Before Michael Bennet joined the U.S. Senate as a Democrat in January -- named by the Colorado governor to replace Ken Salazar, who became Secretary of the Interior -- he was Denver's public schools superintendent. He was also an outsider to education when he took that job in 2005, but quickly became known for his efforts to shake up Denver's worst-performing schools, expanding early childhood education and basing teacher pay on their accomplishments in the classroom, location, and special talents.
Although Bennet, 44, is not on the Senate education committee, he is known as one of Washington's leading voices on education reform. He and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have "had a lot of conversations over the months," he says, adding, "there are people on the Hill (with) committee responsibility who, like most of us, are very frustrated with the slow pace of change and the outcomes that we're seeing with our kids. To the extent that I can give them the perspective of somebody who's been on the receiving end of policies from Washington, I hope that will be useful." In an interview in his office, Bennet repeatedly drew several graphs to illustrate his points. The transcript that follows has been edited for clarity.
Q: Since 1983, when "A Nation at Risk" kicked off the reform movement in public education, there doesn't seem to have been substantial change. Why not?
A: There's a big difference between now and then in that we have a number of examples of schools that have been successful in the delivery of education, particularly to poor kids. What we haven't seen is anything approaching the kind of success that we would want at scale. So when you look at the achievement gap numbers, when you look at high-school graduation rates, all of that has basically stagnated in the United States. There are other countries that have made a substantial amount of progress in their outcomes since that report was released, so though we've stayed essentially the same, we're falling behind the rest of the world.
Q: You've said one of your gripes about the U.S. education system is that the incentives don't match the objectives. What do you mean?
A: We have not updated our theory of human capital, which is a fancy word for saying how do we attract and retain people to public education, since the labor market was one where women had two professional choices: being a nurse or being a teacher. We say to people, "We'd like you to come be a teacher, we imagine that you're going to teach "Julius Caesar" every year for the next 30 years, we're going to pay you a really terrible wage compared to what you could make doing almost anything else. ... The way most school districts and states pay teachers in this country (is) if you leave any time in the first 20 years, you leave with what you've contributed to your retirement system ... but if you stay for 30 years, you (get) a pension that's worth three times what your Social Security is worth.
No matter what else you want to do, you have to stay, (because) you've worked all these years just to get to that place. When you think that between 70 to 80 percent of what we spend on K-12 in this country is spent on compensation and this is the way that we spend it, you need to ask yourself, "Are we providing a set of incentives that actually makes sense?"
Q: You've obviously thought about how to keep good teachers.
A: Forty to 50 percent of teachers leave the profession in the first five years. And year after year after year we face chronic shortages in high-needs areas like math, science, special ed, English-language acquisition. High-poverty schools in urban and rural areas are constantly begging to try and find teachers and principals. There's not a harder job in the world than being a teacher, and there's not a more important job. And there's nothing you can do that's more compelling if you're in a school where the leadership is excellent, where the adults in the building have a commitment to the work and to making each other better at what they do, and where kids are being supported well. My view is, the reason why quality of scale has eluded us is that we have all of these obstacles in the way of people being able to unleash their creative potential. ... We've been so prescriptive at every level ... from the federal government to the state government to the school district level ... about what we should and shouldn't do that we've basically disempowered people closest to our kids.
Q: Accountability is such a buzzword in education these days. What's your view?
A: In general the Democratic Party in Washington since "A Nation at Risk" came out has been about spending more money for education, but the money that's been spent has not yielded the results we all would like. The leadership on the other side ... said, "Well, if we're going to spend this money, we need to hold people accountable for that expenditure." It shouldn't be surprising to anybody that in its first iteration the accountability system we came up with was an incredibly crude one.
