Lessons From 40 Years of Education ‘Reform’ – WSJ

Let’s abolish local school districts and finally adopt national standards.

By LOUIS V. GERSTNER JR.

While the economic news has most Americans in a state of near depression, hope abounds today that the country may use the current economic crisis as leverage to address some longstanding problems. Nowhere is that prospect for progress more worthy than the crisis in our public education system.
[Commentary] Martin Kozlowski

So, from someone who realized rather glumly last week that he has been working at school reform for 40 years, here is a prescription for leadership from the Obama administration.

We must start with the recognition that, despite decade after decade of reform efforts, our public K-12 schools have not improved. We can point to individual schools and some entire districts that have advanced, but the system as a whole is still failing. High school and college graduation rates, test scores, the number of graduates majoring in science and engineering all are flat or down over the past two decades. Disappointingly, the relative performance of our students has suffered compared to those of other nations. As a former CEO, I am worried about what this will mean for our future workforce.

It is most crucial for our political leaders to ask why we are at this point — why after millions of pages, in thousands of reports, from hundreds of commissions and task forces, financed by billions of dollars, have we failed to achieve any significant progress?

Answering this question correctly is the key to finally remaking our public schools.

This is a complex problem, but countless experiments and analyses have clearly indicated we need to do four straightforward things to bring fundamental changes to K-12 education:

1) Set high academic standards for all of our kids, supported by a rigorous curriculum.

2) Greatly improve the quality of teaching in our classrooms, supported by substantially higher compensation for our best teachers.

3) Measure student and teacher performance on a systematic basis, supported by tests and assessments.

4) Increase “time on task” for all students; this means more time in school each day, and a longer school year.

Everything else either does not matter (e.g., smaller class sizes) or is supportive of these four steps (e.g., vastly improve schools of education).

Lack of effort is not the cause of our 30-year inability to solve our education problem. Not only have we had all those thousands of studies and task forces, but we have seen many courageous and talented individuals pushing hard to move the system. Leaders such as Joel Klein (New York City), Michelle Rhee (Washington, D.C.) and Paul Vallas (New Orleans) have challenged the system, and elected officials from both sides of the political spectrum have also fought valiantly for change.

So where does that leave us? If the problem isn’t “what to do,” nor is it a failure of commitment, what is stopping us?

I believe the problem lies with the structure and corporate governance of our public schools. We have over 15,000 school districts in America; each of them, in its own way, is involved in standards, curriculum, teacher selection, classroom rules and so on. This unbelievably unwieldy structure is incapable of executing a program of fundamental change. While we have islands of excellence as a result of great reform programs, we continually fail to scale up systemic change.

Therefore, I recommend that President-elect Barack Obama convene a meeting of our nation’s governors and seek agreement to the following:

– Abolish all local school districts, save 70 (50 states; 20 largest cities). Some states may choose to leave some of the rest as community service organizations, but they would have no direct involvement in the critical task of establishing standards, selecting teachers, and developing curricula.

– Establish a set of national standards for a core curriculum. I would suggest we start with four subjects: reading, math, science and social studies.

– Establish a National Skills Day on which every third, sixth, ninth and 12th-grader would be tested against the national standards. Results would be published nationwide for every school in America.

– Establish national standards for teacher certification and require regular re-evaluations of teacher skills. Increase teacher compensation to permit the best teachers (as measured by advances in student learning) to earn well in excess of $100,000 per year, and allow school leaders to remove underperforming teachers.

– Extend the school day and the school year to effectively add 20 more days of schooling for all K-12 students.

I can predict that three questions will be raised about these measures:

First, how can we set national standards when we have a strong tradition of local school autonomy? The answer is that the American people are way ahead of our politicians here: Poll after poll shows they support national standards.

Second, won’t this take many years to implement? No, if we follow a focused, pragmatic approach. While ideally we want all 50 states to participate, we can get started with 30. The rest will be driven to abandon their “see no evil” blinders by their citizens as the original group achieves momentum and success. Moreover, we do not have to start from scratch on the national standards. Experts can quickly develop an initial set just by drawing on existing domestic and foreign programs.

Third, how do we pay for all of this? In three ways: We will save billions by consolidating the operations of 15,000 school districts. The U.S. Department of Education can direct all of its discretionary funds to this effort. And we need to drive into the consciousness of every American politician that education is not an expense. It is, rather, the most important investment we can make as a country.

H.G. Wells remarked that “history is a race between education and catastrophe.” For the first time in America’s history, we may be losing that race. We can win, but we have to act quickly and decisively.

Mr. Gerstner, a former CEO of IBM, was chairman of the Teaching Commission (2003-2006), which reported on ways to improve the quality of public school teaching.

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Published in: on December 11, 2008 at 10:31 am  Comments (2)  
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  1. I read this blog post with interest as I am a recently retired teacher with 30+ years of experience in education. I taught in different areas of the country, but most of my years were in Mississippi.

    Here, as in most parts of the country, teachers in all grades have had their feet held to the fire over the last 8 years. As you mentioned, we have increased time on task. After morning announcements we are in “nose to the grindstone, shoulder to the wheel” until lunch. There is one 20 minute recess during the day – no such thing as a lunch time recess. In fact, many teachers even quiz students on math facts, etc. while in the lunch line. Our tests from the curriculum companies were not difficult enough so we created our own tests to meet and exceed the standards. Last month I went into one of our public schools and watched a terrific science lesson being taught with a Smart Board. Another room was set up for teleconferencing with other classrooms. The week before a class had shared a lesson with a group of students in Eastern Europe.
    So … you might ask. What’s the problem here? My former co-workers still in the field are exhausted ! The work to the max all day and take home papers to check and record every evening. At least one long afternoon each weekend is spent planning the next week’s lessons or creating exams. Aha, but you say they can relax during the summer. No, summers are eight weeks and usually two of these weeks are spent in workshops for the district.

    So why aren’t these children learning and retaining what the learn?
    Part of the problem is the illiteracy rate of our students’ parents. Many students can read or write better than their parents by the end of second grade. They are not able to help with homework or even check it for accuracy. When any school holiday comes, students seem to forget about 25% of what they had learned the previous term.

    Many parents are working two jobs and are not home in the evening for their students or even in the morning to make sure they get off to school. These parents cannot take time off from their jobs for fear they will lose their jobs.

    More affluent students are burdened down with extra-curricular activities. Sometimes they arrive home just minutes before bedtime. In addition, bedtime is getting later and these same students are often inattentive or fall asleep in class.

    Here in Mississippi, white flight to private schools has hit our public schools hard. The public schools where I taught have a 95% minority population and about 90% of these students are from lower socio-economic families. This is an increased challenge for our district. However, we are working to meet this challenge.

    I realize this comment is lengthy, but I feel that as a blogger on this site, you need to get into the trenches and see what’s really going on in today’s public schools. Thanks for reading.

    • Dear Sue,

      Part of the problem is the illiteracy rate of our students’ parents. Many students can read or write better than their parents by the end of second grade.

      Bingo. Having volunteered with several youth programs, this is the one common denominators that I frequently noticed – absentee parents. Not necessarily in the physical sense either. Parenting is a huge responsibility that unfortunately way too many parents give a low priority. Look how many go to school board meetings or other school programs.

      Keep up the hard work. You will be respected just as I respected my good and dedicated teachers.


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