gave researchers the impetus to look at the nation’s high school graduation rates (and present in clear, stark terms the high school dropout crisis). Without No Child, there is no Race to the Top, no teacher quality reform movement, no discussion about value-added assessment and no real national focus on stemming achievement gaps. And without No Child, the conditions for expanding school choice and Parent Power — including the passage of Parent Trigger laws in three states in the past two years, and the passage of voucher and tax credit measures in 13 more this year alone — would be less ideal than they are now.

The Harkin-Enzi plan basically is hope against hope: That reform-minded governors can slug it out against teachers’ unions and other education traditionalists without any tools from the federal level to help them out. This ignores the previous four decades of the history of American public education before 2001, when reforms were mostly limited to states such as Texas and often nibbles on the edges. At a time when systemic reform is needed more than ever and the federal role is critical to the effort, what Harkin and Enzi offer is rather weak.

To say that the Harkin-Enzi plan is, along with the Alexander plan and the Obama administration’s waiver effort, is a white flag on strong vigorous school reform efforts from the federal level is just being kind. It’s great for education traditionalists, including the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, who want to preserve their declining influence. It works well for suburban districts that don’t want to be accountable even to middle-class black and Latino families that have found that those schools are poorly serving their kids. But it does little for children, no matter who they are or where they live. It’s hardly worth the paper upon which it is written. The only good news is that the objections of congressional Republicans who control the lower house may stop any reauthorization effort in its tracks.

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When Your No Child Revamp Gets the NEA’s Backing…

Then it’s probably a really bad idea. Which is what U.S. Sen. (and onetime school reformer) Lamar Alexander should admit to himself this after the nation’s largest teachers’ union tacitly…

Then it’s probably a really bad idea. Which is what U.S. Sen. (and onetime school reformer) Lamar Alexander should admit to himself this after the nation’s largest teachers’ union tacitly endorsed his plan to dismantle the No Child Left Behind Act and its Adequate Yearly Progress accountability provisions. Declared the union in a letter sent to Alexander last week: “We are pleased that your ESEA package addresses the current unworkable accountability system… we support your proposals regarding teacher quality.”

Why would the NEA, which has endorsed President Barack Obama in spite of sparring with the administration over its school reform plans, even back the Alexander plan? Because the plan achieves their goal of stemming the advance of school reform. As Dropout Nation pointed out last month, the Alexander plan merely goes a few steps further than the Obama Administration’s own effort to gut No Child’s accountability rules, doing away Adequate Yearly Progress provisions that have exposed the low quality of education across the nation’s public schools — including urban districts and in suburbia. It also offers a set of mealy-mouth college- and career-ready standards that simply avoid holding states accountable for the quality of education provided in all but a few of its traditional public schools. Poor and minority children in suburbia — and even white kids in those schools — will simply have to struggle in cultures of mediocrity that, as this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast notes, are failing against high-performing school systems throughout the rest of the world.

The essential willingness of Senate Republicans and their colleagues who control the House to walk arm and arm with the NEA and the American Federation of Teachers on reducing accountability is amazing. But not necessarily surprising. For those Republicans whose districts are in suburbia — where school systems have been revealed by No Child’s accountability rules to be just marginally better than urban dropout factories — there is plenty of pressure to pull back from reforms, many of which are backed by their gubernatorial and statehouse colleagues. The desire of movement conservatives to pull back from anything backed during the George W. Bush era — which they feel did little more than to expand federal power at the expense of what they consider to be conservative principles — means culling back federal education policy even at the cost of allowing states and districts to spend money freely without being accountable for results.

Meanwhile Senate Republicans and their congressional counterparts are being aided and abetted by some conservative reformers, especially American Enterprise Institute scholar Rick Hess, who have begun retreating on various aspects of school reform with “reform realism” proposals and arguments that the focus on addressing achievement gaps is wasteful. What is happening is the very conservative reformers who, at the beginning of the last decade, were the strongest supporters of pushing systemic reform, have essentially thrown up their hands.

