How to Fix the American Education System: Part One

Pedro Noguera
Hi Rick, I’ve been hearing a lot about the common core as a “game changer” in education and I think once again, the hype will not match the reality. Let me be clear, I support the Common Core. I support the idea of getting all of the states (well most of them, at least) to adopt a common set of academic standards so that we can begin to eliminate the unevenness that presently characterized educational standards among the states. I also support the idea of using the curriculum to engage students to reason, problem solve, write and process information in ways that challenge their higher order thinking skills. This is a real breakthrough in the way we think about what and how students should learn.

My skepticism is based on my doubts that the new standards will be implemented properly, and already I am seeing clear evidence that my concerns are legitimate. New York implemented the assessments this spring before providing schools with curriculum materials or training to teachers. Several other states have done the same thing. The frustration that results from placing the assessments before the preparation is likely to encourage a backlash. With the exception of Kentucky, which does seem to be taking a more thoughtful approach, I haven’t heard of states doing the work necessary to insure that schools will be ready to deliver the Common Core. Hence, I am doubtful that this change will produce the leap forward that advocates have argued will occur.

Frederick Hess
I did have a great summer, and one highlight was the reception of my Cage-Busting Leadership book and the chance to talk with a slew of terrific school and system leaders about the takeaways. I trust you’re enjoying your labors, per usual.

To the specific issue at hand, I think we’re very much in agreement. One of education’s longtime pathologies has been the search for “game changers” and can’t miss solutions. We remember the ludicrously strong claims made for the No Child Left Behind Act: small high schools, comprehensive school reform, site-based management, detracking, charter schooling, and so many other attractive ideas. Some of these have helped modestly, others have disappointed; but all have also had real costs, and none have delivered on the grandiose promises of their energetic promoters.

What goes wrong? I think it’s one part naivete, one part good intentions, and one part impatience. The Common Core is suffering from all of these. I’m sympathetic to the Common Core project. I get it. I think it is reasonable that states ought to have common standards in reading and math, that it could make it easier to craft terrific instructional materials, improve teacher preparation and professional development, while also facilitating transparency and accountability. But adopting the standards, or even the assessments, doesn’t make any of this happen—it simply creates an opening. Delivering on all this is an enormous, expensive, frustrating lift, one that would require broad political support, careful attention to policy, and a taste for hard work.

Unfortunately, I haven’t seen much that impresses me on these counts. For most of the past four or five years, the advocates have been lethargic when it comes to public engagement and dismissive of their critics. They’ve seemed disinterested in addressing the kinds of practical challenges you flag. More than a few seem to have already grown bored of the Common Core, and are now rushing off to embrace the push for pre-K or some other new enthusiasm. Right now, I don’t see much cause to expect that the Common Core would be “game changing.” I see more likelihood of half-hearted implementation, headline-grabbing glitches with the assessment technology, parental unrest with huge drops in reported school performance, and general discontent. I fear the most likely “game change” will be the need to spend the second half of this decade cleaning up from the disruptions caused by the missteps of the Common Core enthusiasts.

Pedro Noguera
Along those same lines, as I see it, the reason why most of the education policies that have been enacted over the last 20 years or so have failed to have the desired impact is because policymakers have very little understanding of how the policies they adopt will actually affect schools. Many of them distrust schools and educators so they don’t consult with them when drafting or adopting education policy. Unlike healthcare, military or energy policy, where professionals, experts and lobbyist closely related to the industry have a lot of say over the shape of policy, in education this largely does not occur.

Were our policymakers at the federal or state level (the local level tends to vary more, a point I’ll come back to) to be more attentive and responsive to the perspectives of educators and parents, and the needs of schools (particularly those that serve the most disadvantaged children) we would probably enact fewer policies that rely on compliance, and more that address big complex issues related to poverty, inequality and the need for capacity building.

This is the approach that has been taken in Ontario, Canada, and in Toronto in particular. Toronto has made more progress in elevating the performance of schools that serve poor children than any major city in North America. They have done this by establishing educational standards that the province must insure are met at each school. When a school is under-performing provincial officials conduct a quality review to figure out what is missing or what changes are required to produce greater progress in student achievement. These policies have not eliminated poverty in Toronto but they have led to a significant reduction in the number of “failing” schools in poor neighborhoods.

In the U.S., school failure is pervasive in the poorest areas. We rely largely on pressure as an improvement strategy and there is very little evidence that this works. This is not because poor children are incapable of learning (I can point to several schools where poor children are achieving at high levels) but because children arrive at school with basic needs (nutrition, health, housing, etc.) that have not been met. It is also because the schools they attend lack the resources to meet their needs and in many cases lack a sense of accountability to the communities they serve. This is a point that requires further elaboration but we can come back to it later.

