Unsolved problems and signs of hopeas 2012 dawns

The
central problem besetting K-12 education in the United States today is still—as
for almost thirty years now—that far too few of our kids are learning nearly
enough for their own or the nation’s good. And the gains we’ve made, though
well worth making, have been meager (and largely confined to math), are trumped
by gains in other countries, and evaporate by the end of high school.

This
much everybody knows. But unless we want to live out the classic definition of
insanity (“doing the same thing over again with the expectation that it will
produce a different result”), we need to focus laser-like on the barriers that
keep us from making major-league gains. If we don’t break through (or
circumnavigate) these barriers, academic achievement will remain stagnant.

The
barriers-to-gains that I’m talking about here are not cultural issues,
parenting issues, demographic issues, or other macro-influences on educational
achievement. Those are all plenty real, but largely beyond the reach of public
policy. No, here I refer to obstacles that competent leaders and bold policymakers
could reduce or eradicate if they were serious.

How much
difference would that really make? It’s possible, of course, that we’re
pursuing the wrong core strategies. Maybe standards-based reform has exhausted
its potential (more on this next week from Fordham). Perhaps choice and
competition really cannot lift all boats. Possibly technology is overrated,
alternate certification can never amount to much, teacher quality is doomed to
mediocrity, principals don’t truly want authority, etc.

Could be.
But from where I sit, the basic strategies aren’t ill-conceived. Rather,
they’ve been stumped, stymied, and constrained by formidable barriers that are
more or less built into the K-12 system as we know it.

Those
barriers aren’t accidents. They’ve been erected by adult interests,
bureaucratic routine, structural rigidity, and political stalemate. And they
function to keep anything in education from changing very much. Eight such
barriers are especially troublesome. Uninterrupted, they are likely to keep us
from making major gains. One ought not, however, despair. On several fronts,
promising interruptions and interrupters are emerging. Whether they can muster
what it will take to bring down the barriers remains unknown.

First
and foremost is the archaic governance
of K-12 education. I’ve written elsewhere about this problem, but it’s so fundamental and ubiquitous that we tend not even to notice it, much less
to think that anything could be done about it. Instead, we take for granted
(like it or not) that we’re stuck forever with local control in the form of
school districts, separate from the rest of government and run by school boards
that are particularly vulnerable to “capture” by adult interests, as well as
with a marble cake of federal, state and local decisions, regulations and
funding streams.

There
are beginning to be exceptions, however, that illustrate what could be
possible. Mayoral control of the schools in D.C., New York,
Chicago, and
several other major cities is one example. State-operated “recovery” school
districts in Louisiana, Tennessee,
and Michigan
are another. The “parent trigger” idea is a third.

Second,
our dysfunctional system of school
finance
puts the brakes on just about every reform while perpetuating
inequity. We don’t fund learning, we fund programs. We don’t fund kids, we fund
adult job slots. We don’t fund schools, we fund district-wide categoricals. We
don’t blend the money from multiple sources into a single, flexible stream;
rather, we leave it in discrete programs and silos, each with its own rules,
uses of funding, and accounting obligations.

Here,
too, small cracks in the glacier can be seen. Several states (notably Michigan, Indiana and Vermont) have shifted
their funding systems to mostly state dollars. Voucher programs, though still limited
(but growing!), enable at least some of the money to accompany individual kids
to the schools of their choice. A few cities have devolved as much budgetary
authority as they can—district-wide teacher contracts are a huge constraint
here—to the building level. Waivers can be sought from states and Washington that allow
enterprising superintendents to combine and redirect some of the categorical funds.
And a few brave school-finance experts are probing deep into district budgets
to see how much things really cost and where the dollars really flow.

Third,
our academic standards are too low
just about everywhere. It’s not just that too little is being achieved; it’s
that too little is expected. Even
where a state’s standards look great on paper—a few do—its “cut scores” for
passing the tests aligned with those standards are rarely ambitious, and NCLB hasn’t helped one bit on that front.
Fordham and others have been documenting these problems forever.

 

The silver
lining in this cloud is widespread adoption of the Common Core State Standards
for math and reading, and work now underway to produce a kindred set of
multi-state standards for science. The Common Core itself turned out well,
superior to the academic standards of most states and on a par with the best of them. The big questions now are whether it will be
properly implemented, which means accompanying it with suitable curricula,
assessments, and more—and whether public officials will have the fortitude to
stick with it after scads of their current students turn out to be no match for
it. Several state education leaders—Ohio’s
Stan Heffner and Massachusetts’s
Mitch Chester come to mind—are already walking the Common Core walk. In other
jurisdictions, it may still be mostly talk.

