Moving beyond our vacuous education reform discussions

October 12, 2012

Barack Obama is a champion of education reform. So is Mitt Romney. Even in the midst of an extremely polarized political season, the former Massachusetts governor has offered praise for Arne Duncan, President Obama’s secretary of education, and for the Obama administration’s Race to the Top initiative. The same is true of Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, who has emerged as the GOP’s leading point person on fixing America’s schools. To those who lament partisan rancor, this might look like very good news. But it’s not. Rather, it is an indication that our conversation about “education reform” is pretty vacuous.

The reform label applies to at least three broad ideas: (1) standards-oriented reform, or let’s have more testing and accountability; (2) human capital reform, or let’s have better teachers; and (3) choice-oriented reform, or let’s use “backpack funding” that will allow public education dollars to follow the student wherever she chooses to enroll, whether it’s a neighborhood public school, a public charter or (perhaps) a voucher-eligible private school. Many people who love one kind of reform hate the others, so saying you’re “pro-reform” doesn’t mean very much.

That shouldn’t come as a shock. There is something about public education that starts Americans gushing and makes them sentimental and unrigorous. Hardly anyone disagrees with the late R&B songstress Whitney Houston, who believed that the children are our future and that we should teach them well and let them lead the way. Schmaltz is deployed on all sides of the debate – from teachers’ union members who insist that those who oppose across-the-board pay hikes don’t care about kids to voucher proponents who specialize in heartstring-tugging tales of inner-city youth.

It’s not just schmaltz that limits our ability to think clearly about public education. Frederick Hess, an education policy scholar at the center-right American Enterprise Institute and one of the smartest think tankers I know, has argued that we’re also hamstrung by our collective fixation on schools as instruments for achieving social justice.

The stubborn gap between the graduation rates and achievement levels of white Anglo and Asian American students on the one hand and Latino and African American students on the other is a real problem, particularly as the Latino share of the population surges. But by viewing public education first and foremost through the lens of this “achievement gap,” philanthropists and legislators have, in Hess’s view, prioritized raising reading and math scores of the weakest students to the detriment of reforms that could boost performance across the system as a whole.

How could focusing on the poorest, most vulnerable kids be a bad thing? In effect, achievement gap thinking allows the vast majority of middle-class parents to remain complacent about their own mediocre schools while focusing attention on a handful of dysfunctional urban school districts that educate a minority of America’s K-12 students. This complacency suits suburban America’s elected officials and school administrators, as it allows them to avoid contentious battles over truly innovative instructional models that could rattle the status quo.

The biggest barrier to the embrace of these innovative models is cultural. We find it very hard to imagine structuring schools in new and different ways. Even the most celebrated charter school networks are just slightly modified versions of the public schools most of us attended as children. And the reform conversation tends to focus on minor tweaks. Consider human capital reform. Reformers on the left and right tend to oppose so-called last-in, first-out hiring policies, salary schedules that emphasize years on the job over effectiveness, and tenure rules that make it virtually impossible to fire underperforming teachers. Moving beyond these practices could very well make a difference in the quality of education, and that shouldn’t be dismissed.

But these measures fail to address the deeper problem: that K-12 education makes little use of specialization, the main driver of productivity growth in every other sector of the economy. As Hess and Olivia Meeks observe in The Futures of School Reform, the size of the teacher workforce tripled from 1.1 million in the 1950s to 3.3 million in the early 2000s. At the same time, college-educated women who once had few professional options outside of teaching saw their opportunities expand dramatically. And so it became far less likely that a new public school teacher had graduated in the top 10th of her high school class. Many human capital reformers argue that the right solution to this problem is to dramatically increase compensation for teachers. Many also champion shrinking class sizes. Even if we could afford to pursue these strategies, and it’s far from obvious that we can, there will come a point at which we will exhaust the supply of American adults who are willing and able to teach.

Instead of simply increasing the number of teachers, Hess and Meeks propose shifting teaching from a profession built around generalists – people who teach reading and fractions and supervise bus-loading and monitor the cafeteria and grade papers – to one built around specialists. Just as the Mayo Clinic has specialists working on discrete medical problems (cardiologists here, neurosurgeons there) and support staff who enable them to do their work, schools could “unbundle” the job of teaching. We don’t find it strange or scandalous that highly trained obstetricians don’t also clear bedpans. In the same vein, schools should rely more heavily on support staff to load the bus, monitor the cafeteria and grade exams while letting teachers who are really great at teaching fifth grade geometry focus on teaching fifth grade geometry. Like medical specialists, specialist teachers in the rarest, most demanding fields should expect more compensation. School employees with skills that aren’t quite as uncommon, meanwhile, could be paid less without sacrificing quality.

