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Education reformers made bold strides in 2010, but what’s next for 2011?

December 30, 2010 posted by Michelle Rhee

In almost 20 years of working in education, I’ve spent a lot of time wondering why this subject was not the most important topic in America — in debate, budgeting and city planning, the voting booth... Somehow it always fell near the bottom of the list. Just three years ago, when I held one of the first press conferences for the D.C. Public Schools, a reporter explained the low press interest with the argument that education didn’t make the front page, sell newspapers, or drive TV ratings up.

I was thrilled to enter 2010 believing that things were about to change. When a reporter asked me to make a prediction for the year, I said this would be the year that education would become a hot topic for the first time in public debate, with more conversation than ever about human capital, merit pay, collective bargaining, and effective teacher evaluation systems.

Finally, in 2010, education moved closer to center stage. More and more people became willing to look closely at the importance of this work, put children first, and change the policies that have been chipping away at student achievement over the years. More people are speaking up and they are no longer willing to look the other way.

Also in 2010, forward-thinking cities have been the first to create groundbreaking new teacher contracts that compensate effective educators for their impact on student achievement and enable districts to swiftly remove ineffective educators from the classroom.

And in 2010 President Obama and Arne Duncan brought competition back to the way states are funded in education through the Race to the Top initiative. To be eligible to receive a piece of the $4 billion pie, states had to move quickly to implement aggressive reforms such as pay for performance systems, better professional development programs for teachers, and the use of real data about students’ skills to drive instruction and decision making.

Hollywood has helped too. Kudos to filmmakers like Davis Guggenheim, whose documentary Waiting for "Superman" I think should be up for an Oscar. He made us take a hard look at the lack of choice many parents have and the ramifications on families when they have to send their children to failing public schools. We want to be able to say that every American child has access to the American dream, but we can’t say it until we fix the problems he raises in the film.

I’ve also changed part of my philosophy on education reform this year. In January I believed we could separate politics and special interests from the work of public schools, and this belief changed after Mayor Fenty of D.C. lost re-election in November. This is a man who took the strongest stance imaginable to quickly and aggressively reform the failing school system. He put students before politics in all his decisions about schools and the city, and he lost in large part for doing so.

Entering 2011 with StudentsFirst, I know more than I did before that election. We may not be able to remove politics and special interests from the way we run our schools, but we can counter the special interests that have protected the status quo with an equally powerful force. We can also support the politicians who are courageously leading real change in education.

2010 saw education become the top priority among voters in D.C. and a higher priority for everyone. With the help of reformers, filmmakers, media organizations beginning to tackle the tough issues, and, most important, educators and students determined to make our schools excellent, 2010 was a turning point in K-12 education in this country.

In 2011, we have to act together. We built a great deal of momentum in 2010, but we can’t be complacent if we’re going to see student achievement rise in 2011. There is no better time than now. The children in school today will be the first generation of Americans who are less well educated than their parents.

November’s elections brought in new mayors, governors, senators, and congressmembers across the country. If they haven’t already, they will soon release their detailed plans for public education. I hope you will read those plans, be clear about what you expect from the leaders voted in to do the job, and hold them accountable for delivering results in student achievement.

To our members, I am grateful and proud to have you with me and the staff of StudentsFirst as we enter the New Year. I hope you all are having a peaceful and happy holiday, because we have a lot of work to do together when our vacations are over! With your help in 2011, we'll be on our way to transforming public education in America, giving all children the skills and knowledge necessary to compete in the years to come.