The point I want to make now is that it need not be this way. I was in Tulsa, Oklahoma (a very red state) last summer and participated in a day-long conference focused on building a safety net for children in the city. The event was sponsored by local foundations, the chamber of commerce, the school district, City government and several community organizations. What impressed me was the non-ideological focus on problem solving. By the way, Oklahoma also leads the nation in placing the greatest percentage of its children in high quality pre-school programs.

The alternative to looking for policy levers or fad reforms that we hope will be “game changers”, is to go about the more tedious task of building capacity within schools. Massachusetts has done more of this than any other state (though there is clearly a need for more work in high povery areas like Lawrence, Holyoke, Springfield, etc.), and not surprisingly they lead the pack among states in student achievement.

What we need is a focus on learning opportunities which incidentally is the title of my latest book, Creating the Opportunity to Learn with A. Wade Boykin.

Frederick Hess
I think we both agree and disagree here. I agree that policymakers tend to have only a limited sense of how their policies will play out in practice. To my mind, this is a powerful reason to be careful when it comes to grand policy proposals that claim to be able to “fix” schools or deliver desired changes in instruction and practice. But I think the distrust that exists is natural, inevitable, and probably healthy. I’d argue that all policy is rooted in distrust (e.g. teachers don’t adopt “no hitting” rules for the sake of the students they trust, but for the benefit of those they don’t).

Americans have lost the blind trust in schools and teachers that once prevailed. This has been a product of several factors—including the tepid results produced by a steady influx of new dollars, the growing influence of critics, and the reluctance of the educational establishment to acknowledge the legitimate concerns of lawmakers and the fair-minded case for meaningful accountability. I’d argue that policymakers routinely listen to parents, and are perfectly happy to listen to educators when they show up with constructive alternatives rather than blanket demands for more resources and blind trust.

I’m familiar with the Toronto story. In fact, thoughtful scholars up there like Michael Fullan and Ben Levin have spent a lot of time sharing the lessons they think Ontario teaches. (Of course, there are different spins on the tale—for instance, UCLA’s William Ouchi has offered a very different take on the educational lessons Canada teaches, one in which Edmonton is the model). I’ll just say that there are a lot of possible reasons why you see different educational or academic results across communities or nations, and that it can be tricky to know whether any given interpretation is the “right” one. My hesitancy regarding the lessons of the Ontario miracle is fed by the fact that big-dollar experts have been teaching and preaching the lessons of Ontario in school systems across the U.S. for a number of years, and I’ve yet to be wowed. One might respond that U.S. systems aren’t doing “enough” of the Ontario stuff, or aren’t doing it “right”—but I’ve got to wonder about the significance of a model if no one seems able to emulate it.

The easiest thing would be for me to just decry the injustice of mediocre schools and insist that schools have to do better. But that kind of pablum doesn’t help things. We fully agree that most poor communities are beset by dismal academic performance. We also agree that there are certainly schools in these communities which make it clear that children raised in poverty can achieve at dramatically higher levels. Where we disagree, I suspect, is when it comes to thinking about how to interpret these facts and the implications for policy. For one thing, I’m hugely skeptical of blanket claims that these schools lack the requisite resources. Heck, school systems like New Jersey’s Trenton and Newark are spending more than $25,000 per student per year. Detroit spends more than $15,000. I’m entirely unconvinced that many of these schools and systems can be expected to spend new funds wisely and well.
I agree that, other things equal, the students in question would typically benefit from better nutrition, health care, and housing—but I also think students benefit from living in a nation where parents are expected to be responsible for raising their children and take pride in doing so. And the painful truth is that expanding the reach, extent, and cost of publicly-provided services inevitably reduces what’s expected of parents while growing the role of public bureaucracies. These are real trade-offs, but I’m dubious that expanding social programs are going to play out as intended (for some of the reasons we agreed upon, a couple exchanges back).

I also agree that it’s great to acknowledge when communities and educators are trying to step up. But I feel like this is a movie we’ve seen many times. On Oklahoma’s A-F grading system, Tulsa, for instance, just got a “D” from the state. The district doesn’t participate in the urban trial of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, so it’s hard to get any kind of apples-to-apples comparison, but there’s not much evidence that they’re doing all that well. The high school graduation rate is around 60%. Of the city’s 76 graded schools, more than half received a “D” or an “F” from the state. And, at least as of 2010, Tulsa was the highest-spending big district per pupil in Oklahoma, spending almost $1,000 more per student than the state average. Again, none of this is to particularly knock Tulsa. It’s just to point out that we can collaborate, allocate dollars, and offer pre-school without doing much to change academic outcomes.

