Center for American Progress

Educational Achievement Requires Innovative Solutions

Educational Achievement Requires Innovative Solutions

American students are still falling behind. Past approaches to increase achievement levels have failed, so it’s time to get creative.

The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions and the House Committee on Education and Labor held a joint hearing today on the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act. The hearing focused on how to reach one the most important and still unmet goals of NCLB: closing the achievement gap between low- and high-income students and increasing levels of achievement for all students.

Student achievement has improved very little in recent years despite increased education spending and intensive efforts to improve educational outcomes. Only a third of fourth and eighth graders—and less than a fifth of low-income and minority children—are proficient in reading and math. And according to the Center for American Progress’ recent report on America’s dropout challenge, the U.S. graduation rate has not reached above 70 percent in decades and on-time graduation rates lag at 50 to 55 percent for minority students.

The Center has issued several reports over the past six months investigating barriers to improving achievement and offering targeted, innovative strategies to address them. CAP and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce released a Joint Platform for Education Reform last month proposing that we raise teacher effectiveness by reforming teacher pay and performance structures, giving schools more flexibility to experiment with innovative education models, and encouraging schools to expand learning time.

Teacher quality is a particularly crucial factor affecting student achievement; the difference between a good teacher and a bad one can mean the difference of a full year of learning growth for students. “Teacher and Principal Compensation: An International Review,” a report released by CAP late last year, looks internationally for solutions to raising teacher quality and finds that teachers respond to the same incentives professionals in other fields respond to, if the incentives are well-structured.

Another CAP report, “Teacher Compensation in Charter and Private Schools,” similarly found that charter and private schools often make some portion of a teacher’s pay contingent on their performance and offer more non-financial incentives than public schools. The report offers two strategies for using financial incentives to raise teacher quality: 1) creating within the current system a more market-driven and performance approach, and 2) offering a subset of school administrators a more flexible approach that would allow them to experiment with new compensation strategies and make shifts according to their judgments of new policies’ success.

Expanding learning time is another key solution for raising student achievement.

The Center reported in “Expanding Learning Time in High Schools” that schools with longer school years, days, or more comprehensive after-school programs are more likely to help low-performing students who need more time and resources to reach testing standards. Increased instructional time also gives teachers room to make their lessons more interactive and to adjust their curricula to students’ diverse abilities by allowing more time for group work and individual assistance.

The Center conducted a case study of Massachusetts’ Expanding Learning Time to Support Student Success Initiative, which seeks to expand learning time in the state by 25 to 30 percent, and found that the increase has a positive effect on student performance and engagement in learning. Expanded learning time means more time for core academics, enrichment programs, and individualized instruction, as well as more time for teachers to plan lessons and undergo professional development.

Too many American children are falling behind in achievement, despite past efforts to improve the educational system. Until we close the achievement gap, lower-income students will not have a fair shot of fulfilling their potential and achieving the American dream. The innovative solutions put forward by the Center for American Progress, including raising teacher quality through compensation and improving student performance by extending learning time, have the potential to begin closing the gap.

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