Yet Senate Republicans, along with their backers, fail to consider these realities. For one, No Child and AYP have helped reform-minded governors on both sides of the political aisle beat back opposition from suburban districts and affiliates of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, which have long dominated education at the state level. The law, along with Race to the Top, is the leading reason why 13 states this year expanded school choice, either in allowing for the expansion of charter schools and starting various forms of school voucher plans. Stepping back accountability at the federal level — especially when congressional leaders are unwilling to force states to adopt Common Core standards in reading and mathematics — means setting back reforms, especially the very school choice measures Republicans and conservatives proclaim they support.

Second: The Alexander plan fails to deal with the reality that accountability needs to be expanded, not scaled back. For example, the need to force the overhaul of ed schools, who train most of the nation’s new teachers, is still critical to the reform of American public education. Yet the Alexander plan (along with Duncan’s waiver plan and proposals from congressional Republicans and Senate Democrats) is silent on that issue. Certainly Duncan’s ed school reform proposals — which include requiring states and ed schools to provide more detailed reporting on the effectiveness of newly-minted teachers in improving student achievement during their first two years on the job — are helpful. But it isn’t enough. Forcing the overhaul of ed schools should be part of any No Child reauthorization.

Alexander’s plan also doesn’t address the crisis of low educational achievement among young men of all backgrounds, one of the leading symptoms of the education crisis. As Richard Whitmire and I proposed in June, simply requiring gender to be measured as part of subgroup accountability would do plenty to force states and districts into dealing seriously with this problem. If anything, abandoning AYP will set back efforts to address this symptom of the nation’s education crisis back even further because there will be no meaningful transparency in what schools are doing when it comes to student achievement. The Alexander plan, along with others, is also silent on the matter of expanding Parent Power — including requiring states to enact Parent Trigger laws in exchange for a smaller federal footprint. Essentially, the status quo in this area remains ante, denying families their rightful places as lead decision-makers in education.

And finally, the Alexander plan simply returns things back to the days when the federal government ladled out dollars with almost no accountability in return. It doesn’t embrace the best elements of Race to the Top — including its emphasis on forcing states to compete for federal money and show results. This is especially shameful because maintaining the program-based funding nature of Title I will do little to spur reform. Given that no Republican is proposing to cut out federal spending on education entirely, the plan is hardly conservative. If anything, the Alexander plan guarantees that many states will simply go back to spending federal money without any consideration of results, which will lead to an eventual backlash.

The good news is that much of this plan may not go anywhere, especially since Senate Democrats are in the minority and congressional Republicans are hardly moving at all on No Child’s reauthorization. There may be some other good news at least on the Senate side. Senate Democrats in control of the upper house are considering plans to make Race to the Top a permanent fixture of federal funding. Whether or not it will mean transforming at least part of the $12 billion devoted to Title 1 funding into competitive grants is an open question; but such a move would help move federal education policy away from simply doling out dollars to programs and demanding compliance instead of results.

But these days, when it comes to No Child, the plans being offered for its reauthorization merely declare that helping all children succeed in school and life is not in anyone’s thoughts. As I noted in last week’s piece on the need for Freedom Riders for school reform, it’s time for reformers to put pressure on congressional and Senate leaders to do better.

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The Dropout Nation Podcast: Globally Challenged for School Reform

On this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast, I consider a conversation with fellow vacationers about American public education’s global standing. While our traditional public schools are better than those in developing…

On this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast, I consider a conversation with fellow vacationers about American public education’s global standing. While our traditional public schools are better than those in developing countries such as South Africa, they are falling behind rival economic powers such as China, India and Singapore. It’s time to live up to the ideals among those around the world who perceive American education as opening doors to liberty and economic success for all of its children.

You can listen to the Podcast at RiShawn Biddle’s radio page or download directly to your iPod, Zune, MP3 player, smartphone, Nook Color or Kindle.  Also, subscribe to the podcast series. It is also available on iTunes, Blubrry, the Education Podcast NetworkZune Marketplace and PodBean. Also download to your phone with BlackBerry podcast software and Google Reader.

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Best of Dropout Nation: The Real Difference Between Bill Gates and Randi Weingarten (And It’s Not Money)

Yesterday, New York Times’ Sam Dillon decided to tread the same ground your editor covered two years ago (and others have done since). And as one would expect, Diane Ravitch…

Yesterday, New York Times’ Sam Dillon decided to tread the same ground your editor covered two years ago (and others have done since). And as one would expect, Diane Ravitch and other defenders of the very obsolete practices and low expectations thinking that have contributed to the nation’s education crisis, offered the report as an example of the nefariousness of the school reform movement. After all, according to their simple-minded, class envy-driven, anti-intellectual view, a wealthy entrepreneur can’t both have a healthy interest in improving the world in which he lives and an equally sensible self-interest in leaving his mark on it. You know, what all adults seek to do in life.

