Do we need a “virtual” education ministry?

The conventional wisdom among reformers today is that “we know what to do, but we don’t have
the political will to do it.” I’d frame it differently: We increasingly have good policies in
place, but we don’t know how to turn them into reality. And because most policies
aren’t self-implementing, we have to solve the problem of “delivery” if reform is going to add up to more than a hill of beans.

Those of us at the Fordham Institute (and our partners at the
Center for American Progress) have been making the case that the governance structures of U.S. public education impede our
ability to do implementation right. Local school districts—with their elected school boards, susceptibility to interest group
capture, and lack of scale—aren’t always inclined or well suited to turn legislative reforms into
real change on the ground. I’ve wondered out
lou
d whether we should
abolish school districts and run the whole kit and caboodle out of state
departments of education.

Think of it as a
private-sector department of education.

That’s still a tantalizing idea, but probably too radical for anyone to
take seriously in the immediate future. So here’s an
alternative: How about creating a “virtual" education ministry that school districts would choose to associate with voluntarily?
(Creating more than one of these entities would even better.) Think of it as a
private-sector department of education, but run much more efficiently and with
higher-quality staff than the government ever could manage.

Such a ministry would be akin to the comprehensive school reform
organizations of the 1990s (such as Success for All, Modern Red Schoolhouse,
Expeditionary Learning, etc.) or the charter management organizations of the
2000s (Aspire, Achievement First, Uncommon Schools, etc.), except that it would
focus on “whole district reform” rather than “whole school reform.” (This would also distinguish
it from myriad other organizations that provide piecemeal consulting or solutions
to school districts. The intent here is to be soup-to-nuts.)

Picture a non-profit organization governed by a prestigious board with
a range of experience and expertise. Its mission would be to build the capacity
of interested school districts in order to prepare their students for college
and career readiness, as defined by the Common Core. It would be particularly
attractive for small- to medium-sized districts that don’t have the scale to develop their own curricula or engage in their
own research and evaluation (in other words, most of the school districts in
the nation).

This “ministry” would tackle the following responsibilities (as bona fide
ministries of education do in most European and Asian countries):

  • The development and continuous
    improvement of a curriculum aligned to the Common Core
    . This curriculum would
    incorporate the best available resources—from textbooks, online
    learning materials, etc.—into a coherent scope and
    sequences for every major subject in grades K-12.
  • The creation and management of
    a robust instructional support system
    . Such a system would incorporate curricular materials,
    lesson plans, videos of master teachers, interim assessments, social tools for
    professional interaction among teachers, etc. (The “ministry” could very well buy this, rather
    than build it, as several vendors are working on this sort of solution.) The
    ministry would have personnel on staff to facilitate conversations among
    teachers, answer questions, identify promising practices, load “master videos,” and otherwise ensure that a
    true professional community develops online that stays focused on effective
    classroom practice.
  • The development and continuous
    improvement of
    standard
    operating procedures.
    What are the best approaches to classroom management? How
    to build a strong school culture focused on achievement? What goes into an
    effective Response to Intervention system? What are the best ways to serve students with
    certain disabilities? What staffing models are most cost-effective? What do
    strong programs for English language learners look like? In elementary school,
    how often should students take “specials” (art, music, P.E., library, etc.)? What do model student
    schedules look like in middle school and high school?
  • The development of a virtual
    HR office.

    This office would publish guidelines on best practices around teacher and
    administrator recruitment and selection (including offering screening tools,
    examinations, etc. for schools to use); model collective bargaining agreements;
    model teacher evaluation forms (and ancillary materials); and training for
    school leaders in inducting, managing, and, when necessary, terminating staff,
    among other topics.
  • The creation of a robust
    research and development function
    . This R&D capacity would be essential to ground as
    many decisions as possible in sound research, as well as feedback from
    on-the-ground educators throughout the network. It would stay busy (via staff
    or contractors) answering practical questions. Which parts of the national
    curriculum are working well and which aren’t, and why? Which
    instructional strategies are leading to strong achievement growth, and deserve
    to be highlighted in the instructional support system? How should the “standard operating procedures”
    be revised over time? For example, what new evidence is available about
    effective classroom management strategies? What is current “best practice” in the treatment of autistic
    students, or those with developmental delays? How should the screening tools
    for principals and teachers be fine-tuned, based on the latest data? How can
    the network’s school model be made as
    cost-effective as possible? This shop would also be responsible for screening
    the myriad vendors that want their products to be part of the ministry’s school model. (More on that below.)
  • Accreditation of teacher and
    administrator preparation programs aligned with the ministry
    s
    model
    . It
    would recruit schools of education and alternate-route providers into a network
    of programs dedicated to preparing educators for the ministry’s approach. Candidates would be screened according to the
    ministry’s criteria (based on rigorous evidence);
    fieldwork would take place in participating school districts; and coursework
    would be tightly aligned with the curriculum and standard operative procedures
    of the network’s schools.

    When this “virtual education
    ministry” is built out, then, participating schools and school districts
    would be immersed in a coherent system that includes teacher selection and
    preparation; a common curriculum and related (and robust) instructional
    supports; detailed guidance on key instructional issues, such as those related
    to special education; and support for school leaders on essential management
    tasks, especially evaluating their teachers. And because the “ministry” wouldn’t live in the governmental sector, it wouldn’t face all the impediments that make it so hard for school
    districts or state departments of education to recruit and retain high-quality
    staff.

    Imagine if the network grows to serve one-fifth of the nation’s student population, or 10 million children. Tool-builders could
    petition the “ministry” to include their
    solutions in its instructional support system or standards operating
    procedures. If a product is approved—because of its compelling
    evidence—the ministry could encourage all of its participating school
    districts to purchase it, perhaps at a discount
    rate through the ministry itself. This would facilitate the “scaling up” process dramatically.

    Is
    it possible that such a “virtual education ministry”
    (or two or three such entities) could provide all the benefits of a national or
    state-driven education system, without the political risks and backlash? Let me
    know what you think.

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