This short essay cannot begin to say all that deserves to be said about the state of ed-reform in America in 2014, but it gives me an opportunity to do some stocktaking, recount a bit of history, and flag some challenges for the future.
Organizationally, the modern Thomas B. Fordham Institute and the Foundation that birthed it have been around for seventeen years, but the reformist zeal and philosophy that it inherited from the Educational Excellence Network carry us back to 1981. Two years before A Nation at Risk, Diane Ravitch and I—and a handful of fellow travelers—had concluded that American K–12 education needed a kick in the pants, a kick toward greater quality, primarily in the form of stronger student learning. (More of that tale can be found on our website here and here.)
That’s thirty-three years ago, before many of today’s ed reformers were even born, and, while Diane has obviously deviated from that path in recent years, I like to think I’ve continued to trudge down it, along with an ever-growing cadre of fellow reformers and—since 1997—with Fordham’s organizational and human resources pushing us onward.
What’s been accomplished?
I’ve reviewed some of this history before, citing as many as ten big, positive changes. Here, I’ll mention just the two that seem to me most profound:
- We now judge schools by their results, not their inputs, intentions, or programs. The results we focus on deal, for the most part, with pupil achievement. And while we continue to struggle with the details, over the years we’ve developed academic standards that set forth the results we seek, we’ve created assessments and other measures to gauge how well they’re being achieved, we’ve built a trove of data that generally makes results (and progress toward them) transparent and comparable, and we’ve constructed accountability systems that reward, intervene in, and sometimes sanction schools, educators, and students according to how well they’re doing.
- Choice among schools (and other education-delivery systems such as virtual learning, home schooling, and more) has become almost ubiquitous. Though too many choices are still unsatisfactory, and too many kids still don’t have access to enough good ones, we’re a very long way from the education system of 1981, which basically took for granted that children would attend the standard-issue, district-operated public school in their neighborhood unless, perhaps, they were Catholic (or very wealthy).
Plenty more accomplishments could be cited, including the serious entry of technology into classrooms, ambitious teacher-evaluation systems, networks of charter schools—virtual school systems, really—that do a bang-up job of educating poor and minority kids, some rewards for outstanding educators (and some softening of job protections for the other kind), and a host of “alternative” routes by which eager, talented individuals can make their way into classrooms and principals’ offices without passing through the traditional hoops.
The payoff to date is worth lauding: Student outcomes have strengthened, at least in fourth and eighth grades, mostly in math but somewhat in reading. High school graduation rates are starting to edge upward. Other “cultural” indicators are better, too: less teen pregnancy, less smoking, less drug abuse, and more.
We can’t claim that all of that is due to education reform but it has almost surely helped. We can honestly state that reformers have much to be proud of—and millions of American children (and the nation itself) now benefit from the fruits of their labors.
But we have so far still to go. The important changes that we’ve planted haven’t yet yielded enough of an achievement harvest, particularly at the end of high school, when it matters most, and we continue to wrestle with their implementation. We still have too many unforgivable gaps, too many “dropout factories,” too many kids left behind, too many without good options. Other countries continue to make faster gains than the U.S. And we haven’t yet worked our way down the agenda of essential reforms. Let me note (in no particular order) eight of the toughest and most consequential challenges ahead.
The basic structural and governance arrangements of American public education are obsolete. They’re okay at operating yesterday’s schools but almost hopeless when it comes to inventing tomorrow’s. We have too many layers, too many veto points, too much institutional inertia. “Local control” needs to be reinvented—to me it looks more like KIPP-Houston than the Houston Independent School District—and education needs to join the mayor’s (and governor’s) portfolio of other important human services. Alternatives are emerging—mayoral control in a dozen cities, recovery school districts in a few states, charter-management organizations, and more—but the vast majority of U.S. schools remain locked in structures that may have made sense around 1900 but not in 2014.
Finance. I dare you to track, count, and compare the dollars flowing into a given school or a given child’s education. I defy you to compare school budgets across districts or states. I challenge you to equalize and rationalize the financing of a district or state education system—and the accounting system that tracks it—in ways that target resources on places and people that need them and that enable those resources—all those resources—to follow kids to the schools they actually attend. What an unfiltered mess! (But please do watch Fordham try to make some sense out of it, at least in the DC metro area, a few weeks hence.)