Yet Ravitch and her gang fail to consider the organizations that are subsidizing their own defense of the status quo (a point that Dillon manages to ignore in his piece). Start with the National Education Association, which devoted $248 million of union dues this past decade on political campaigns, making it the biggest player in American politics. The union has also spent millions on building and sustaining alliances that aid and abet its aims; this includes $1.9 million to the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (which certifies ed schools) between the 2005-2006 and 2009-2010 fiscal years, and $1.6 million to the Economic Policy Institute (which always seems to produce reports that neatly dovetail with NEA positions) within the past six years. There are also organizations allied with status quo thinking such as the Ford Foundation and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which command both dollars and vast memberships.

Then there’s the American Federation of Teachers, whose president, Randi Weingarten (the subject of my profile this month in The American Spectator) is one of the foremost advocates on behalf of the status quo. From here appearances on shows such as The Colbert Report to profiles in Newsweek, Weingarten is the nation’s best-known union leader and most-prominent education traditionalist, almost as high-profile as Gates himself. And thanks to that profile and her position as head of the nation’s second-largest teachers union (including a foundation that is devoting millions to funding their own initiatives), she is just as influential as Gates (if not more so).

Essentially, both sides of the debate are basking in resources, financial and otherwise. and using them accordingly. One can say that status quo defenders control even more dollars; after all, they are in control of school districts and university schools of education, the institutions through which most of the $500 billion in taxpayer funds devoted to education flow. The NEA and the AFT, in particular, have long-influenced those dollars thanks to state laws and collective bargaining agreements that structure how dollars (in the form of teachers and their compensation packages) are directed to classrooms. Through their defense of seniority- and degree-based pay scales, they have created a teacher compensation system in which teachers are paid for simply lasting years instead of for improving student achievement, under which high-quality teachers aren’t rewarded for doing good-to-great work, that provide near-lifetime employment to the worst teachers, and perpetuate seniority-based assignment rules that, along with the lack of rigorous evaluations based on objective student achievement data, all but ensures that poor and minority children are taught by laggard teachers. They have been unwilling to embrace any real reform of teacher recruiting, training and compensation, allowing for the profession to become mired in mediocrity and failure at the expense of both good-to-great teachers who manage to emerge from the muck, and children who don’t get to choose who teaches them.

The NEA, the AFT and its allies also perpetuate practices and ideologies — including the Poverty Myth in Education — that have essentially allowed far too many educators to write off poor and minority children as being unworthy of a good education. They have consistently opposed any form of real school choice that allows children, no matter their station in life or their condition of birth, to escape dropout factories and failure mills. They have defended a system in which a child’s zip code determines the quality of their education — and can wreck their futures (and even land parents unwilling to accept this in the criminal justice system). And their unwillingness to address issues such as the crisis of low educational achievement among young males of all races — a subject of this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast – shows exactly where they stand on school reform.

I’m not going to say that education traditionalists don’t care about children. They think they do and I believe them. But what they defend, all in all, is a failed, negative and enslaving vision of American public education under which 150 children an hour drop out into poverty and prison. Worse, they defend the system by tying up taxpayer dollars in a status quo that was built for a different age in which education didn’t equal better quality of life, not for a time in which what you know is more important than what you can do with your hands. One can understand supporting such a system back at the height of the industrial age. One can even understand their self-interest in protecting that which has given them comfortable livings and influence. But in 2011, at a time in which the economy demands a better-educated populace, continuing to support an outdated model of education is not only intellectually indefensible, but absolutely amoral and immoral, unjustifiable by any religion or worldview — and they do so in order to protect their privileges, their influence and their incomes. Weingarten and other status quo defenders cannot justify condemning the lives of millions of children.

