Examining Education Reform: Study.com Speaks with Dr. Charles Kerchner

Dr. Charles Kerchner is a professor in the School of Educational Studies at Claremont Graduate University who has done extensive research on education policy and reform. He blogs about these topics for The Huffington Post and the Silicon Valley Education Foundation's Thoughts on Public Education (TOP-Ed). Study.com recently caught up with him to talk about his research and get his expert opinion on the current climate of education reform.

By Megan Driscoll

Dr. Charles Kerchner

Study.com: Please tell us about your educational and professional background, and how it led you to teach in the School of Educational Studies at Claremont Graduate University.

Dr. Charles Kerchner: University teaching is my third career. I was a journalist, mostly at the St. Petersburg Times, one of the great liberal, independent newspapers in the United States. Then I was a bureaucrat for a while at the Illinois Board of Higher Education and City Colleges of Chicago while pursuing my doctorate at Northwestern. I don't think I showed extraordinary promise as a bureaucrat.

Study.com: How did you originally become interested in education, and what are your current areas of expertise?

CK: I got interested in education the old fashioned way: A friend of mine offered me a job. During my graduate work, I became interested in teacher and faculty unions, wrote my dissertation about them and have been following that line of research for more than 30 years, including several research projects and three books. Overall, my academic interest is at the intersection of organizational behavior, political science and education policy, with a little labor law and economics thrown in.

Study.com: A couple of years ago you completed a study on education reform in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Can you tell our readers more about the study?

CK: There's a short answer and a long answer to this question. The short answer is that the research leading up to Learning from L.A.: Institutional Change in American Public Education (Harvard Education Press) started out as a case study of education reform in Los Angeles. It ended up being the story of how the early 20th century progressive era institution of public education had been dismantled in L.A., and, we argue, elsewhere in the country. The reforms, we believe, are essentially auditions of a new institutional form.

The longer answer is in the book and on my web site, www.mindworkers.com.

Study.com: Were you able to make any policy recommendations for effective reform based on your study, and if so, can you outline those ideas?

CK: At the end of LLA, my co-authors and I concluded that the schools were in a state of permanent crisis, rolling forward from one reform audition to the next without anything sticking. But each of the reforms had similar ideas. So, we asked ourselves whether there were some public policy levers that could be pulled to move beyond bouncing from one crisis to the next. We came up with a handful of suggestions. I'll mention just two of them.

First, we thought that there should be some way to decentralize operations without totally breaking up the district, and we came up with the idea of creating legislation that would allow groups of schools to become self-managing. That hasn't happened in the way we had thought, but recent political events have moved the district in that direction. The school board passed a 'Public School Choice' resolution that put low performing schools and newly constructed school buildings into a request-for-proposal process. Groups of teachers and administrators, the existing district, charter school operators and others could write proposals to run these schools. That process is now in its third round. In response to this, United Teachers Los Angeles and others strongly supported the idea of Pilot Schools, essentially in-district charters. More than a dozen of these have been opened this year, and everyone is watching for the results.

Second, we advocate breaking down the batch-processing mode of schooling with an Internet-based learning infrastructure available directly to students and their families: Lots of data, communication directly with parents, collaboration among students and among teachers, online study helps, open-source texts and lessons and the ability to take tests when a student is ready. Make it student and family friendly and incentivize collaboration among teachers to build and test out best practices with real students. I've come to believe in the importance of shifting educational politics away from naming-and-blaming and toward capacity building.

Study.com: Your study was focused on Los Angeles area schools. Do you think that your findings could be generalized to other parts of the country, and if so, in what ways?

CK: The politics of Los Angeles are not those of New York and Chicago, the fount of school reform policy these days. But in looking across the country, I think that the basic message of the book rings true. Most of what the Progressive Era reformers brought to public education has been overturned. The idea of high standards for all runs counter to the early 20th century notion of wildly varying expectations for students. The idea that education was thought to be apolitical seems remarkably quaint to us now, but it was a keystone of progressive era belief. And slowly the idea that public education was a vertically integrated hierarchy is being replaced by the notion of more modern, networked forms of organization and expertise.

Study.com: With high-profile programs like Race to the Top and the popularity of films like Waiting for Superman, education reform is a hot topic in American discourse these days. Are there any major education reform programs or plans that you support or to which you are especially opposed?

CK: I think we need to be a little bit humble about our public policy pronouncements. Waiting for Superman's 'we've cracked the code' assertions should ring a hubris alert in every intelligent viewer. Framing public education as if it was a Grade B Western movie with broad-brush heroes and villains doesn't help the public policy debate very much. The idea that there are no good public schools in New York, or that all charter schools are good and that educators are inherently evil and self-serving is patent nonsense.

I think the jury is still out on 'Race for the Top.' It has been lauded as highly successful in influencing state education policies using only a little federal money. Only time will tell how much of that is permanent. I must say, I don't understand how Secretary Duncan plans to build a national constituency for reform using a program that even in its design rewarded only 10 percent of the states. I fear that the time spent on 'Race for the Top' will make it more rather than less difficult to get substantial changes in ESEA/No Child Left Behind, which badly needs overhauling. Given the changes in Congress, the Department is going to spend part of the next two years just defending its own existence.

Study.com: What do you think are the strengths and weaknesses of the current Department of Education's approach to education reform, and what would you do differently?

CK: I agree with a lot that the Department is doing. They realize that we as a country need to make some big changes in schooling.

The thing that puzzles me most about the Department is its apparent war on teachers. That isn't intentional, I am told, but I don't know what other conclusion one can draw from broad-brush policy positions such as not paying for master's degrees. There are only about 1.3 million teachers with M.A.s. They all shelled out their time and tuition money to get advanced degrees, play by the rules and advance their careers. If this were a Republican administration, the teachers would be at the barricades. As it is, I would not count on a lot of teacher enthusiasm in 2012.

Let me add a bit of an aside: It's always a mistake to attempt to separate teachers from teacher unions. Teachers may also have differences with their unions, but they want people who will advocate for them.

I am plenty critical of teacher unions. They've lost the battle for public opinion and failed to organize themselves around quality teaching in ways that would mark them as a professional rather than industrial union. Internal reforms have been too stunted and too slow. But teacher unions have done something that the commentators miss entirely: They brought into the house of labor the largest group of college-educated workers in the country, particularly college-educated women. Teachers have a lot in common with other educated workers, and I believe that the next generation of union organizing will seize on that commonality in health care and elsewhere in the private sector.

Study.com: You have blogged about education periodically for The Huffington Post and the Silicon Valley Education Foundation's Thoughts on Public Education website. How do you feel that blogging contributes to the national discourse on education, and in what ways has blogging influenced your own thinking about education reform?

CK: I started blogging because I thought it would be an interesting way to participate in the public policy process. As noted earlier, I began my working life as a journalist and thought it would be a good way to bookend my career. I don't know whether I will make a difference, but I think that electronic journalism will. It opens up the public policy debate to a much broader participation, and arguably to a broader audience.

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