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TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Earlier in our show, Diane Ravitch explained why she's become disillusioned with school reforms she once supported, like No Child Left Behind and charter schools.

My guest Andrew Rotherham supports testing accountability, charter schools and choice as important strategies in redesigning public education. Rotherham is an education consultant and policy analyst. He co-founded Bellwether Education Partners, a non-profit organization working to improve educational outcomes for low-income students. He writes the column "School of Thought" for Time.com. He's the author of four books about education policy.

Although he supports charter schools as an important part of reforming education in America, he says depending on the student and the community, a charter school isn't necessarily the best option.

Mr. ROTHERHAM (Education Consultant, Policy Analyst): Parents should not get hung up on this label of charter or traditional public - or frankly private, for that matter. Schools are schools, and they're going to be a good fit for your child, or not. They're going to be performing well or not, depending on a variety of factors. And you can find examples of excellence, and you can find examples of acute failure in all sectors, whether they're in the charter sector, or whether they're in the traditional public school sector.

GROSS: Can you give us an example of a charter school whose success you'd like to see used as a model?

Mr. ROTHERHAM: Sure. I can give an example of a bunch. And so these can be sort of individual schools - so, for example, like, the MATCH School in Boston is a really terrific school, focused on getting kids into college. There's networks of schools like Achievement First...

GROSS: This is a high school?

Mr. ROTHERHAM: MATCH School is a high school. There's networks of schools like Achievement First, Uncommon Schools. Obviously, KIPP is sort of a household name in the debate. And then there's schools like -here in Washington, D.C., there's a school called the SEED School. It's a public boarding school.

And when you tell people about it, you say, you know, it's a public boarding school. The kids come in on Sunday nights, and they leave on Fridays. People think, oh, that's a crazy idea. That could never happen. And yet, we have this school, and it's been operating in Washington. They're opening a new one in Maryland and thinking about expanding elsewhere. And that's actually, more than anything else, what I would like to see replicated, is that sense of possibility.

So these are good schools. There's sort of technical things they do that we can talk about, whether it's the way they hire teachers, evaluate performance, use data. But I think more than anything else, the thing that I'd like to see replicated is that sort of ethos of possibility and thinking differently about what's possible for kids that have been really failed by public schools for a very long time, that sense of thinking big and really doing things different in an effort to change outcomes for them. And those schools all, in different ways, sort of provide proof points. And that's what I - more than anything else, that ethos is what I'd like to see.

GROSS: Yeah. But, you know, there's charter schools that have tried things and have failed, and charter schools that have tried things and have succeeded in getting better results. So give us an example of one or two things that you've seen charter schools try that you think actually work in improving the educational environment.

Mr. ROTHERHAM: Sure. And I'm not trying to be deliberately vague, but I'll say the thing is - and that you can do this in traditional public schools, too, it's nothing magic about charters - it's intentionality. The very best schools, they're intentional about everything they do. They're intentional about who is in the building, who is teaching, how they use data, what's happening for students, the experience for students, the support for students, the curriculum, how progress is assessed. Everything is intentional, and nothing is left to chance.

That's, again, nothing to do with the charter, as much as simply the freedom to sort of build that kind of community. And too often in traditional public schools, whether it's through inertia and the buildup of regulations, whether it's through different various rules in contracts or state law, things happen in different ways that aren't as intentional.

When you're in the best schools - again, whether they're charter schools or traditional public schools - that intentionality about everything they do, it is inescapable. And that is more important, Terry, than the particular method. You can be in schools that have different educational philosophies and are very good schools, but what they have in common is that intentionality about what they're doing. You really can't - you can't escape that, and you just don't see success in places where they're not intentional about what they're doing.

GROSS: Have you given up on public schools?

Mr. ROTHERHAM: Oh, absolutely not. Look, I'm a product of public schools. I couldn't do the work that I do if I didn't believe in the possibility and the promise of public schools. Most students are going to continue to be educated in the public schools. There's all this talk about virtual, and so forth. Most parents don't have the luxury of educating their kids at home, so public schools may start to look different, but kids are still going to go to school. There's sort of a basic custodial function.

And so the work I do - and I really think that the big ballgame - is about: How do you make public schools better? How do you make them work for more kids? They worked great for me, but I grew up in a nice suburb outside of Washington, D.C. If I had been born just a few miles away, I would've had a very different public education experience. That's the challenge.