And that is the difference between them and the school reformer that Gates is funding out of his own pocket. What school reformers have imperfectly, yet successfully, articulated is a vision of education that allows for every young man and woman to achieve their potential; that argues that schools and those who work within them are missionaries for social change that can help address and alleviate poverty; and offers a positive view of what can be done through providing a high-quality education to every child. It is a vision that offers solutions based on data and practice, and accepts that if a practice doesn’t work, it should be ditched for another.  And it uses the evidence that teacher quality and family engagement are greater determinants of academic success than socioeconomic background to advocate for remaking a profession into one that deserves the same respect as doctors, and giving parents the power they need to make great choices for the futures of their children.

This vision is winning the day not because of money; as with so many movements, school reformers were working the trenches, often with little money, before it attracted funding Gates and other big-named donors. The vision is winning because it is both a positive vision and one that has been better-advocated through strategic and tactical savvy. The NEA, the AFT and other defenders can develop new campaigns and protests, and raise ever more dollars, but none of that will hide the reality that what they offer is failure for children, failure for families, failure for communities and failure for a nation — all at a time in which falling down and dropping out is no longer a sustainable option.

Instead of conspiracy theories and class envy, education traditionalists need to take a look within.

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Best of Dropout Nation: Education’s Anti-Intellectualism Problem

Sure, the battle over the reform and the future of American public education is as much about who controls education decision-making and how players within education are held accountable for…

Sure, the battle over the reform and the future of American public education is as much about who controls education decision-making and how players within education are held accountable for student achievement, as it is about how to improve education for all children. At the same time, it is also a battle over the intellectual growth of a field that has eschewed anything resembling intellectual curiosity and creativity.

At first, this may seem strange given that K-12 education is charged with providing the knowledge children need for their own intellectual development — and that so much of compensation within education (especially for teachers) is dependent on accumulating graduate degrees and other credentials. Eighteen of the 26 states surveyed by the National Council on Teacher Quality in 2008 for Invisible Ink in Collective Bargaining Agreements required school districts to provide pay increases to teachers if they attain advanced degrees (even though there is no correlative or causative effects between degree attainment and student achievement). [Full disclosure: I co-wrote the NCTQ report.] Yet acquiring advanced degrees isn’t exactly a sign of strong intellectual activity within a sector. What makes a sector vibrant intellectually? An embrace of the use of data in analysis and decision-making; curiosity about how other sectors handle issues similar to those within one’s own field; creative problem-solving of critical issues within a sector; an acceptance of criticism from those within and outside the sector without arguing that those critics are “scapegoating” professionals within it.

Certainly one group within education — the school reform movement — has most (if not all) of these attributes. Many of the younger teachers coming into the profession also have this intellectual dynamic. But among the rest of education — especially those defenders of traditional public education considered the lions of the profession — this isn’t exactly the case. If anything, the reaction to anything resembling intellectual activity among the Diane Ravitches, Randi Weingartens, David Berliners and Dennis Van Roekels is akin to that of Catholic priests when confronted by the work of Galileo and Tycho Brahe on the solar system.

A recent example comes courtesy of Aaron Pallas of Columbia University’s Teachers College, who hasn’t taken well to the efforts by school districts such as D.C. Public Schools to student test score data to evaluate teacher performance (and the use of value-added assessment, the innovation that has made such evaluations possible). Pallas criticized such efforts — particularly D.C.’s IMPACT evaluation system, which was used in the dismissal of 214 laggard teachers — because it and other “complex value-added systems” use “sophisticated… complex statistical calculations” that lack transparency because they are, well, complex. Pallas didn’t consider how statistical analysis is used daily by companies such as Google to improve how people search for information or the solid record of value-added analysis. Not at all.

When Pallas’ lack of thorough research and overall lack of intellectual curiosity was nailed by American Enterprise Institute’s Rick Hess, Pallas hardly offered a substantive response. Instead, he compared IMPACT and the use of value-added assessment to the housing crisis of the past few years — failing to understand that much of the crisis resulted not from the use of quantitative analysis, but from a combination of overly lax financial regulation, loose credit, poorly-considered federal housing policies, the moral hazard posed by federally-protected entities Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and outright fraud.

This lack of intellectual dynamism (and abject hostility to reform-minded thinking) is evident throughout education, even in the use of such meaningless jargon as “authentic learning” and “authentic assessment” in response to discussions about using more-object measures of student achievement. Educators and researchers still argue about teacher retention while ignoring how organizations in other sector have stopped discussing retention altogether and focus on recruiting high-quality talents and giving them opportunities for career and intellectual growth. Education researchers and policymakers continue this argument as if other sectors haven’t successfully tackkled similar human capital problems.

