An independent task force on U.S. Education Reform and National Security brought together by the Council on Foreign Relations released a report in March that found that "the United States' failure to educate its students leaves them unprepared to compete and threatens the country's ability to thrive in a global economy and maintain its leadership role."
These findings may be disconcerting, but they're not new. Politicians, policymakers, educators, parents, and even students have long understood that far too many American students leave high school without having mastered the essential knowledge and skills they need to succeed in college and on the job.
There is no shortage of reforms put forth by earnest education advocates eager to improve student achievement. But who is right?
Of course, there is no shortage of reforms put forth by earnest education advocates eager to improve student achievement. Many believe that small classes are our best route to closing the achievement gap. Others feel similarly about setting clear and rigorous standards. And still others push for accountability reforms that use results from assessments to hold students, teachers, and leaders accountable.
Who is right?
There is a saying among high performing schools that there is no 100 percent solution to helping students learn. Instead, there are a hundred 1 percent solutions that add up to big results.
The same is true in the world of education policy. Our best hope to improve student achievement is to find the right mix of policies that, taken together, have the greatest potential to drive achievement.
Fortunately, over the past two decades, we've seen tremendous education innovation and have a sense of what reforms hold the greatest promise. While we can't do everything at once, we can learn from the most successful gap-closing public, charter, and private schools and districts. Looking to the best among them, there are four policy principles that can lay the foundation for the educational improvement and innovation we need to once again lead the world:
The power to lead.
Much attention has been paid lately to teachers. This is unsurprising given that research consistently shows that an individual outstanding teacher can have a lasting impact on her student's long-term achievement - an impact that lasts well beyond the years they've worked together.
There are too many outstanding teachers who are islands of excellence.
That said, there are too many outstanding teachers who are islands of excellence. These teachers can do amazing things, but they alone cannot transform a school community. To ensure all students get a great education, schools need to be led by transformative leaders who can set clear goals and chart a path to reaching them. And these leaders have to be given the power to lead—to hire the best team for their students, to reward the best teachers, and to decide which teachers should be laid off or fired, particularly in times of financial strain.
Setting uniform, high standards.
One thing is clear: The only hope we have for students to achieve at equally high levels is to ensure that all students are held to equally rigorous standards. For too long, the expectations for students of color and those who come from disadvantaged families were far lower than the expectations to which we held students from middle class and affluent families. We have no hope of closing the achievement gap unless all students, regardless of their ZIP code, are held to the same rigorous standards.
Tying accountability to results.
Setting clear standards is virtually meaningless if those do little more than adorn classroom bookshelves. In order for them to have traction, expectations need to be aligned to curriculum, instruction, and assessment. And student performance—and performance gains—on formative and summative assessments need to be used not only to guide planning and instruction, but also hold students, teachers and leaders accountable.
Perhaps the biggest advantage of accountability-driven reforms is that state and local leaders can give teachers the freedom to actually teach—to plan their lessons and to use the materials and pedagogy that they think will best help students reach the goals they've set. Because teachers are the front-line educators who know the students best, they need this flexibility and autonomy. Too often, policies seek to dictate how teachers teach. It's appropriate to set goals (standards) and to ask teachers to ensure students reach those goals, but they then need the flexibility (and support) to help students meet them.
In isolation, none of these policies will transform our schools. But used as a starting point and combined with additional reforms developed in the years ahead, they can jump-start innovation, allow flexibility, and ultimately drive student achievement so that America can regain its leadership position in the world.
This post was originally published as an op-ed in the Fredericksburg (VA) Free Lance-Star.