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Leaders and Laggards: Findings

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We set out in this report to evaluate the innovation gap in American education, identifying key problem areas and seeking promising solutions. The results were deeply troubling. From weak data capacity to anachronistic finance systems, schools just do not have the ability to respond to 21st century educational challenges. And our nation has not done nearly enough to help.

To be sure, there are some bright spots on the educational landscape. Most states now have charter schools, for example, and almost every state has some sort of alternative teacher certification program. But for the most part, the delivery of education remains hidebound: across our categories, not a single state earned As in more than one or two areas, and most received a host of Cs and Ds. Perhaps most disheartening, we were not able to document the full extent of the innovation problem. We simply could not find enough reliable information to evaluate important questions such as the flexibility of the state reform environment, the effectiveness of state and district policies for hiring school leaders, and whether investments in educational technology are paying off.

What we did uncover raises disturbing concerns about the future of our nation’s education system. It should inspire not just another round of political handwringing, but real and focused action.

Among our major findings:

Rigid education bureaucracies impede quality schooling. Ninety percent of teachers say that routine duties and paperwork interfere with their teaching, according to our analysis of the 2007-2008 Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS), a nationally representative survey of teachers and principals administered every four years by the National Center for Education Statistics. Only about one-third of teachers approve of how their schools are run. Throughout our educational system, a traditionalist school culture limits autonomy and innovation.

State finance systems are opaque, inefficient, and undermine innovation. The jumbled patchwork of spending programs in each state provides schools almost no room to spend resources in more effective ways. Our survey of the 50 states and the District of Columbia found that there are 23 states that each have more than 40 different school funding programs. These programs operate not only with little flexibility, but also little transparency. Only about half of the states make basic data easily available on the Internet, making it difficult for the public to hold schools accountable for how they spend their money.

The teacher pipeline fails to provide a diverse pool of high-quality educators. In some states, such as Iowa and Nebraska, almost no teachers enter the profession through alternative certification programs, which make it easier for talented liberal arts graduates and midcareer professionals to enter the classroom without conventional teaching preparation. At the same time, school leaders lack the authority to recruit the best candidates: Fewer than half of the principals in states, such as Oklahoma and North Dakota, report having a major degree of influence over teacher hiring.

Teacher evaluations are not based on performance. State systems for evaluating the effectiveness of teachers are focused almost entirely on inputs such as training and years of experience, even though these factors have been shown to have little impact on student achievement. By contrast, only four states require evidence of student learning to be the major factor in teacher evaluations.

Major barriers exist to the removal of poor-performing teachers. Seventy-two percent of principals say that tenure policies are a barrier to firing ineffective teachers, according to our analysis of federal SASS data. Another 61% say that teacher unions are an obstacle. Without the ability to remove ineffective teachers from the classroom, school leaders cannot build a cohesive school culture, create an environment of accountability, and ensure that all students will learn.

The outcome of state technology spending is unknown. Despite a systematic effort to examine the Web-based materials available from every state department of education, we found no evidence that any state had conducted a large-scale technology return-on-investment study. Instead, states collect data largely on student access to computers and the Internet. While technology has the potential to reinvent education delivery, without information on outcomes states will not know whether their investment in technology is well spent.

State data systems provide limited information on school operations and outcomes. States have made substantial improvements to their education data systems, but they still barely skim the surface of school operations, failing to answer basic capacity questions such as the degree to which professional development improves student outcomes. To foster entrepreneurial schools that can respond to new challenges, states must provide educators, policymakers, and the public with better information.

Schools provide too little access to college-level coursework. In most cases, dual-enrollment programs (in which students attend high school while enrolling in select collegiate courses) are a win-win educational strategy. They allow high school students to take advanced coursework and gain college credit while boosting college readiness and breaking down the often meaningless boundaries between high school and college. But our research shows that fewer than two-thirds of schools report having such programs. In Delaware, for example, only about a quarter of schools have dual-enrollment programs.

Only one state, Hawaii, has created a student-based funding system. In almost every state, education dollars do not follow students to the schools they attend according to their needs. Instead, funds are distributed based on factors that have little to do with students, such as the number of teachers in a school or the kind of educational programs that a school provides. Such financial practices make it nearly impossible for principals to allocate resources in new and innovative ways. While some districts have adopted student-based funding schemes, so far no state has emulated Hawaii’s effort to ensure that education dollars truly follow the child.

States lack a culture of education advocacy. Innovation-focused reform will require deep reserves of political capital because entrenched interests will fight meaningful changes. But few leaders have stepped forward to create the political conditions for reform. In 2009, for instance, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for a Competitive Workforce conducted a survey of chambers of commerce and other state and local business leaders. It found that many business leaders believed that there was little support in their state for key reforms. Only 12% thought there was a great deal of support from elected state officials for charter schools, while just 7% believed there was a good deal of support from state officials for bonuses for effective teachers.

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