There are other symptoms: Teacher education remains mired in “education as democracy” theories and pedagogies that lack empirical basis — even as the work of Teach For America and others have shown that it is subject-knowledge competency and caring for children that matters most. Then there is the reluctance among many ed schools to embrace medical college-style training — that would allow for aspiring teachers to learn teaching in real time. The overall unwillingness to embrace the use of objective data in any aspect of education symbolizes an unwillingness to tackle the underlying causes of system academic failure in any meaningful way.

The anti-intellectualism can be read in the rantings of Ravitch, who essentially declared this week that teacher evaluation isn’t worth doing because “no effective teacher evaluation model exists”. It is clear in the response of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (the trade association for ed schools) to Ed Crowe’s report on teacher training for the Center for American Progress — which offered clear examples of effective professional training coming out of such professions as medicine and nursing — and to the critical work of NCTQ (long a thorn in the side of ed schools everywhere). And it is especially clear in the silly, shrill, thoughtless responses of some veteran teachers, who proclaim that criticism of poor-performing teachers and their enablers (including the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers) are attacks on teaching itself.

This anti-intellectualism explains why the responses to school reform efforts from defenders of the status quo have been, at best, lackluster and at worst, verging on mere insults and conspiracy theories of a corporate takeover of American public education. How can one mount a proper opposition when the intellectual arsenal includes warmed-over Buddhist sayings and arguments that defend tenure and seniority rights amid overwhelming evidence that such concepts do little for improving student achievement and teacher quality.

The results of this anti-intellectualism can be seen each and every day as 150 teens drop out of our schools and into poverty and prison. It does these kids no good. It keeps education from meeting the challenges of improving education and stemming the dropout crisis. This lack of intellectual dynamism cannot continue.

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Best of Dropout Nation: Where Are the Gustave Eiffels of School Reform?

Unless you are a structural engineer or a historian, the Eiffel Tower seems little more than one of France’s most-iconic monuments — and a lovely spot to dine with your…

Unless you are a structural engineer or a historian, the Eiffel Tower seems little more than one of France’s most-iconic monuments — and a lovely spot to dine with your wife (if you can afford the eating at the Jules Verne). But for school reformers, how its builder brought it to being — and how it left its mark on engineering and culture — offers some lessons on the kind of dynamic minds and path-breaking thinking we need for the reform of American public education.

At the time Gustave Eiffel began conceptualizing the tower in 1884, constructing high-rise structures in which people could occupy for at least some time had only begun to move from ideas to reality. The first real high-standing structure was the Oriel Chambers in Liverpool, which was built in 1864, only stood five stories tall. The Home Insurance building in Chicago — completed a year after Eiffel began pushing the French government to support his plan — only stood 10 stories; the Statue of Liberty (fashioned by Eiffel’s fellow Frenchmen Pierre-Auguste Bartholdi) would come after. The tallest of them all, the Washington Monument, stood just 555 feet — and it took more than 36 years to move from conception to completion.

Few thought that anything taller than those edifices could ever be built. As Jill Jonnes points out in Eiffel’s Tower: The Thrilling Story Behind Paris’s Beloved Monument and the Extraordinary World’s Fair That Introduced It, engineers such as Richard Trevithick and bridge-building firm Clarke & Reeves tossed around and attempted similar efforts at building 1,000-ft high structures. None had made it.  Even fewer saw them as being either beautiful, valuable or useful. After all, in many cities, the high buildings would dwarf over existing structures of civic pride; a bunch of them would create shadows that (in theory) dim out the sunlight and get rid of public spaces. Particularly in a city like Paris — which had already gone though a wrenching round of city planning courtesy of Georges-Eugène, 1st Baron Haussmann — the idea would not be well-received by those who like to keep the status quo ante.

