Leaders and Laggards: Recommendations

Recommendations from a state-by-state report card on educational innovation from CAP, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and Frederick M. Hess of the American Enterprise Institute.

SOURCE: report cover

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Our call for educational innovation is intended to be both philosophical and practical. Philosophical because we do not wish to dictate specific policies, but rather to see a dramatic change in how we approach educational challenges. Practical because we recognize that, along with broad principles, educators need concrete examples of reforms that are working. Thus, we propose a framework for change intended to address the structural problems facing our nation’s education systems, while at the same time providing real-world examples of practices that have the potential to significantly improve student learning.

The hallmark of the approach we advocate is responsible flexibility. Educators should have the opportunity to assess challenges, to devise smarter, more effective solutions-and then to be held accountable for the results they deliver. Essential here are the same principles that have historically undergirded American success in any endeavor: a respect for individual initiative, creative problem solving, the dynamic use of technology, and the power of sensibly configured markets. Applying these values implies the need for fresh thinking, whether the issue is teacher compensation, teacher certification, charter schooling, or the creation of new schools.

At the same time, we wish to avoid romanticism regarding school choice, markets, and the for-profit sector. As the world has learned repeatedly in the past decade, markets are far from flawless. Thoughtful market champions have long made clear that markets are merely a tool for channeling human ingenuity, so it matters immensely how those markets are designed and what they reward. The key is to find appropriate measures of whether schools, teachers, and policymakers are promoting quality teaching and learning, then to create systems that encourage and reward success.

Our analysis of the innovation gap in American education leads us to recommend the following reforms.

More Flexibility

States and districts must–

Empower schools and principals. To take one example, 65% of principals report that undue documentation is a barrier to firing ineffective teachers. That is an unacceptably high figure at a time when evidence is mounting that good teachers are crucial to boosting student achievement.

Develop student-based funding policies and other more flexible approaches to school funding. When money follows students based on their needs, school funds will be spent more effectively and achievement is likely to improve.

Reinvent education management. State systems of schooling are broken and outdated. This problem may sound familiar, but that only underscores its severity. Reinvention calls for nothing less than a seismic shift on the part of states, from micromanaging districts through bureaucratic and irrelevant funding schemes, program initiatives, and policies to creating a flexible, performance-focused management system that is loose on inputs and strict on school outcomes.

Rethink the school day and calendar. Right now some students simply do not have enough time in the classroom to make the academic progress they sorely need. More time by itself is by no means a panacea, of course. But rethinking the school day or year can provide more opportunity and flexibility to support world-class teaching and learning.

Better Accountability

States and districts must–

Hold individuals and organizations responsible for performance. Innovation should not take place in a vacuum. States must develop better accountability measures, insisting on transparency, measuring outcomes, and taking action based on those results. Policymakers must make sure that low-performing districts and schools-including charter schools-face strong sanctions.

Reform teacher pay and reward teachers whose performance improves student achievement. Such plans are not easy to design or implement, but they are vital. States should look to models such as Minnesota’s Q Comp program, a pay-for-performance model that gives teachers detailed evaluations while also measuring their students’ academic performance.

Develop statewide longitudinal data systems and provide better information to schools, teachers, and the public. Until we understand the nature and extent of our educational problems, we will not be able to fix them.

More Capacity

States and districts must–

Provide teachers with focused professional development on key topics such as use of data and technology. High-tech tools are of little use unless teachers in the trenches can take advantage of them.

Research and develop promising instructional practices and school models. Industry has come to recognize the huge importance of research and development to its future success; educators must do the same.

Support innovative schools and programs through capacity-building organizations. The potential of great schools often remains untapped without help building internal resources, refining workable models, and expanding. A small but growing number of capacity-building groups, including The Mind Trust, the Charter School Growth Fund, and New Schools for New Orleans, help schools do just that-and these organizations themselves need support as they expand.

An End to Monopolies

States and districts must–

Support charter schools and other forms of public school choice.* Choice does not ensure success. But by permitting experimentation and providing alternatives for students and families, choice creates opportunities for creative problem solving and customized approaches to meeting student needs. Thus, it is an essential proving ground for innovation.

Bring down the barriers between high school and college by developing dual-enrollment and early college programs. The distinction between 12th grade and the first year of college is artificial, the product of historic norms that are no longer relevant to today’s learners. This divide leaves some students unchallenged in high school, unready for college, or both. There is growing evidence that early college and dual-enrollment programs, by bridging this gap, can strengthen the educational pipeline at a crucial junction. We need more of them.

Broaden the pool of potential teachers and support alternative certification programs. If teachers are the single most important determinant of student learning, it is increasingly important to cast a wide net and allow the best candidates to enter the profession, whether or not they have conventional education-school credentials.

A Stronger Reform Environment

States and districts must–

Support state efforts to create common academic standards linked to rigorous assessments. While federal educational standards have long been controversial, we heartily endorse the growing movement to establish shared benchmarks among states to allow apples-to-apples comparisons of student achievement. These common academic standards should be aligned with international assessments to allow for cross-national comparisons.

Support state reform organizations. State-level nonprofits, many working closely with the business community, have been instrumental to the success of many forward-looking education initiatives. They should be expanded.

Encourage entrepreneurial organizations such as Teach for America and Wireless Generation. These mold-breaking ventures have changed the terms of the education debate in a very short time. Even as they go to scale, many more such experiments are needed.

In conclusion, we reiterate that we have no illusions that some idealized, top-down package of reforms should be substituted for today’s failing system. Quite the contrary. But the status quo needs to be disrupted for purposeful innovation to thrive. Only then will our nation’s students receive the kind of education that they deserve.

* While the co-authors of this report firmly agree about the importance of public school choice, they have a good-faith disagreement about the merits of other forms of school choice, such as school vouchers and tuition tax credits. For more information, please see page 16 of the full report.

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