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William D. Budinger and Paul A. Herdman

Pop quiz. Which level of public school governance is most responsible for funding, standards, student assessment, teacher and principal quality, and data management systems?

If you guessed "states," you win. But why, then, does the spotlight so neglect states, which are these days the wallflower at the school-reform dance?

America is losing ground internationally and our two primary approaches for reversing this trend--one federal, the other urban--are essential yet insufficient as a national strategy. It's time to look to states for answers.

Despite the indispensable role that No Child Left Behind has played in bringing the performance of all children out from the shadows, widespread opposition to the law's reauthorization--from both conservatives and progressives--has demonstrated the limitations of this federal approach.

At the other end of the spectrum, cities have deservedly drawn increased attention from funders and media as focal points of school improvement. Districts in Chicago, Houston, New York City, and the District of Columbia, for example, have taken bold and creative approaches to some of education's toughest issues, and these are the proving grounds for our nation's best public policy work.

While this urban focus is a powerful social justice strategy, it is simply insufficient to prepare more American pupils to compete against their international peers. A big-city strategy leaves too many youngsters out. Our top 20 cities educate just 11 percent of American students. To make the painful educational changes necessary to reach world-class status will require a broader base, and suburban and rural voters need not only to understand the benefit of those changes but also to feel them in their schools. Their support is crucial.

Take teacher quality, for example. Federally, the U.S. Department of Education has made grants to encourage districts to experiment with teacher performance pay. Some cities have been building new teacher pipelines and refashioning union contracts. But the real policy action needs to occur at the state level: opening up licensing practices; strengthening prep programs; creating career paths and compensation systems that have a chance of attracting our best and brightest into the profession and keeping them there; and developing a performance management system that ties funding to student needs and, working with accomplished teachers, finds a politically feasible way to take student achievement into account when making staffing and compensation decisions. (See here.)

Of course, not all states make equal sense as laboratories of reform. But let's have an open competition for federal and philanthropic funding among those that are ready, willing, and able to go the next step in their reform efforts.

Our experience in Delaware suggests what's possible. This state's Vision 2015 plan for world-class schools, developed by a coalition of public and private leaders with citizen input, has received national attention, and our governor and legislature are taking steps to incorporate its recommendations into their agendas. Vision 2015 calls for sweeping changes in how we attract and pay educators and fund students, and advocates extended time for learning and building incentives for continued innovation at the school level in return for real accountability. We are far from our goal, but we are moving. More importantly, similar efforts are springing up in Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, California, and Illinois.

An important missing piece, however, is a multi-state mechanism to share lessons learned, build a research base, and develop creative advocacy strategies that will overcome the inevitable resistance from preservers of the status quo. We envision a small cadre (three to five) of entrepreneurial states, working together as incubators and exemplars of innovation. Akin to what Achieve has done with its American Diploma Project, this new coalition would go beyond ADP's single-issue focus (standards and assessments) and collaborate on the wide range of interlocking issues necessary for sustainable reform: effective ways to recruit, develop, and retain great teachers and administrators; stronger data infrastructures; and fair and flexible funding systems that support excellence.

As in ADP, a state's team should be broad-based: the governor; state superintendent; the head of the state college system; K-12 educators; and business, civic, and legislative leaders. To avoid the potential mush that might come from such varied input, each state would need to commit to clear fiscal and legislative changes, and any external funding should be contingent upon the team's ability to deliver. Businesses and foundations would provide seed investments and thought leadership. The feds would offer incentive dollars along with exemptions from regulations that discourage innovation. Cities would continue to incubate solutions at the local level. And a group of research organizations could provide much-needed evaluation and feedback.

Such a coordinated multi-state strategy would be the fastest and most coherent way to redesign how America delivers public education. Building on the pioneering work of our cities, it's the natural next step.

Let the competition begin. With states vying to be champions of policy leadership and innovation, our kids have a better chance of competing against the best in the world.

To find out more about Vision 2015, click here.

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