To be sure, we shouldn’t replace one rigid, centralized approach with another. While the Hess and Meeks vision of schools that deploy talent in smarter ways is attractive, there isn’t a single best way to unbundle education. And that is the reason why choice-oriented reform is a crucial complement to real human capital reform – we need new schools and school networks to experiment with different models.

According to Neerav Kingsland, the CEO of the non-profit New Schools for New Orleans, the key emerging divide in the education world is between reformers and those he calls relinquishers. Reformers are school district leaders who aim to make centralized, government-run educational systems work more effectively by imposing new rules and regulations concerning what school administrators and teachers can and cannot do. Relinquishers, in contrast, believe that the job of the school district is to empower charter school operators to teach as they see fit, subject to oversight from a small and nimble central office.

The caveat is that relinquishers have a special responsibility to shut down schools that fail and help schools that succeed grow as quickly as possible. In New Orleans, where 85 percent of students are enrolled in charter schools, Kingsland’s organization launched seven schools just this fall, and he has also been involved in the wrenching process of shutting failing schools down.

Yet New Orleans is very much an outlier; it is hard to imagine school districts across America voluntarily following the lead of New Orleans. Fortunately, school choice isn’t the only way to drive innovation and experimentation in education. Instead of relinquishing at the level of the school, schools can start relinquishing at the level of individual courses.

John White, Louisiana’s state superintendent of education, has worked with Governor Bobby Jindal to push forward the most ambitious education agenda in the country. One of White’s most promising initiatives is course-level instructional choice. Having previously served as superintendent of the Recovery School District, White recognizes the power of charter schools – yet he also recognizes their limitations. “It takes an enormously talented leader to start a new school, and the number of such organizations is inherently limited,” he explained. “So in order to really scale quality and innovation and access, you can shrink the unit that needs to be developed from an entire school into something smaller.” That is, instead of expecting parents and students to leap from one school to another, you can give them the option of choosing, say, a Spanish class taught by a local teacher or a Mandarin class taught online. For White, the beauty of this approach is that it allows students to leverage the many other institutions – colleges and universities, private firms, the military – that can provide developmental experiences as valuable as those offered by K-12 schools.

More broadly, course-level instructional choice might even improve the cost-effectiveness of education. Burck Smith, the CEO and founder of the low-cost higher education provider StraighterLine, has floated the idea of an educational “cafeteria” plan, in which students would be assigned a fixed budget that could be used for a wide array of courses. By taking a low-cost online language course, for example, a student could save money for extra precalculus tutoring or a summer enrichment program.

Relinquishers remain a small minority in the education world. Most education visionaries are still chasing after the One Big Solution, whether it’s merit pay, better teacher evaluations, or mimicking Finland or Shanghai. Charter schools are still seen as a boutique movement, and relatively few policymakers have even heard of course-level instructional choice. But as Americans face up to the limitations of one-size-fits-all school reform, the relinquishers are slowly gaining ground.

PHOTO: Jazmine Raygoza, 18, (C) adjusts her cap before her high school graduation in Denver, May 19, 2012. REUTERS/Rick Wilking


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I’m unfamiliar with the practice of course-level institutional choice, However, as you’ve presented it students from low income backgrounds would continue to remain at a disproportionate disadvantage due to limited access to resources.

The option to leverage other educational institutions could be beneficial to students by providing them with greater freedom to develop their educational skills and intellectual interests.
However, the students who can afford to take an online language course and/or pay for a calculus tutor are arguably those who are already academically invested and motivated towards furthering their education. In contrast, students from low income backgrounds would be at a greater disadvantage as they would not likely have the economic resources to pursue this option. Additionally, if an increased number of students begin taking specialized courses, such as foreign language, outside of a school eventually fewer language courses would be offered further marginalizing those who are unable to pay for additional educational enrichment outside a given curriculum. From my limited purview I’m not sure how this option would be a step in the right direction of educational reform. (Additional insight would be appreciated)

As for the restructuring of schools, yes, let’s engage different models that let teachers actually teach, I am all for that! I agree that the current policies and pursuit of education reform have resulted in only lackluster and inconsistent benefits at best. However, the achievement gap should not be completely ignored, at the very least it should be a reminder to school administrators and policymakers that not all schools, public or charter, are equal and that significant social and economic disparities exist that must be contextualized and integrated into the development of effective educational reform. There is no silver bullet solution, indeed the current reforms are vacuous at best.

