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School Reform: Perspective on the Design of the New Engine (4/28/14)

I am passionate about PK -12 school reform in the United States. As a career educator and former school district superintendent, I know the impact that effective schools can have on the lives of children. It is for this reason that I believe it is the duty of all educators to seek to provide the best possible education for students. In areas where schools are not meeting standards, it is the social and civic responsibility of boards of education that govern them to empower school leaders to make the changes that will result in improved student achievement. We have methods that are working. Our challenge is to implement these best practices, and nuanced variations based on schools’ needs, consistently on a large scale.

In a 4/23/14 Education Week article titled Stop Tinkering: We Need a New K – 12 Engine, Harvard professor Paul Reville argues that to date K – 12 education reform efforts in the United States have experienced marginal success, at best, in their attempts to improve student achievement, specifically for students from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds who are served in impoverished schools. Reville further asserts that the reason our education “engine” is failing is because it was designed for a different task. Specifically, Reville’s argument goes on to address the challenges of the third industrial revolution in the United States, in regard to its impact on the type of education and training needed for entry and ascension in the middle and upper middle class workforce. It is a revolution that has seen a shift from low- knowledge, low-skill jobs to an economy based on information exchange and dissemination, and technology which demands high-knowledge and high skills.

I disagree with Reville’s analysis regarding the reason for the limited success of K – 12 education reform efforts in the United States. More to the point, success has not been limited or sporadic because the current “engine” was designed for a different purpose. Success has been limited because every locale is different, each requiring a thorough and consistent nuanced use of best practices to achieve results.

For those, including Reville, who might still argue that the engine is failing and that we need to start all over, I pose a question through analogy. Why hasn’t man travelled to far away galaxies yet? I submit that the major part of the answer rests in the fact that we don’t have the propulsion system to make it happen. Why don’t we have the propulsion system? Our power sources and laws of physics have not allowed us to approach, much less surpass and travel at, the speed of light. So, what is my point in this analogy? My point is the same impediment of current barriers is true in solving the PK – 12 education reform issue. However, just like space exploration, realizing the current barriers doesn’t mean that we stop striving to achieve our goals and refining the tools that we have.

Further addressing the issue of barriers to the type of education reform that Reville suggests, we must correctly identify the true obstacles so that we can examine our ability and resolve to address them. The three barriers to the type of reform that Reville suggests are funding, time engaged in the curriculum, and the current education paradigm in the United States.

In regard to funding, to effectively provide the type of highly specialized and individualized education that Reville suggests, public schools in the United States would have to double if not triple their manpower at the teacher and instructional support specialists levels. This is not practical or affordable because schools are funded from a finite and ever shrinking fuel supply of state and local sales and property taxes. Also, for those who might argue that throwing money at schools, reducing class sizes, and hiring extra teachers does not work, you are right. It does not work if best practices are not employed and if there is not accountability for the work that is done for students. However, we also know from the elite private schools in the United States and abroad that money, well used, does work. The question that still remains though is how do we fund public schools differently and at a sustainable level that will truly change their capacity and effectiveness in serving students? Also, in determining the answer to how do we fund public schools differently, decision makers will have to be really honest about where their priorities are. After all, budgets are one manifestation of priorities. When we achieve honest answers to the funding question we will eliminate the first barrier in Reville’s analysis.

Regarding the time engaged in the curriculum, Reville astutely pointed out that students in public schools do not spend enough time in school to significantly impact their achievement. Elite private schools do not face this problem because of the significant amount of time that their students spend in life activities that actually serve to enrich and reinforce the curriculum at school. Indeed, the student who has been to Greece and traveled its roads knows far more about the country than the student who missed the class lecture and activity and was told to read pages 15 – 35 in the World History book and may or may not have completed the assignment.

So, what can public schools do with the current resources that they have to address this problem? As Reville pointed out we must extend the learning opportunities for our students outside of the regular school day. This includes summer school, camp, tutoring, sports, and exposure to the arts. Of course this brings us back to the first barrier, money. However, the resolve and creativity of administrators in local school districts can overcome the extended services obstacle. It simply requires more creative structuring of time. In some cases, it may also involve the selfless giving of time that educators often engage in for the benefit of their students. Also, a commitment by state law makers to fund education at adequate levels, in the face of current economic times, will serve to enhance the resources that administrators have to work with in providing extended services for students.

The third and final obstacle to education reform as Reville proposes is the current paradigm on education in our country. I believe that education is a fundamental right for all children in the United States. It serves the good of the individual and the nation. Reville’ s model proposes a level of service that can’t be supported by the current funding or infrastructure of schools on a broad scale in the United States, demanding the need for a new engine. However, if the new engine is created on the same funding platform as the current engine it will not be able to “prepare all our children for success” because there will not be enough resources to serve all students at the high level that is demanded. What will we do? If education reform should ever approach this threshold, we will examine the politics of education at the deepest level. It will spark a discussion that touches the very fiber of the American dream and who we are as citizens.

To close, the current model for public schooling in the United States is certainly not without flaw. However, it is the system that we have and it is still appropriate for achieving the function of educating students and preparing them for the workplace or college after graduation from high school. This remains true, in the current era of information and technology. At the school district level, the keys to maximizing the success of our current system is to implement best instructional practices with fidelity , to monitor results, and provide for the professional development of staff where needed . At the state level, schools must be funded adequately according to state funding formulas. At the federal level, the push for innovation must continue with the recognition that money alone will not solve the problem. However, money well used will make an impact. I also believe that the keys for sustainability at the federal level will be ensuring that funds are spread over longer periods of time so that true change can occur. This does not mean that more money will be spent but simply that the money that is provided by large federal grants will be allocated in smaller amounts for extended periods of time. Of course, these ideas will test our priorities and our resolve as well. It is a worthy test though; the future of our nation depends on it.


Shawn McCollough
President & CEO