We’re beginning to draw principals, superintendents, chancellors, and state chiefs from nontraditional backgrounds, but we haven’t turned the corner on education leadership. We still view principals, for example, as chief teachers—and middle managers—rather than the CEOs they need to become if school-level authority is ever to keep up with school-level responsibility. Think of them—and those above them—as executives; prepare them as executives; empower them as executives; and compensate them as executives. We already hold them accountable as executives, but nothing else about their role has yet caught up.
Curriculum and instruction
“Structural” reformers—I plead guilty to having been one—don’t pay nearly enough attention to what’s happening in the classroom, in particular to what’s being taught (curriculum) and how it’s being taught (pedagogy). The fact is that content matters enormously—Don Hirsch is exactly right about this—and that some instructional methods work better in particular circumstances than others. Both standards-based and choice-based reform have remained largely indifferent about these matters, but that ought not continue. That’s why the folks at KIPP, for example, are finally developing network-wide curricula and why Amplify and the Core Knowledge Foundation have teamed up to build and distribute a Common Core–aligned language arts curriculum.
Smart kids deserve education tailored to their needs and capabilities every bit as much as youngsters with disabilities. (The individualized system of the future should tailor everybody’s education within a framework of common standards.) And the nation’s long-term competitiveness—not to mention the vitality of its culture, the strength of its civic life, and much more—hinges in no small part on educating to the max those girls and boys with “special gifts,” as Rick Hess puts it, who “may be those most likely to one day develop miraculous cures, produce inspiring works, invent technological marvels and improve the lives of all Americans.” But gifted education in America is patchy at best; at worst, our system is downright antagonistic to the needs of high-ability girls and boys.
Preparation of educators
How many times do people like Art Levine and organizations like the National Council on Teacher Quality have to document the failings of hundreds upon hundreds of teacher- and principal-preparation programs before this gets tackled as a top-priority reform? Once again, promising alternatives are emerging, and a smallish number of traditional programs do a fine job. But, once again, the typical case is grossly inadequate. And, once again, our governance system (or lack thereof) makes change hard to effect.
Two forms of complacency alarm me. The old familiar one is the millions of parents who deplore the condition of American schools in general but are convinced that their own child’s school is just fine (“and that nice Ms. Randolph is so helpful to young Mortimer”). The new one, equally worrying, is reformers who think they’ve done their job when they get a law passed, an evaluation system created, a new program launched, then sit back on their haunches, give short shrift to implementation, but defy anyone who might suggest that their proud accomplishment isn’t actually working.
I hail the entry into the ed-reform camp of entrepreneurs with all their energy, imagination, and venture capital, but I’ve seen too many examples of them settling for making their venture profitable for investors or shareholders (or themselves) rather than educationally profitable for the kids it serves. That’s not so very different from traditional adult interests within the public and nonprofit sectors battling to ensure their own jobs, income, and comfort rather than giving their pupils top priority. A firm that’s just in it for the money is as reprehensible as a teacher union that’s in it just to look after its members’ pay, pensions, and job security.
You can count on the Fordham Institute to stay out front on these issues and others that arise, as well as its long-term emphases on standards-based reform (particularly the Common Core at present) and school choice in its myriad forms. We’ll be there with research, analysis, commentary, advocacy—and sometimes a bit of humor. As American ed reform’s leading gadfly, we’ll continue to nip at friends and allies when warranted—and almost always at defenders of the status quo and others who don’t put kids’ interests and the public interest at the top of their priorities. The Institute’s reins are passing into the exceptionally capable hands of Mike Petrilli and a stellar team of colleagues, and the place will inevitably continue to evolve, as it should. I get to move downstairs, cut back a little, and evolve a bit myself, as I should. But I’m not riding off into the sunset. In the months and years ahead, I’ll still be at Fordham (and Hoover), with fewer day-to-day responsibilities and thus more opportunity than ever to make trouble for those who deserve it.
Chester E. Finn Jr. has devoted his career to improving education in the United States. As a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, chairman of Hoover’s Task Force on K–12 Education, and president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute