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Bush and Duncan form alliance for kids

• Mike Thomas

Now if only we could get the education reformers to work on the fiscal cliff.

I haven’t taken a poll but would guess there are as many Democrats as Republicans at the 5th Annual National Summit on Education reform.

Top speakers included Jeb Bush and Condi Rice for the Republicans; Arne Duncan and John Podesta for the Democrats.

A movement begun by a handful of conservative revolutionaries has become mainstream. The center right and the center left are finding their mutual middle. That convergence was very much on display at the Summit. Comments by Duncan and Bush were almost interchangeable.

And as you listen to the speeches to get the big picture, then sit in workshops and strategy sessions to see the data and politics close-up, you appreciate how crucial this alliance will be over the next three years.

This is when most of the nation will transition to the Common Core State Standards. Not only are they much more rigorous than most state standards, they will come with more in-depth assessments. That means test scores will drop considerably, which invariably will cause a backlash against the standards and against the tests.

Duncan and Bush both warned about the inevitable backlash when results from the first batch of Common Core assessments are released.

Common Core probably is the most discussed topic at the summit as states face a massive challenge in training thousands of teachers, and setting up the digital technology to handle the new assessments. The logistics of this are overwhelming.

So will be the payoff in a few years when students start meeting the higher standards. But this will entail a lot of states staying the course during what could be a rocky transition. Duncan noted that an unintended consequence of No Child Left Behind was that states created weak standards and assessments to increase passing rates.

Retreat becomes the preferred option in a political environment.

Such challenges are why the bi-partisan coalition building around reform is so critical.

Many on the left wing of the Democrats remain beholden to traditional public schools and balk at high-stakes assessments, largely because of the political clout of the teacher unions. Many on the right wing of the Republican Party remain skeptical of Common Core, largely because it has the support of the federal government.

The left-center and right-center coalition must hold reforms together for the next few years until the benefits of the changes can be measured on NAEP assessments, remedial rates and so on.

And when that happens, the focus on what kids need will outweigh the agenda of various adult interest groups.

About the author

Mike Thomas @MikeThomasTweet

Mike Thomas serves in the communications department, writing editorials and speeches. Prior to joining the Foundation, Mike worked for more than 30 years as a journalist with Florida Today and the Orlando Sentinel. He has written investigative projects, magazine feature stories, humor pieces, editorials and local columns. He won several state and national awards, and was named a finalist in the American Society of New Editors’ Distinguished Writing Award for Commentary/Column Writing in 2010. As a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel, he wrote extensively about education reform, becoming one of its chief advocates in the Florida media. Mike graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in political science and journalism. His wife is a teacher and he has two children in public schools. Contact Mike at