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 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 our governance structures 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 loud
whether we should abolish school districts and run the whole kit
and caboodle out of state departments of education.

How about creating a “virtual education ministry”
that school districts would choose to associate with voluntarily?

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.

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 it would focus on “whole district reform” rather than
“whole school reform.” (This would also differentiate 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 of directors 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 school districts that don’t have the scale to have their own
curriculum developers or R&D shops (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 for 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 student
    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.

This approach could provide huge benefits for entrepreneurs, too.

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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