If you're saying to people, "We're going to be a lot less prescriptive about everything and we're going to be much more focused on the what the outcomes are," but you don't have a system that measures outcomes in an intelligent way, it's going to be hard to convince people that they want to sign up for that. So what I have in mind is this: Our accountability system, which is based on tests and standards in 50 different states, asks essentially the wrong question, which is: How did this year's fourth-graders do compared to last year's fourth-graders? It's not even the same kids. We should be measuring how did this year's sixth-graders do compared to how they did as fifth-graders and as fourth-graders. (In Colorado), we'll take a child and find all the kids ... that have a statistically similar test history, and that forms a basis for us to say, "With this similar history, what we see is, this child has actually outperformed this huge number of people here." We can start to get a much deeper and richer picture of right direction/wrong direction. On a district or school level, you can start to look into this data and say, "What's different here?"
My hope is that with better accountability we'll say, "Here are the outcomes we'd like to see, we're going to equip you with tools to be able to get to those outcomes, but decisions over use of time, use of (money), human resources – those are decisions that should be made closer to kids rather than farther away." You ought to have the autonomy in the school as a unit to work collectively toward these objectives, and if you don't succeed, then we should intervene and say, "What do you need that you don't have? Is there a problem with the leadership in the building? Are there other issues that are idiosyncratic that need to be addressed?" It's very rarely a one-size-fits-all answer. The system we have right now is sort of the reverse of what I just described. If you read Education Week, you'll see the debate that says, "You'll have autonomy but first it has to be earned."
Q: Arne Duncan is offering states financial incentives to develop common standards. Are they a good idea?
A: The administration is committed to the idea of working with states to create a more useful set of standards to measure progress. If I were able to wave a magic wand, what I would say (is), "Look, one of the problems is that we have is too many standards at every grade level and we're testing too many things. We're exhausting our teachers; we're exhausting our kids." For accountability purposes, I think what we need is to reduce the standards at every grade level substantially. We should benchmark those standards against international norms so we can stop kidding ourselves about whether we're actually being rigorous or not. And then we should design assessments that align with those standards.
A place where I'm sometimes in disagreement with a lot of reformers is that I'm not sure it makes a lot of sense to inform instruction that's going on in the classroom, because we're going to be clumsy about it. There's a distinction in my mind between accountability and performance. What we did in Denver is (set up) the school performance framework that did everything I just said, but we had a whole other set of things called benchmark assessments that were interim assessments the teachers could use to inform their instruction (and) were not used for accountability. I think the accountability system we have ought to be a way to check right direction/wrong direction. The idea that from Washington we're going to be able to materially inform people's instruction is a little bit of an illusion, and I'm not sure we should be trying to do it anyway. And I think there's usefulness to having some distance between the accountability framework and the tools that people use every day to (give) quality instruction to our kids. It's not a huge distinction, but it is a distinction.
Q: What was your biggest surprise or stumbling block as a superintendent?
A: When you say what's surprising, it's that we don't yet have a politics that's informed by the kind of urgency that informs all kinds of other things, like whether or not the mayor of a city picked up the trash and whether or not he picked up the snow and whether or not we're filling our potholes. And we've got to get beyond a place where we expect failure from our school districts and into a place where what we're saying to ourselves is that it's not the fault of the bureaucrats or the fault of the unions or the fault of the families or the fault of the kids or any of that, and say instead that the greatest public good we have is our education system. We as communities need to own that and say, "How are these outcomes reflecting our values?" And if it's not terribly well, which is the case in a lot of places, then a question is, "What are we going to do to fix it?"
When I was superintendent, a lot of people said, "Well, aren't you afraid of unintended consequences of the things that you're doing?" And I said, "For the purposes of this conversation, I'm going to assume that the consequences of the existing system are not the intended consequences." To me the burden of proof is not on the people who want to change the system, the burden of proof is on people who want to keep it the same. The objective is to give kids a real chance here. And that is what everybody wants. We have a system that in a lot of ways owes its essential design to colonial America and to a labor market that discriminated against women, and in the 21st century that simply won't do.
What makes me so optimistic is that I think the political currents are changing here, because people are recognizing that in a world where the competition is as fierce as it is and in a world where the economy has bound people together as closely and as tightly as it has, these outcomes simply can't sustain the way of life that we all want to have as Americans or a legacy that we want to provide our kids.