A constitutional moment for American education?

Vacation gave me the opportunity to catch up with a bit of early American history, particularly the eventful last two decades of the 18th Century. During that extraordinary time, the thirteen colonies concluded their war of independence; forged the Articles of Confederation as a sort of first-draft constitutional framework for the new nation; found that arrangement unworkable in tackling domestic needs and international challenges; secretly drafted, during the hot Philadelphia summer of 1787, a new Constitution that embodied a half-dozen key compromises and largely avoided the intractable issue of slavery; improved the document (and its political prospects) with the Bill of Rights; got it ratified; launched the new government with George Washington at its helm; worked through a series of tough issues and additional compromises during which the new governing arrangement both proved its viability and was shielded from forces of disunion; began to construct a new capital city; gave rise to two distinct political parties; and (in the 1796 and 1800 elections) demonstrated that the presidency was a temporary office, not a quasi-monarchy, and that power could transfer peaceably from one party to the other.

Wow. The world, I think, has never seen a more fecund or consequential period of governmental and political invention, combined with fine-tuning, test-driving, and careful nurturing.

American education today finds itself in a similar period of challenge. But can we muster the imagination, leadership, and persistence to devise a different and better arrangement?

Much as the Articles of Confederation proved no match for the problems and opportunities facing the new nation, so our traditional K-12 structures and governance arrangements are showing their obsolescence and frailty. "Local control" via elected municipal school boards cannot cope with today's realities of metropolitanization, mobility, and interest-group politics. The "one best system" of public education fails to provide enough choices or to accommodate diverse cultural, economic, and familial demands. State-level standards, assessments, and accountability schemes cannot handle the imperatives of a modern post-industrial nation on a shrinking and more competitive planet. Traditional approaches to preparing, licensing, deploying, and compensating educators are ill-suited to contemporary career paths and management practices. Separating education from other human services is costly, redundant, and irrational. Time-worn means of delivering instruction are archaic alongside today's technologies. Familiar modes of financing schools, based on dramatically varying property values and income levels, yield results that are neither equitable nor efficient. And our "marble-cake" policy structure of local, state, and national officials has proven better at blocking needed change than at effecting it.

One might plausibly describe 2002's enactment of No Child Left Behind and today's "Race to the Top" federal-funding carnival as the latest and most forceful efforts to make the old system work better--by creating, in Washington, incentives and sanctions intended to tug and prod state and local education systems to deliver better and more uniform results and to change their practices in specific ways.

And one might fairly describe the backlash to NCLB, and the conniving, finagling, competing, and obsessing over "Race to the Top" dollars, as the old system's desperate struggle to retain its prerogatives while changing just enough to avoid forfeiting the additional federal money. Indeed, there are many echoes from the 1780s.

Now as then, however, the truth is that the old system is itself obsolete. Further tugging and kicking at it from the banks of the Potomac is not going to modernize it.

Something akin to a "Miracle at Philadelphia" is needed, some coming together of forward-looking leaders able to conceptualize and construct a new set of arrangements.

A tentative and limited version of that is happening now in the sealed room occupied by drafters of "common" academic standards for reading and math, summoned together this hot Washington summer by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers to devise a modern version of world-class K-12 standards for the United States.

If they do a good job, they may point the way toward further "constitutional" changes in our education arrangements. But standards comprise just a small fraction of what needs to change in American education and I have not spotted any plausible efforts to tackle the rest.

I'm not certain what form such an effort might take. We might, though, recall four key elements of America's passage from "Confederation" to "Constitution" that will need to be echoed in any successful reinvention of our education system:

--Imagination. The founders could not only visualize what wasn't working--British rule, then the flimsy system embodied in the Articles--but also what was needed instead, and they had the creativity to design it, even though nobody had ever seen anything like it. They weren't just patching an old arrangement; they were inventing a new one that would endure.

--Statesmanship. Though the men in that steamy Pennsylvania hall shared important concerns and dreams, they also brought divergent priorities with them. To reach a semblance of consensus, these had to be worked through in artful compromises, trade-offs, and "package deals." People took the common weal--and the importance of their mission--seriously and were able to rise above selfish interests. (Having Madison in the room didn't hurt.)

--Courage. Washington was there, too. He and his colleagues had just licked the world's strongest army and navy. He was accustomed to being shot at--and triumphing over deep adversity. (Winter at Valley Forge?) They well understood that, in Franklin's memorable phrasing, hanging together was preferable to hanging separately. Nothing about them was timid, easily coerced, or readily cowed.

--Adaptation. What they produced wasn't perfect, not even fully formed. It needed immediate repairs, then further modifications (both formal amendments and such unwritten evolutions as the judiciary's emergence as a full-fledged third branch). It called for additional fine-tuning as time passed and values changed.

American education today resembles America itself in 1785. The old arrangement isn't working well enough and cannot be made to. A new constitution is needed. 

In my own mind, vital elements will include national standards and measures; statewide "weighted-student" financing; amalgamation of education governance into general government; school-level control of curriculum, operations, budgets, and staffing; wide-open choices among schools; a far more flexible approach to personnel; and the replacement of traditional "districts" with an array of virtual systems and regional or national operators (some of them technology-based). But that's just the beginning.

Are we up to anything of the sort? Can we afford not to try?

A different version of this piece appeared this morning on National Review Online.

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