It took the plans by the French government to host the Exposition Universelle in 1889 to actually spur a challenge to that thinking — and it took Eiffel to take advantage of that opportunity. A native of Dijon who was landed in the bridge-building business after a job in one of his relative’s vinegar works fell through, Eiffel made his bones by successfully erecting a bridge in Bordeaux even as his colleagues quit working on the project. Eiffel had the combination of daring, tenacity, thoughtfulness, discipline and opportunistic drive most of his contemporaries lacked in spades. He was also brave, even once rescuing one of his riveters from drowning in a river. And by 1884, those qualities made Eiffel a titan among his peers. His firm built what was at the time the world’s highest railway bridge (in Garabit, France); erected bridges in Vietnam and what was then the developing world; built train stations in Hungary; and had placed his stamp on America’s Statue of Liberty itself by crafting the internal skeleton that held together the copper skin of the colossus.

Eiffel understood that the French government to make a bold statement on behalf of democratic republicanism in what would become the twilight of European and Asian monarchies. He knew that the nation needed to rebuild a reputation tarnished by its defeat 14 years earlier in the Franco-Prussian War. He realized that French wanted to prove that its great minds were as capable anyone from America. He also knew that the technology was already available to make a thousand foot tall tower possible: Thanks to the work of Elisha Gray Otis, elevators could carry hundreds up and down buildings safely and efficiently. The engineering work Eiffel did on the Statue of Liberty, along with the burgeoning architectural efforts of William LeBaron Jenny and Louis Sullivan, also paved the way for sky-high construction. And the work of Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick in developing processes that made steel production cheap and efficient meant that a sturdy tower of great height could be built.

Eiffel got together a team of engineers and architects at his firm — Emile Nouguier, Maurice Koechlin, and Stephen Sauvestre — to begin sketching out the design and engineering for a thousand foot tall metal tower. Then Eiffel began publicly and privately lobbying for its construction and inclusion in the world’s fair. By 1886, Eiffel had the support to make the tower a reality. Then the real challenges began. The nation’s architects, never fans of engineers to start, were outraged that the shining jewel of the world’s fair was being put together by someone they considered a mere bridge builder. They lobbied for their own plans (including a thousand-foot column with a searchlight) and lambasted Eiffel’s own. Then the French government, which originally planned to pony up the full cost, agreed to only cover a third of its $1 million cost. Eiffel solved that problem by raising the rest of the funds on its own and bearing the engineering and designing costs of the project.

Then came more foes of the tower. Politicians, notably future French President Georges Clemenceau and Pierre Tirard, managed to delay the signing of the contract with Eiffel to build the tower after declaring that the spare, minimalist tower, more scaffolding that building, was “anti-artistic, contrary to French genius… a project more in character with America”. The came another problem: A French aristocrat, along with one of her neighbors, sued the French government to prevent construction of the tower; they argued that the tower could collapse on their properties and could serve as a giant lightning rod for decades after the fair was completed. Eiffel solved those problems by indemnifying the French government against the lawsuits and any possible structural collapse. As a result, French officials official signed the contract, allowing Eiffel to go ahead with construction.

But Eiffel’s greatest challenge laid with building elevators that could reach the heights and do so safely. The tower needed three sets of elevator banks — two of which needed to go up each of the curved legs of the tower from the ground to the second platform 377 feet above ground — and the French government, which controlled the contracts for the elevators, preferred that they were developed by native companies. But the best elevator maker was the elevator firm Elisha Gray Otis founded years ago, and even it hadn’t built elevators to go that far up. The French government did its best to rebuff Otis’ bid, but eventually relented when no one else would bid for the work. It still didn’t go smoothly, with Eiffel and Otis executives mutually frustrated at one another over their respective perfectionism (including Eiffel’s changes to the interior of the tower’s legs and Otis’ unwillingness to go along with building elevators according to French government demands). But Eiffel learned to go with Otis’ plans (and even accept cost overruns on that part of the project) because he knew it was more important to get the tower completed safely and on time than following his ego (or that of the French government).

Eiffel was a master of public relations. As France’s leading thinkers and artists — including Alexander Dumas fils and Paul Planat of the country’s leading architectural rag — attacked the tower, Eiffel held interviews with media players attacking his foes for remaining stuck behind the times and being unwilling to do anything that would advance France among the world beyond a status as “amusing people”. He also hired a photographer to document its construction, encouraged people to visit the site and watch the tower take shape, brought reporters and other dignitaries up to the unfinished structure to experience the dizzying heights, and eventually struck a deal with one of the country’s leading publications, Le Figaro, to place an office in the tower and publish a special edition for the world’s fair. Eiffel was also a master of the moment: When workers on the tower, demanding more money, threatened to stop work; he threatened to ditch them to the proverbial curb. They showed up for work and did their jobs.