Which
brings us to weak-kneed accountability,
the fourth great barrier to real achievement gains. About half the states have
high school graduation tests that one must pass to qualify for a diploma but
nearly all of these are easy—eighth or tenth grade content with low passing
scores and multiple make-up opportunities. A few states have “promotional
gates”—achievement benchmarks that determine whether you get to move on to the
next grade. Many states give ratings or labels to schools according to their
academic results and NCLB has added the (“made” or “failed”) AYP designation
for schools and districts. Still and all, there are precious few tangible
consequences for the adults in the system; it isn’t that demanding for the
kids; and schools that find themselves subject to “interventions” or
“reconstitutions” usually end up with the minimum-hassle version.

Whether
the state consortia now developing Common Core-aligned assessments will be able
to agree on demanding “cut scores” is an open question, to be followed by
whether individual states using those tests will let those cut scores make any
real difference in promotion, graduation, teacher retention (or reward), school
reconstitution, and all the rest. Yes, there’s movement toward tying teacher
evaluations and pay more tightly to student learning, but we’re still in the
earliest stages of that ambitious project and there is much resistance to it.

Fifth,
though choice programs of every sort are proliferating—virtual, charter,
hybrid, voucher, and more—and though it can be demonstrated that more than half
of all U.S. pupils now attend schools that they or their parents chose via one
means or another, the facts remain that too
many of those choices are mediocre
(or worse), the kids in greatest need of
better options are least apt to be able to access them, and our “schools of
choice” for the most part labor under too much input-and-process regulation coupled
with insufficient resources
.

The best
of the CMOs and a handful of one-off schools show that quality is possible, but
even they face great difficulty replicating success and expanding their
networks. The best state charter laws show that the regulatory and resource
challenges can be tackled. But we’ve got a long way to go.

Sixth,
although instructional technology
holds enormous promise to transform education—in both its fully virtual and
blended forms—it is stoutly opposed
by the usual interest groups, is pushed (perhaps too hard) by politically
connected profit seekers who care little about academic
achievement
, is
ill-suited to existing governance and financing arrangements, and is shackled
by absurd regulatory provisions that make scant sense even in a
brick-and-mortar environment. The Digital Learning Council and others
(including the Foundation for Excellence in Education and Fordham itself) are
showing where and how paths through these thickets could be cut but politicians
and policymakers will have to do the heavy cutting.

 

Seventh,
our human resource practices and policies
are sorely antiquated
and anti-quality, particularly as regards teachers,
whether one is looking at seniority provisions, uniform pay schedules,
over-rich pension-and-benefit plans, licensure-and-certification rules, or a
hundred other parts of public education’s HR system. There have been bold moves
in several states to limit the scope of collective bargaining (a pillar of
archaic HR practices), to modernize benefit structures, to make employment
hinge more on effectiveness than on credentials and seniority, and to evaluate
teachers (and sometimes principals) more on the basis of student achievement.
But, once again, we have a very long way to go.

Eighth
and finally, our preoccupation with “at
risk” populations
and with achievement gaps defined as the distance between
demographic groups has led to the benign
neglect of millions of kids
, including but not limited to gifted students and high-achieving learners. America will never solve its international
competitiveness problem just by raising the bottom of the achievement
distribution. Though a number of states and districts are trying to enlarge their
Advanced Placement programs and to reward top students with college financial
aid and other initiatives aimed at high achievers, it’s also the case that
tight budgets have shrunk gifted-and-talented programs in many places. (And
Congress has zero-funded the only
federal initiative that tries to encourage such activities
.)

With
these eight problems unsolved—and more that could be added to the list—as well
as gridlocked policymaking in Washington and open warfare in many state
capitals, is there reason to be optimistic about the future of K-12 education?

I say
yes, albeit cautiously. What gives me the greatest hope today is the
emergence—and steadfastness—of a new cadre of change-minded people in positions
of influence (think Jeb Bush, the “Chiefs for Change,” Joel Klein, Wendy Kopp,
Kevin Huffman, Michelle Rhee, and yes, Arne Duncan) and the birth of a number
of new-and/or-improved advocacy organizations, mostly operating at the state
level (think CONN-Can, Advance Illinois, PIE-Network, Democrats for Education
Reform, Students First, Stand for Children, BAEO, the American Federation for
Children, Parent Revolution). They’re still no match for the protectors of the
status quo—i.e. bulwarks of the barriers enumerated above—but they’re slowly
gaining. Let us wish them much clout in the New Year and beyond.

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