All this, I think, helps bring us to the honest disagreement at the crux of the matter, and the unspoken ideological divide that runs through so much of K-12 reform. Given our persistent frustrations, one tack is to pursue the policies and best practices that will force schools to get it right. This requires great faith in the power of science, policy, and collaboration to get things “right”. A second tack, and the one to which I’m partial, holds that schooling is a hugely complex endeavor that will prove resistant to heavy-handed policies or grand schemes to duplicate “best practices”—and that, as frustrating as it may be, the best path forward is therefore to remove anachronistic policies, empower educators and entrepreneurs to find smarter ways to use limited dollars and talent, set demanding expectations, and ensure this process proceeds with transparency and a due regard for the public interest.

Pedro Noguera
I actually agree to some extent with your skepticism about the role of policy in reform. I increasingly find that most of the mandates handed down by federal and state governments to “reform” schools actually do very little to help, and in many cases make the job of educating children even more difficult. That doesn’t mean they should simply get out of the way, but it does warrant a different approach than we have taken. I would like to see state governments do more to actually help schools by sending in experts who can visit schools and districts that are struggling and diagnose what is wrong and what needs to be addressed. It doesn’t mean that educators will simply be able to use the recommendations to implement change. If it were that easy we would be doing a lot better than we are right now. But such an approach could open the door to creative problem solving on how to address the challenges. This would be far better than what we see now: state governments simply telling a district that it has a number of failing schools and threatening sanctions if progress isn’t made. This kind of top-down accountability does very little to help schools and totally overlooks the accountability of state officials for imposing constraints, both in terms of financing and policy, that make it hard for schools to improve.

I disagree with you about the need to replicate best practices, even though I would readily acknowledge that replication is quite difficult. Educators need to see models of success so that they can learn from them. The goal in observing a highly successful reading program or an innovative science program that gets kids excited about learning is to show other educators what is possible. Too often, educators who have experienced years of failure start to blame the children they serve. Seeing other schools succeed with similar populations can be a very effective way to challenge mindsets that foster low expectations and complacency.

I just returned from KIPP’s summer leadership institute. They do a much better job than most educational organizations at learning from success and passing on the lessons and best practices to new leaders. KIPP is committed to ongoing learning, to critically examining data and student outcomes, and trying new approaches when old ones aren’t working. I wish more districts would adopt this approach.

Why aren’t public schools learning from organizations like KIPP, the Success Academy network in New York, or other successful models of education that can be found among charter, private and traditional public schools? Because we have set up a competition among schools under the guise of creating a market place. Policymakers and many so-called reformers think that competition will lead to positive change. I see very little evidence that this is true. Instead, I see ample evidence that competition is limiting collaboration and cooperation.

Frederick Hess
I hear you, and I think there’s sensible middle ground here. One of the things I always note is that policy can make people do things, but it can’t make them do them well. That’s less of a problem if the issue is mailing out checks. But it’s a big problem when policies are intended to change complex behaviors like delivering instruction, helping teachers get better at their jobs, or turning around the culture of a persistently low-performing school. In each of these cases, what matters is less whether it’s done than how it’s done. In trying to ignore or compensate for this frustrating reality, policy winds up creating new layers of rules, regulations, paperwork, and the rest. These hardly ever go away. Thus, over time, the result is a world where skilled and committed educators struggle with more and more constraints. My fear is that good-hearted efforts to provide expertise don’t allay that. They either tend to turn into new dictates or a lot of spending on consultants to show up and offer advice. I’m not opposed to more support and helpful experts, but I am often skeptical of the value for the dollars spent.

I wholly sympathize with your desire to identify best practices from which schools and systems can learn. And I’ll grant your KIPP point. When we’re dealing with a network of schools that share a common ethos, hand-pick their faculty, and embrace common metrics of performance and success, then I too think they can grow and share successful techniques. I totally agree that this kind of organic “scaling” is absolutely feasible within a given organization. Where I’m much more skeptical is when other systems have staff do a two-day dog-and-pony-show visit to KIPP, then fly home and try to replicate what they’ve seen. In my experience, this stuff rarely pays off. I think the same is equally true even when systems pay big dollars for consultants to come in and help them replicate the practices.

That’s not because the practices don’t work, but because their success is largely a product of the cultural coherence, faculty agreement, and single-minded focus that characterizes KIPP and its brethren. When those factors are absent, the challenge of “scaling up” becomes far more severe—no matter how laudable the practice in question. In this sense, “competition” is a mechanism for allowing coherent, focused systems to serve more kids, instead of relying so heavily on the ability of district leaders to force alien “best practices” into schools and classrooms where they rarely seem to deliver.

The Editors

The Editors

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