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Opening the Conversation

Considering Effective Education Solutions

The Center for American Progress has released a series of education papers over the last four months examining existing programs at home and abroad and offering solutions for attracting and retaining better teachers, increasing graduation rates, and improving student learning.

Congress is now beginning the process of reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind Act, starting with a hearing today in the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. This is a perfect opportunity to recommit to boosting stagnant achievement rates, closing the achievement gap between high and low income students, and investing in high quality teachers through better funding and innovative policy solutions.

Investing in High Quality Teachers

Raising teacher quality must be central to this conversation. Education research convincingly shows that teacher quality is the most important schooling factor influencing student achievement. A very good teacher as opposed to a very bad one can make as much as a full year’s difference in learning growth for students. The Center for American Progress has extensively researched methods for attracting, retaining, and training better teachers.

Teacher and Principal Compensation: An International Review, released in the fall, presented comprehensive review of education reforms in developed countries around the globe in order to find effective solutions that might be applicable to the American public educational system. The report found that teachers and principals respond best to better-funded compensation systems that use “objective” criteria to determine effectiveness and dole out salaries and incentives accordingly.

Some of the most interesting places to see pay reforms in practice are charter and private schools, which more frequently tie some portion of teacher’s pay to performance, offer higher wages for hard-to-fill positions, and offer more non-financial rewards than district schools. Teacher Compensation in Charter and Private Schools, released this week, examines these practices and offers a two-track strategy to policy makers—one track creating a market-driven pay-for-performance approach to compensation, the other offering a more flexible approach that would allow policymakers to experiment with more creative strategies and judge their success.

Teacher Pay Reforms: The Political Implications of Recent Research, released late last year, warns, however, that reforming compensation is not a silver-bullet. The process will likely be difficult since change relies on states to invest in developing data infrastructures for tracking teacher performance and experiments with pay reforms. And comprehensive solutions must include better teacher preparation programs and a system for guaranteeing that the best teachers are equitably distributed among schools.

Expanding Student Learning

Expanding learning time—either through lengthened school days or a longer school year—deserves more attention, particularly in low-performing schools whose students are unlikely to reach higher standards without more time and support. Many American schools currently succeeding at raising student achievement are experimenting with extended learning time options.

In 2005, Massachusetts became the first state to undertake a systemic, publicly funded initiative to expand learning time by 25 to 30 percent. The Center for American Progress examined this in a report released last month, providing detailed information about the program’s founding and implementation, and arguing that state and federal governments, philanthropies, teachers, parents, and students can all take away important lessons from the case study.

Another report form the Center released in the fall, Expanding Learning Time in High Schools, examines high schools across the country that have implemented an extended learning day as part of the required educational program for all students. It presents examples of how schools extend their time and analyzes the implications that would arise for school design, capacity, and financing if these approaches were applied on a more systemic scale.

Successful schools combine more classroom time with quality co-curricular or extracurricular activities that are important to students’ broader development. Some of the most promising models not only extend learning time, but also change the learning place by creating opportunities on college campuses, in community service, and through internships with employers.

Improving Graduation Rates

Only 70 percent of American students currently graduate from high school on time, and rates are significantly lower for African Americans and Hispanics. Yet the Center for American Progress and Jobs for the Future argue in Addressing America’s Dropout Challenge, a report released late last year, that federal action now can significantly close this graduation gap within the next five years.

Educators in urban districts ranging from New York City to Portland, OR are designing effective, research-based interventions for keeping students on track, and developing new options and pathways for getting dropouts back in school and working toward a degree.

These interventions and options include a more intensive focus on fundamental English and math skills in the early months of 9th grade, coupled with quick response to academic failure, and small, personalized schools where students who have dropped out can reengage with academic learning.

More than half of the young people who do not graduate on time demonstrate remarkable determination to continue their education. Close to 60 percent of dropouts earn a high school credential within two years of restarting high school—in most cases by passing the tests for a General Educational Development, or GED, certificate.

It is not clear whether Congress will be able to adequately address this issue through the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind. But by passing legislation like the Graduation Promise Act, which would establish a federal commitment to partner with states, districts, and schools to raise graduation rates, effective strategies for reducing dropout rates could be implemented across the country.

The federal government has stranded the No Child Left Behind Act without consistent funding since its enactment in 2001—so far NCLB programs have been underfunded by more than $40 billion. Yet solutions for improving the quality of our teachers, creating better learning environments for our children, and bridging the graduation gap are within reach. Some of these problems can be addressed through the NCLB reauthorization process, and others can not, but it will be the job of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee today to start that conversation in the 110th Congress.

For more information, see the Center for American Progress’ recent reports: