SULLIVAN: Odds for education reform are better

State Rep. Mary Ann SullivanIf there were a full public accounting of our education system’s failure, inadequacy and resulting costs, there would be widespread outrage. It’s morally and economically vital that we change the status quo.

For education advocates on both sides of the aisle, the 2011 legislative session presents the best opportunity in years to make transformative change. It remains to be seen, however, whether legislators will seize this rare chance to catapult our state forward, or dig in their heels, stick their fingers in their ears, and choose partisan politics over progress.

As someone who has been in the trenches of education reform for more than 20 years, I head into this session cautiously optimistic that the moon and stars may finally be aligned over the Statehouse.

It’s no secret that our public schools are not working as well as they should for many students, while completely failing others. For those our schools fail—mainly low-income students and students of color—prospects for productive, happy and successful lives are grim.

The societal cost of failure is staggering, too. Our ability to educate all students to higher levels will determine whether the United States can maintain its position in an increasingly competitive global economy.

Here are a few of the things we need to do now:

• Hold schools and districts accountable for how well they do their jobs. Chronically failing schools and districts need to be shut down or restructured. Mediocre schools and districts need to lose the “good enough” mentality. Our top schools need to reach new heights, because even our best schools are not preparing students to compete with the world’s top students.

• Train leaders differently. Successful school leaders need to understand how to use data, how to manage a high-performance staff, and how to direct dollars most effectively. State policy must support, not obstruct, this new generation of school leaders.

• Improve teacher quality. Research shows effective teachers are the most important variable schools can control to enhance student performance. We must not only recruit stronger candidates on the front end, but also prepare them better during their pre-service training. We also must ensure that they have the support they need to excel once they’re in the classroom. Most important, we must create fair, meaningful and firm ways of evaluating teachers to reduce the number of ineffective educators while retaining and rewarding high-quality teachers.

• Expand choice and innovation through charter schools, magnet schools and technology while improving existing schools. Right now, throughout the state, there are schools successfully educating even the most disadvantaged students to high levels. Let’s identify what works and find ways to do more of it.

Implementing such bold and controversial proposals will be challenging.

To garner the support needed for successful implementation, we must include all stakeholders in the discussion, remain open to new ideas, and avoid rushing to judgment before all the details are known.

Too often in the past, the key players in education have divided into their predictable camps, with loyalists from both parties falling into lockstep. The urgency of the task before us should make all legislators rethink this strategy.

Our president and governor have issued a call to action. As a Democrat, I’m proud of the thoughtful and aggressive reform agenda that President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have set for our country.

This session, I will support policies consistent with their goals: accountability with consequences, effective teachers in every classroom, pay for performance, and more choice and innovation in public education.

It is my fervent hope that others in my caucus will join me in working toward these ends. My equally fervent hope is that those who control the education agenda will resist the urge to score ideological points at the risk of alienating those who will ultimately determine its success or failure. •


Sullivan is serving her second term in the Indiana General Assembly. She is a consultant with the Center of Excellence in Leadership of Learning at the University of Indianapolis, which is dedicated to improving student achievement, strengthening the quality of life, and encouraging economic development throughout Indiana. Sullivan has a master’s degree in public affairs from Indiana University. She and her husband, Brian Sullivan, have three adult children.•

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