Posted by kimarie_l | Report as abusive

The author circles around the only real solution… freedom. Why don’t we see a reform movement for the smart phone industry? Or flat panel TVs? Or basically any other product or service? It’s because the free market, free people freely interacting with other free people solves its own issues. It flows and adapts to both what the customer desires (often trying to anticipate these desires… often creating products the customer previously didn’t even know they desired) and what works. K-12 education isn’t any different.

We’ve had enough of the experts. Let’s instead unleash the wisdom of millions. I don’t claim to know the answer to every educational issue out there… but I do claim to know the system that will most quickly and most assuredly find these answers.

That’s what End the Education Plantation is all about… giving parents and children freedom.

We know we will have reached the promise land when the entire concept of a “reform” movement for education is put where it belongs, in the dustbin of history.

Posted by JohnConlin | Report as abusive

Course-level instructional choice: Has this idea never occurred to anyone before? If not, why not?

Who is opposed to it? Teachers’ unions?

It would be interesting to hear what teachers and their unions have to say about this.

Posted by DifferentOne | Report as abusive

I don’t see why the federal goevernment is involved in education. It should not be. Let the states handle their own. Then, states may will be able to handle the differences in their local communities. All people may be created equal, but that changes immediatly after creation. And my wife says that’s a really short moment.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

A famous man who who never did well at school once said something along th elines of ‘we will not solve the problems of today with the same thinking that was used to create them’. The article is filled with the same sort of thinking. “Help, our schools are not working as we hoped! It must be because we are not pushing our industrial school model to the limit!” Thinking of children as a future economic means of production a la Adam Smith is where is all goes wrong. Children need to be treated as individuals and nurtured to grow into the best person they can be based on their indivual nature (and not on the staffing needs of Detroit or Silicon valley). Note kindly that I say person, and not worker. If this is done then the economic problem will naturally reduce in a dramatic fashion. There are schools who have done this successfully for decades, but their philosophies often don’t gel well with the general industrial scientific thinking that still prevails.

Posted by BidnisMan | Report as abusive

I also think the feds should keep their ignorant policies out of the education sphere. Return education policy back to the locals and just see if our education system doesn’t produce some superior results that other local boards can see and emulate.

On a related subject, fire the university educationist professors. Most newly minted teachers fresh out of college haven’t the faintest idea about how to teach. I’ve been there; done that. The worst hurdle to becoming a good teacher is to forget about everything you were told by the college professors and use common sense.

Posted by nikacat | Report as abusive

There is a financial reality to this “conversation” – most at risk kids are thrown in the school system where parents hope the school system will take of them. The school systems today are afraid of simple discipline – and we seem to spare no expense to solve the performance problems yet the educational experience and results continue to degrade. The sad state is that all education needs to be performance and child oriented – but you have to have to families willing to participate in their child’s education. There are many “private” schools educating kids for considerably less with great performance. Are they creaming the best off or are they just engaging the student and family more intensely in a system where outcomes are monitored and results expected. Not a panacea – but when you institutionalize education – you wind up with organizations to big to be effective and unable to engage the community.

Posted by xit007 | Report as abusive

The authors reference to the American Enterprise Institute as a center right organization completely destroys his credibility. This is an organization that employs no fewer than 20 former members of the Bush administration including John Bolton and Dick Cheney who sits on the board of trustees. They also employ Newt Gingrich. Center right indeed. Why is it that everyone seems to want to be center this or center that these days? Are you embarrassed by your ideology? The American Enterprise Institute is a right wing organization, admit it and be proud of what you are. You’re not fooling anyone.

Hess’ dismissal of the education gap becomes blindingly clear in this light. This is an ideologically driven determination as equality is a dirty word in the eyes of the free market, a mere code for socialism and government and all things evil. The reality is that, regardless of one’s personal disdain for equality, the education gap is one of the most significant issues in America’s educational system. The top schools in America, both public and private, are amongst the best in the world. Our schools are failing poor children regardless of their color. This is where improvement is desperately needed. Offering children in a failing inner city school, where they struggle to learn the basics of reading and writing, an opportunity to take online Mandarin classes is little more than a cruel joke.

How about instead of “moving beyond our vacuous education reform discussions” we move beyond the ideological dogma of the left and the right and just do what works best for society?

Posted by jtfane | Report as abusive