It's not about giving up on public schools, but it is about acknowledging that right now, when you step back, this country, eight percent of low-income kids can expect to get a bachelor's degree by the time they're 24. I mean, just stop right there. That is a stunning figure. And so all this rhetoric about are we giving up on public schools, are they working or not, I don't know how anybody can look at that figure and not say we need to come together and really get much more serious about not just improving a little bit, not just changing a little bit, but dramatically changing what we're doing in public education so we can do a better job for the kids who really need it the most.

GROSS: I know there's some concern from people who work in public schools that charter schools and vouchers are taking the best students away from your average public school, and that the most motivated parents and the most motivated students are seeking the alternative schools. Now, on one hand, you can argue, well, great for them. They should go to the best schools possible. On the other hand, you can argue, but the public schools now are being left with the students who are less motivated and who aren't trying to get into the best schools and make those schools more difficult to teach in, more difficult to learn in, and those schools are kind of being doomed to perform at a lower level.

Mr. ROTHERHAM: You know, it's complicated place by place, and you have a few places where, you know, charters have achieved a really significant market share. So, for example, Washington, D.C. is a very noteworthy example of that, increasingly in Los Angeles. But in most places, charters are still not a sort of enormous presence on the landscape. You know, there's 5,000 public charter schools around the country. There's about 100,000 traditional public schools. So you can do the math.

So two - I think there's sort of two takeaways from this. One is one of the things that makes charter schools attractive is the fact they are non-selective. They take kids open admission or by lottery. And so they, you know, you're not creating sort of a selective set of public schools. That's, again, one of the things that make them attractive.

The second - sort of the bottom-line issue is there is more choice coming to education. Choice comes to all American industries, and education's one of the last ones that's sort of - has resisted that. And so the challenge for public schools is: How do you make, in these communities, make the public schools not the choice of last resort, but the first choice for parents? That's the imperative now.

The competition is going to continue to be there, different kinds of schools, different kinds of options. And frankly, parents are going to continue to do for their own children the very best that they can, whether that's move to different communities, avail themselves of other options and so forth.

And so the challenge for the public schools is: How do you make the public schools the - really, the first choice for parents? And you don't get there through sort of a lot of rhetoric. We get there by rolling up our sleeves and really improving the quality of schooling in a lot of these communities.

GROSS: Well, the question arises: Is it the school that's failing the students, or is it poverty that has put students in a position where they are likely to fail?

Mr. ROTHERHAM: Poverty plays a huge role. Schools play a huge role, too, and there are a lot of things that schools can do to help ameliorate the problems that kids bring to school. And we know that both from the overall data, and we know that from plenty of very compelling examples.

It's oversimplified to say it's just schools, and if schools just do this, we wouldn't have these other issues. But what you do see, looking across the country, is different schools produce different outcomes with similar kids, so there are things schools do that matter.

You have sort of schools serving high poverty kids. You have schools that do that, and those kids are graduating. Those kids are going off to college. You have schools that do that with abysmal outcomes.

We see differences in teacher effects and the effectiveness of teachers in how much they improve achievement. So there are levers that schools can pull to help address this problem. And what too frequently happens with this conversation about poverty is people just want to throw up their hands. The reality is poverty is an issue. It's an extremely challenging issue. But schools can do much more to address it than they do today.

GROSS: What can they do? What can schools do to address the problem of poverty?

Mr. ROTHERHAM: Sure. As I said earlier, they can be intentional about making sure the kids who come to school with the least are getting the most. So they're getting the most effective teachers. They're getting a rich, high-quality curriculum. They are supported in school. There is sort of rigorous intentionality. They get extra time. They get everything that they need to succeed to give them the best chance of succeeding. And that, what I just described, is really a mirror image -or the exact opposite, if you will - of what happens today.

Again, if you - from everything from how much money is spent on these schools to how they're staffed, these kids tend to get the least. And that's why we see the outcomes that we see. And sort of underneath sort of all the rhetoric about these various things, that's the problem that that we need to solve if we're serious about improving equity.

And, by the way, in a lot of these communities, we also have an insufficient supply of financial services, grocery stores, health care services. I mean, these are underserved communities in general, and they're underserved on education, as well. And on these other issues, well, you know, I think there's a general agreement - at least there's a general agreement sort of from the center-left to the left that the way to solve these problems is get those services in there. You know, make sure that people have access to those things.

Schools are so political, that we have this entirely different conversation. We should be having the exact same conversation: How do you open more good public schools in these communities? There's going to be charter schools. They can be district-run schools. They can be contract schools. There's a lot of ways to address that, but the problem is, right now, parents in those communities have too few choices.

