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A Reflective View on a Perceived Gap in Quality PK – 12 Schooling in the United States (1/11/14)

Preparation for successful entry into adult society is one of the fundamental ends of formalized schooling of youth in any industrialized nation. As a part of the preparation of students for successful entry into adult society, PK – 12 public schools in the United States are purposed to equip students with the knowledge and skills to enter the adult work world or continue with more education and training after high school. The goal of which is to allow students to become functional, contributing members of adult society, who participate in the country’s economic system.

When students do not gain appropriate knowledge and skills during their PK-12 schooling, their opportunities to successfully participate in the economic system in the United States are greatly diminished. Specifically, experience as well as research and literature confirm what many generally know to be true, the level of one’s education is one of the most significant factors that impacts his/her economic mobility.

In a 1/7/14 article in The Atlantic, Josh Kraushaar explores the link between income inequality and education. While Kraushaar’s article includes a level of political undertone, it does identify three factors that contribute to better educational outcomes for PK – 12 students. Kraushaar sites expanded school choice, improved teacher quality, and a strengthened curriculum as elements to improve schools in the United States. Kraushaar goes on to indicate that the current culture in and surrounding PK – 12 schools in the United States robs students of the opportunity to experience better public schools as it protects a bureaucracy that has not the genuine interest or ability to provide students with a quality education.

While Kraushaar’s list of factors that can improve schools is spot on, his analysis of current practice in the field is not complete. Speaking as a former public school superintendent, I do not suggest that schools can’t continuously improve in their mission and practice. Instead, I affirm that much more takes place currently in policy and practice to improve public schools than is generally acknowledged.   

In the area of expanded school choice, Kraushaar argues for the expansion of charter schools as a way to create a competitive market place that will influence public schools to improve their practice. At no time in our nation’s history have charter schools enjoyed more support and experienced more success than they do now. While acknowledging the success of a number of charters and the struggles of some others, we must also realize their finite capacity. The majority of students will not have access to quality charters schools.

For the foreseeable future, the majority of the nation’s students will continue to be educated in traditional public schools of some form because of the capacity and function of the entity. Indeed, a system of public schooling is a necessary and essential component of any industrialized nation.  Understanding this reality, we must seek to reform traditional public schools using best instructional practices, including many of those born in the charter school setting, while continuing to hold traditional public schools to high standards for performance and student achievement. 

Kraushaar also indicates that schools must improve the effectiveness of their teachers in order to provide students with a quality education. While No Child Left Behind (2001) has a number of fundamental problems, its requirement for Highly Qualified teachers defined as certified in the field of practice, was the first significant federal statute based step in this direction.

The law and the current accountability waivers that a number of states have been approved to implement in response to its mandates have also led to a wellspring of practices aimed at improving teacher quality. These include value added teacher evaluation systems that use student achievement as a factor in their assessment of teacher competence. Many of these same systems also require  extended observation and evaluation of teachers on rubric based measurement criteria. As a result, teachers are receiving more focused feedback than ever on their instructional practices and the corresponding professional development to help them improve.

Finally, Kraushaar talks about the need for a strengthened curriculum in public schools in the United States. A product of the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers, The Common Core State Standards take a step in this direction. Although there is still some disagreement about what system of assessments to use to determine student proficiency on the Common Core curriculum, 45 states, the District of Columbia, four territories, and the Department of Defense Education Activity have adopted the standards and are implementing them in some form.

By having a common understanding of what students should know public schools throughout the United States are able to produce graduates that have an equitable education with their peers. This better positions schools to produce graduates with the skills to succeed in post-secondary endeavors and in the 21st Century workplace, on a national and global scale. The Common Core State Standards represent the most comprehensive national effort to date to develop a high quality K-12 curriculum for all students in the United States.  

In closing, the work of continuous improvement in the areas of curriculum, assessment, and instruction is never finished. However, public schools in the United States continue to make great strides in these areas. As public schools continue to focus on the use of best instructional practices and the hiring and ongoing professional development of highly qualified teachers, and as they implement and refine the assessment practices used with the Common Core State Standards they will continue to improve. I am confident that the result of the practices discussed here will be quality equitable PK- 12 schooling throughout the United States that positions students for true income equality.

Shawn McCollough
President & CEO