A weekend interview with ...
... Roy Romer, former Colorado governor and LA schools superintendent. Romer lately has been working with Ed in '08 to make education issues a priority in the presidential campaign. He spoke with reporter Ron Matus while attending an education conference in Orlando.
Obviously you've spent a lot of time on this campaign, getting the message out that education is important. But it still isn't on the front burner as an issue. Why isn't it getting more traction?
We have made some gains but it's not on the front burner. You're absolutely right. The issues on the front burner are the war, the economy, health care, global warming and energy. Education, if you do exit polls, it's not one of the issues. So we have made progress because candidates now are discussing it more than they did before, but not yet enough.
Now let's go to the question of why? Couple reasons. One, there is a general malaise in America that we're doing better than we think. They think we're doing better than we are. In Iowa, when I went there, I spoke to the Rotary Club in Des Moines, and I would remind them that they rate their eighth graders as 65 percent proficient. Then I'd remind them that NAEP, the national test, would rate their eighth graders at 35 percent proficient. And I would remind them that if they compared them to Singapore, they're 25 percent proficient. But they think they're doing okay in their local suburban school. The urban schools, they know they're in trouble.
So, one, the general public just doesn't have an awareness of how far we're falling behind and how far their child is behind compared to other eighth graders in the world.
The second issue is, it's not comfortable for candidates for federal offices to come to town and talk about I'm going to fix education because of state's rights. They fear that they're encroaching upon a territory that states and local governments have primary responsibility for. And it is a shared responsibility, frankly. I don't want them to federalize education. But I just notice that candidates are hesitant. They'll talk about Medicare because we legislate on that area. They'll talk about global warming and all that. But on education, they are hesitant because they don't know how to engage that conversation and to implement what it is they're talking about. And we've got to work on that.
They could at least talk about things like No Child. They're not even doing that.
I understand what you're saying. And when you push me as to why, so far in campaigns people often turn to sound bites. And in education the sound bite that's worked the best, that gets the most applause, is anti-test. You follow? Anti-test. So anti-test, No Child forces us to do more tests. It's shallow thinking. Shallow. I used to train people to fly airplanes. We had to have tests to see whether you were safe. You'd train a person on navigation, then you'd give them a test. And God, if they can't navigate the plane, they're going to kill people, know what I mean? Tests are important to verify whether you've learned what it is that you are supposed to learn.
So how do you turn this around? How do you get more people thinking about education.
I think right now you got to find a way to access their minds. Economics is really the greatest anxiety of the modern American family.
I think a candidate needs to go to town and say I want to talk to you about your future income to this family and to these youngsters who are sitting with us around this table. We all know that the jobs are going to be global and competitive. You need to know that your eighth grader is two years behind in math from the eighth graders in the highest industrial nations. Therefore you need to know that if that continues, then 10 years from now when they're seeking a job -- we're now 25 th from the top of 30 nations in math for 15-year-olds. Twenty fifth. That means that when we go to get a job, we're going to be 25 th in line. Or you're going to get a job with lower pay.
Now the family's going to be sitting there saying, "Hadn't thought about that." They need to think about that the only way to increase income in this world for most families is increase skills and knowledge. And they've got to acquire it for their children and sometimes even for the adults.
You're a Democrat. Rightly or wrongly, a lot of folks who are here tend to classified as conservative Republicans. So why are you here?
One, our job in ED in '08 is to foster these types of discussions from a whole variety of opinions. So this is what we want to happen. So to encourage this, we're participating.
Two, Jeb Bush personally has got an aggressive edge on educational reform. Now I differ with him on some things, but I agree with him on more things. And this is what life is. I go down and meet with Newt, with Newt's groups. I don't agree with a lot with Newt, but I do agree with some things. So you work where you can with people you can work with. Jeb is on the right message when he is saying, "The crisis is really a crisis." And I agree with the way he describes it.
The elements of getting solutions really needs to focus on better teaching. I agree with that. There are many things we need to do to get better teachers but one of them is getting differential pay. I believe it is appropriate to re-examine how we hire teachers. We got to re-look at seniority. We got to re-look at everybody in lock step on the pay scale. And we got to re-look at how we get those who don't belong in the system out in a fair and humane way. And right now, it doesn't work.
I know it. I ran a system in which if you had someone who was psychologically disturbed, it took me three years to get them out of the system and I had to put them in an office and pay them for three years, you know, so they wouldn't hurt children. And even then, I sometimes couldn't get it done because the courts would not allow me to do it. Well, he's (Jeb's) on to that. So there are issues I agree.
There are issues where I differ. He believes in choice. I believe in public school choice. I believe parents should have a choice within a public school system. I believe in charters. I'm a very strong proponent of charters. But I would not finance private schools with public dollars. But I differ with him on that. But look, I agree with him on 90 percent, differ with him on 10 or whatever.
What do you think of Florida's accountability system?
I don't know the system in detail, so I can't talk about it any detail. But I can talk about the concepts. I think the concept of accountability is absolutely needed. I think the grading of schools is a good idea. You just need to be as accurate as possible. And I don't know how Florida does here, but you ought not use a single high stakes test to grade a kid or a school.
That's what we've done up to this point. But that's changing for our high schools.
But there's a more complex way in which you need to look at it. Also, if you're going to do it, you look at progress over time. But look, you need to do this. And there's no perfect way. And you shouldn't shy back because it's not perfect.
What do you think of the performance pay plan in Florida?
I think the approach of dealing with learning achievement through data scores is a piece of it. And evaluation is a piece of it. Now how you do that evaluation can be varied. You're doing it one way. Principal only? I can imagine a system where you have a principal and others that are participating in that evaluation that could be equally as effective. But I think that's a good start.
Why are you working on this education campaign?
This (education reform) is the most important work in America . And it is very difficult to do. And that's again why I admire Jeb Bush saying, "Hey this is where I'm going to spend my time." That's part of the answer for why I'm down here. You identify with people who, even though this is difficult territory, say hey I'm going to work that territory. We have to find a way to work together even though we differ.
To see the Gradebook's interview with Romer from a year ago, click here.