Unsolved problems—and signs of hope—as 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.

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.

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 I’m talking about 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 (as Mark Schneider suggests in The
Accountability Plateau
). 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

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 tear down these walls remains unknown.

First and foremost is the archaic governance of K-12 education. I’ve written
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

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 can be seen in the glacier. 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 (though seldom are) 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
almost 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
have been
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 more
or less on
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
, 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), that the kids in greatest need of better options are least apt to
be able to access them, and that 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

hiking trail photo

We can forge a path to a brave new education world.
Photo by Daniel Ramirez

Sixth, although instructional
holds enormous promise to transform education—in both its fully
virtual and blended forms—it is stoutly
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
) 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, overly 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
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
.) Note, too, that widening
access to AP
and such isn’t necessarily a good thing for the “talented
tenth” who were already taking those courses and passing those exams.

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 50CAN, 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.

Click to play Click to listen to commentary on 2011's most epic education reforms from the Education Gadfly Show podcast.

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