GROSS: My guest is Andrew Rotherham, a consultant on education reform and education policy.

We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: We're talking about reforming the education system in America. My guest is Andrew Rotherham, a consultant on education reform and education policy, and a former member of the Virginia Board of Education. He's a partner at Bellwether Education, a non-profit organization working to improve educational outcomes for low-income students.

The Bush administration created No Child Left Behind. The Obama administration created Race to the Top. Both of those programs rely on testing to evaluate how teachers and schools are performing. How would you describe the difference between the two programs?

Mr. ROTHERHAM: So, No Child Left Behind was passed in 2001. It was basically a bipartisan effort to build on what had happened during the '90s with standards-based reform, but address some of the problems, particularly that states had set varying standards and there weren't a lot of consequences in it for schools that persistently, year after year, weren't doing well.

So No Child Left Behind was really about sort of prodding the laggard states. Race to the Top was about building on that, but instead of prodding laggards, it was about the rewarding the leaders, rewarding states that were either really doing avant-garde and really forward-looking things, or states that were willing to commit to do those things as part of the Race to the Top competition. And the points in Race to the Top was really - half were for sort of what you'd done, and half were for what you were committing to do. And so right now, you have 12 winners, and they're out there sort of trying to implement their plans. And I think you're seeing sort of varying degrees of success and challenges on that. And in a few years, we'll have a sense on how well that initiative worked and what we can learn and draw from it.

GROSS: I think for teachers, there's something very major in common about No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, and that is the emphasis on testing, on measuring by testing. And I think a lot of teachers feel that they are being forced to teach to the test, to teach so that kids do well on the test, and that it's limiting their creativity as teachers, and it's limiting what they can actually focus on.

Do you think that that's a legitimate complaint, judging from your experience and from your analysis of the data?

Mr. ROTHERHAM: Sure. There's some validity to that, of course. I think what you really see - and so let's just be clear on what No Child Left Behind requires. It requires annual tests in math and in language arts, reading in grades three through eight. Individual states do additional testing on top of that, local districts do additional testing. So in a lot of places, teachers are under a burden of too much testing, but it's important to sort of disentangle where that dole comes from. What the law requires is once a year in grades three through eight.

And the data from that is actually very valuable, and to the extent people want to have better accountability systems, want to have better ways of evaluating performance and so forth, that data is sort of a cornerstone for actually doing that.

What we're seeing - and this is a very sort of hard and complicated conversation that, unfortunately, is clouded by a lot of frankly, irresponsible rhetoric. A lot of schools struggle to deliver a really powerful instructional program for kids, and they struggled to do that before No Child Left Behind. Educational history in this country didn't start in 2001.

And so what you see is a lot of anxiety about the test. You see a lot of counterproductive strategies, drilling kids and so forth, cutting out subjects like social studies and so forth to focus on reading, when the best way - and research actually shows this. There's been studies on this. The best way to really teach kids in a rich way is to teach kids in a rich way.

The schools that don't worry about the tests, that actually focus on delivering a powerful curriculum and powerful instruction to kids - it shows up in the test scores, and they do okay. The schools that are struggling, it's because we have a lot of problems out there in terms of the capacity to really, at scale and by at scale, I mean across schools for all kids, across districts for all kids and across states for all kids, deliver really high-quality instruction. That's what showing up.

There's a whole bunch of things bound up in that, and it's creating a very contentious debate. Teachers have not been as nearly supported as they need to be in terms of reaching these standards. There's been more on the demand side than on the support side. They're understandably frustrated by that.

The rules have basically changed. If you came into education 25 years ago, even 20 years ago, what you're being asked to do now is radically different than what you were asked to do when you came in. The expectations have changed, and so forth. I mean, this is basically a very large industry that's in fairly rapid transformation. And so it's, you know, people are frustrated. They're understandably confused. They feel whipsawed. And again, I don't think policymakers have done enough to support teachers.

But underneath this, again, is the kernel of this problem, that when you have a system that produces eight percent of the kids getting out of college - low-income kids getting out of college by the time they're 24, something is wrong. And to the extent we focus only on shooting the messenger, we're missing a larger problem.

GROSS: There's a lot of criticism now of teachers unions and of tenure. From your experience, do you think that teachers unions and teacher tenure are part of the problem in education?