What Eiffel wrought was a masterpiece of engineering and architecture. When it opened in 1889, it easily surpassed the Washington Monument as the world’s tallest structure — and would hold that title until the Chrysler Building overtook it four decades later. Besides dazzling the crowds at the Exposition Universelle (and annoying a generation of Parisians who would have rather seen it never be built), it began the race to build taller buildings that would maximize space and spur more people to move into cities. By 1891, Sullivan built the Wainwright Building in St. Louis, which would serve as the prototype of the modern office tower; the Flatiron Building and the Metropolitan Life tower would soon follow. The Eiffel Tower’s spare design would also help architects  break with the neoclassic past of the time and develop new styles, and spur generations of industrial designers. Without the tower, there would be no Art Deco of Rockefeller Center and the Chrysler Building, no streamline of the DeSoto Airflow and the 20th Century Limited, no stark power of the Guggenheim Museum or the San Francisco Bridge, and no sleek design of the iPhone or the BlackBerry. The tower even inspired the entertainment and amusement industries. Three years after the tower opened, George Washington Ferris would beat out Eiffel to build the very first Ferris Wheel for the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago; every child riding a Ferris wheel this spring and summer (and watching a blockbuster at night) can thank Eiffel for their entertainment.

But what makes the tower special is what Gustave Eiffel brought to the table. He understood the challenges that France needed to overcome, imagineered a solution, put energy and drive into making it a reality, and approaching the challenge with both missionary zeal and disciplined thinking. He also brought strong management skills to the table, bringing together talented men to the fore, using persuasion (gentle and otherwise), and orchestrating public relations campaigns that overcame the opposition of status quo defenders. And he broke free of the past, forcefully articulating that it was time for new approaches to architecture and engineering.

It is the same combination of skills that school reformers will need in transforming American public education today.

As Eiffel had to do in the 1880s, reformers must stare down teachers unions, ed schools and other defenders of the status quo who insist on clinging to a vision of public education that has outlasted Horace Mann and John Dewey. Traditional public education  probably didn’t work even in an age in which education wasn’t critical to economic survival; it is definitely a failure in a knowledge-based economy in which strong math and reading skills are even critical for auto repair work. With concepts such as lower class sizes proven to be ineffective — and fiscally unsustainable — the need for using the Internet to provide every child with a high-quality teacher is critical. And with America becoming a majority-minority nation, racial- and gender-based achievement gaps are both unacceptable morally and from the standpoint of maintaining the nation’s prosperity.

The challenges — which come at the cost of 150 kids dropping out every hour — are not insurmountable. But as the American Enterprise Institute and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce succinctly laid out yesterday in their report on the importance of school reform in spurring the science and technology sectors, it mean a clean break with the past. Scale can no longer be a fetish. There will be a need for a thousand different solutions working together (including even DIY schools). Parents and caregivers must be the kings and lead consumers in education. And we must embrace the moral, civil right and practical need for giving every child a high-quality education.

It will also take all hands to make it happen. In particular, we need visionary men who also have strong management skills, the ability to pull together ideas and technology, and political savvy to beat back defenders of the status quo who still have their (increasingly slipping) influence on how traditional public schools mis-educate children. We already have had the Joel Kleins, the Wendy Kopps and (to a lesser extent) the Michelle Rhees. But, as we have seen last week with the ouster of Cathie Black as New York City schools chancellor, there aren’t enough of them. And with the challenges ahead, we will need more than one Teach For America to expand the pipeline of talent.

So the school reform movement must developing new alternative pipelines into education, reaching beyond ed schools and central offices for talented minds. It must also reach  into classrooms and elevating teachers who are ready and willing to cast the Randi Weingartens and Diane Ravitches into the ashbins of history. And it must grab talents who are already out there preaching in the wilderness — including Parent Power activists — and put them into places where they can further the goal of building cultures of genius for all children. At the same time, it is critical for reformers to also glean lessons from how Eiffel approached challenges — including those from traditionalists who oppose reform, have nothing better to offer, and simply want to stay comfortable in the past at the expense of children.

We need Gustave Eiffels for school reform. And their success will mean every child succeeds in school and in life.

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