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What if We Got Serious About Education?

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What if We Got Serious About Education?

May 15, 2014

Despite decades of effort, the United States has made little progress on improving the quality of K-12 education. 

Stagnation in student outcomes is clear. Last week, educators announced the latest results from the

National Assessment of Educational Progress (NEAP) tests, which are given to a sample of high school seniors every four years. The latest results showed no change in students’ reading or math skill levels. More important, less than 40 percent of students were proficient in reading and only 26 percent were proficient in math.

What can we do to increase K-12 performance? The solution is not money. Over the past two decades, real spending on per-pupil primary and secondary education has increased by over 37 percent in real terms. Nor is technology alone the answer. Without significant changes in the structure of education, technology is unlikely to have much of an impact on educational achievement. Dramatic productivity improvements (doing more with less) require significant structural changes because they necessitate doing things in much different ways.

First, the most innovative, transformative systems are likely to be found through experimentation. What works can be kept and built upon, and lessons can be learned from what does not. Complicating matters, different students are likely to excel in different environments. Ruling out choices such as all-boy or girl student bodies, school uniforms, and home schooling unnecessarily limits the system’s ability to find good solutions for individual pupils.

While local experimentation is necessary for national success, it is not all that is required. Despite their rarity, finding successful experiments such as New York’s Harlem Children’s Zone and Virginia’s Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology is likely to be the relatively easy part of improvement. The hard part will be finding ways to duplicate these successes in a broad number of diverse environments so that all students benefit. National movements including Success for All, an educational program that emphasizes cooperative, fast-paced, and well-planned learning, can play a large role in this, but only if local jurisdictions are open to reforms.

Offering each family a variety of choices is the second way to drive K-12 educational success. Despite the current opposition to educational vouchers, choice is the only way to ensure effective schools thrive and bad schools close.

Providing families the freedom to move from low-performing schools to high-performing ones will force both administrators and teachers to focus on what parents value—quality education, safe schools, and opportunity for personal development. Does anyone believe that the G.I. Bill would have been as successful if returning veterans had been assigned to specific schools?

Contrast the different approaches of Mayor de Blasio in New York City and Governor Jindal in Louisiana. Mayor de Blasio came into office viewing the rapid growth in charter schools a threat, despite their widespread popularity and demonstrated academic success. Opposition from some of his strongest supporters, who view charters as the best educational hope for their children, has moderated some of his views. At the same time, Louisiana’s efforts to expand vouchers in New Orleans, whose dysfunctional public school system was devastated by Hurricane Katrina, is presently facing opposition even though it applies only to students in low-rated schools and parents get to pick the school their child attends.

Third, any system will need a much clearer idea of what students are supposed to learn in each class in order to measure performance against expectations. At present, few parents have a comprehensive understanding of how their children are performing. Occasional grades tell nothing about how their child’s class compared to others, the teacher’s relative ability, or their child’s strengths and weaknesses.

Common Core standards are an important improvement in setting high expectations for exactly what students should be learning in each grade. But they are unlikely to have much effect unless these expectations are regularly measured against performance in ways that parents and students can understand. Too many parents are given the impression that children are progressing along well, only to find out years later that they lack the knowledge expected of high school graduates. What is not well-measured cannot be improved.

True reform threatens school boards and administrators who can no longer count on a captive audience. It threatens teachers unions who will have to link higher salaries to better performance. It threatens some school districts, whose boundaries may blur if poorer students are allowed to transfer resources between districts. It threatens suppliers such as textbook publishers who may face a more competitive market. Reform also threatens parents and students who must accept greater responsibility for their family’s education.

Despite substantial resistance to reforming America’s K-12 education system, change is still possible. Concern for children has never been a partisan issue, and potential benefits far outweigh complaints from those who defend the status quo. An educational environment that is open to innovation, choice, and accountability is a prerequisite for student success and future economic growth.


Joseph V. Kennedy is President of Kennedy Research, LLC, a Senior Researcher with the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, and a contributor to e21. He is the author of Ending Poverty: Changing Behavior, Guaranteeing Income, and Transforming Government (2008).

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