Mr. ROTHERHAM: Well, tenure's kind of a misnomer. What we're talking about with tenure is sort of a set of rules and regulations and due process proceedings and so forth for teachers who have been teaching after a certain period of time, and it varies from - you know, usually, it's in a neighborhood of a couple of years. So it's not tenure as we sort of think about it in terms of higher education. I mean, don't take my word for it. Randi Weingarten recently gave a talk where she was talking about some reforms at the AFT, which is this second-largest teachers union in the country.

GROSS: She's the head of the union.

Mr. ROTHERHAM: Right. She's the head of the American Federation of Teachers, and she was talking about some reforms. And Randi said, you know, in some places tenure's becomes a job for life. She told that to CBS. So, I mean, I would defer to that. And I think it takes on, again, as a lot of these things do, sort of an outsized importance. If you were to sort of abolish quote/unquote "tenure" today, our school system would not sort of experience some sort of a renaissance. These issues are all sort of a bound up part-and-parcel, and that's just one piece of it.

You know, teacher unions get blamed for a lot of things that aren't their fault. I mean, it is not the fault of the teachers unions that funding is so, you know, inequitable within states, for instance. In many ways, it would probably be worse without them.

I think if you really want to lay blame at their feet today, it would be are they doing enough to help us address this challenge and are they out in front enough in terms of addressing this challenge? And I would say right now, the answer is no. But they get blamed sort of disproportionately in the debate to their actual influence.

And I think if they were to sort of - if they were to go away tomorrow, there would be - a lot of people who would be disappointed, sort of, that - in terms of what that would actually - the changes that that would actually bring. So they're a challenge. In some places, they're leading and they're doing some interesting things. In other places, they're clearly in the way. But they're not the only challenge that we face, and they need to be seen sort of in that larger context.

GROSS: What would you like to see teachers unions do to be out front in education reform?

Mr. MATAR: I'd like to see them work to help us build more of a genuine profession. I mean, sort of this whole idea of industrial unionism, it really is at odds with sort of how really high-performing organizations that do that kind of work that schools do and how sort of professionals like that are going to organize themselves make decisions, govern themselves, and I'd like to see them sort of leaving that conversation, because we really don't hear a lot of talk about teaching as a profession. We don't yet treat teachers as professionals, either on the reward side or the risk side in what it means to be a professional. And they could meet that conversation.

GROSS: Does what you're saying translate, in a way, to we should treat teachers were professionally, attract the best teachers? Part of that is offering a professional salary. We're in a time now when the opposite is happening, I think, when states are looking for ways to cut back on teachers' salaries.

Mr. ROTHERHAM: Yeah, we should be offering - I mean, this is - you know, we have pursued a strategy in education over the last 30 years of more. We've hired more and more teachers rather than thinking about: Do you potentially hire fewer and pay them more? And so we're in a little bit in a box of our own creation.

Teachers do need to be paid more. They also need to be paid differently. And that's the second piece of this. We have to start differentiating salary much more, and performance pay sort of takes on this sort of outsized place in this debate.

When we talk about differentiation, it's around, sort of, what subjects do you teach? It is easier to find teachers in some subjects than others. We have acute shortages in math, science, special education, foreign language.

Where do you teach? Some schools are simply harder to staff than other schools. How can we differentiate and reward that? Other kinds of things - we talk about this in monetary terms, but professionals are rewarded in other fields in non-monetary ways, too - opportunities for professional growth, different kinds of training and so forth. We don't do any of those things at any scale for teachers. And those are sort of some of the basic aspects of being a professional.

So we have to pay, but it's also much more. And then with that comes this different kind of accountability, this different kind of risk that you have in professional work, and just the different way things are organized. Professionals, you're not organized around sort of contracts. We don't talk about contractual days and these kinds of things. These are the sorts of changes that have to happen. But again, they're controversial. It's really changing how things have been for a long time, and that's, you know, understandably contentious.

And - and this is the subject of a recent column I did for a Time - we don't know exactly. It's not as if there's a template out there, and if we could only apply it, we'd be better off. There's going to be a lot of innovation. There's going to be a lot of trial and error. We haven't done this and paid attention to this in education for so long. And so, you know, no one's going to get it right on the first stroke.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. ROTHERHAM: Well, I thank you for having me. I really appreciate it.

GROSS: Andrew Rotherham is a partner at Bellwether Education Partners and writes a column for Time.com. You can find links to his blogs on our website: freshair.npr.org.

Coming up, a clue to what shaped our TV critic David Bianculli's sense of humor. He reviews a new box set of the complete adventures of "Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends."

This is FRESH AIR.

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