October 12, 2012 / 6:05 PM / in 5 years

COLUMN-Moving beyond our vacuous education reform discussions

By Reihan Salam

Oct 12 (Reuters) - Barack Obama is a champion of education reform. So is Mitt Romney. Even in the midst of an extremely polarized political season, the former Massachusetts governor has offered praise for Arne Duncan, President Obama’s secretary of education, and for the Obama administration’s Race to the Top initiative. The same is true of Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, who has emerged as the GOP’s leading point person on fixing America’s schools. To those who lament partisan rancor, this might look like very good news. But it’s not. Rather, it is an indication that our conversation about “education reform” is pretty vacuous.

The reform label applies to at least three broad ideas: (1) standards-oriented reform, or let’s have more testing and accountability; (2) human capital reform, or let’s have better teachers; and (3) choice-oriented reform, or let’s use “backpack funding” that will allow public education dollars to follow the student wherever she chooses to enroll, whether it’s a neighborhood public school, a public charter or (perhaps) a voucher-eligible private school. Many people who love one kind of reform hate the others, so saying you’re “pro-reform” doesn’t mean very much.

That shouldn’t come as a shock. There is something about public education that starts Americans gushing and makes them sentimental and unrigorous. Hardly anyone disagrees with the late R&B songstress Whitney Houston, who believed that the children are our future and that we should teach them well and let them lead the way. Schmaltz is deployed on all sides of the debate - from teachers’ union members who insist that those who oppose across-the-board pay hikes don’t care about kids to voucher proponents who specialize in heartstring-tugging tales of inner-city youth.

It’s not just schmaltz that limits our ability to think clearly about public education. Frederick Hess, an education policy scholar at the center-right American Enterprise Institute and one of the smartest think tankers I know, has argued that we’re also hamstrung by our collective fixation on schools as instruments for achieving social justice.

The stubborn gap between the graduation rates and achievement levels of white Anglo and Asian American students on the one hand and Latino and African American students on the other is a real problem, particularly as the Latino share of the population surges. But by viewing public education first and foremost through the lens of this “achievement gap,” philanthropists and legislators have, in Hess’s view, prioritized raising reading and math scores of the weakest students to the detriment of reforms that could boost performance across the system as a whole.

How could focusing on the poorest, most vulnerable kids be a bad thing? In effect, achievement gap thinking allows the vast majority of middle-class parents to remain complacent about their own mediocre schools while focusing attention on a handful of dysfunctional urban school districts that educate a minority of America’s K-12 students. This complacency suits suburban America’s elected officials and school administrators, as it allows them to avoid contentious battles over truly innovative instructional models that could rattle the status quo.

The biggest barrier to the embrace of these innovative models is cultural. We find it very hard to imagine structuring schools in new and different ways. Even the most celebrated charter school networks are just slightly modified versions of the public schools most of us attended as children. And the reform conversation tends to focus on minor tweaks. Consider human capital reform. Reformers on the left and right tend to oppose so-called last-in, first-out hiring policies, salary schedules that emphasize years on the job over effectiveness, and tenure rules that make it virtually impossible to fire underperforming teachers. Moving beyond these practices could very well make a difference in the quality of education, and that shouldn’t be dismissed.

But these measures fail to address the deeper problem: that K-12 education makes little use of specialization, the main driver of productivity growth in every other sector of the economy. As Hess and Olivia Meeks observe in The Futures of School Reform, the size of the teacher workforce tripled from 1.1 million in the 1950s to 3.3 million in the early 2000s. At the same time, college-educated women who once had few professional options outside of teaching saw their opportunities expand dramatically. And so it became far less likely that a new public school teacher had graduated in the top 10th of her high school class. Many human capital reformers argue that the right solution to this problem is to dramatically increase compensation for teachers. Many also champion shrinking class sizes. Even if we could afford to pursue these strategies, and it’s far from obvious that we can, there will come a point at which we will exhaust the supply of American adults who are willing and able to teach.

Instead of simply increasing the number of teachers, Hess and Meeks propose shifting teaching from a profession built around generalists - people who teach reading and fractions and supervise bus-loading and monitor the cafeteria and grade papers - to one built around specialists. Just as the Mayo Clinic has specialists working on discrete medical problems (cardiologists here, neurosurgeons there) and support staff who enable them to do their work, schools could “unbundle” the job of teaching. We don’t find it strange or scandalous that highly trained obstetricians don’t also clear bedpans. In the same vein, schools should rely more heavily on support staff to load the bus, monitor the cafeteria and grade exams while letting teachers who are really great at teaching fifth grade geometry focus on teaching fifth grade geometry. Like medical specialists, specialist teachers in the rarest, most demanding fields should expect more compensation. School employees with skills that aren’t quite as uncommon, meanwhile, could be paid less without sacrificing quality.

To be sure, we shouldn’t replace one rigid, centralized approach with another. While the Hess and Meeks vision of schools that deploy talent in smarter ways is attractive, there isn’t a single best way to unbundle education. And that is the reason why choice-oriented reform is a crucial complement to real human capital reform - we need new schools and school networks to experiment with different models.

According to Neerav Kingsland, the CEO of the non-profit New Schools for New Orleans, the key emerging divide in the education world is between reformers and those he calls relinquishers. Reformers are school district leaders who aim to make centralized, government-run educational systems work more effectively by imposing new rules and regulations concerning what school administrators and teachers can and cannot do. Relinquishers, in contrast, believe that the job of the school district is to empower charter school operators to teach as they see fit, subject to oversight from a small and nimble central office.

The caveat is that relinquishers have a special responsibility to shut down schools that fail and help schools that succeed grow as quickly as possible. In New Orleans, where 85 percent of students are enrolled in charter schools, Kingsland’s organization launched seven schools just this fall, and he has also been involved in the wrenching process of shutting failing schools down.

Yet New Orleans is very much an outlier; it is hard to imagine school districts across America voluntarily following the lead of New Orleans. Fortunately, school choice isn’t the only way to drive innovation and experimentation in education. Instead of relinquishing at the level of the school, schools can start relinquishing at the level of individual courses.

John White, Louisiana’s state superintendent of education, has worked with Governor Bobby Jindal to push forward the most ambitious education agenda in the country. One of White’s most promising initiatives is course-level instructional choice. Having previously served as superintendent of the Recovery School District, White recognizes the power of charter schools - yet he also recognizes their limitations. “It takes an enormously talented leader to start a new school, and the number of such organizations is inherently limited,” he explained. “So in order to really scale quality and innovation and access, you can shrink the unit that needs to be developed from an entire school into something smaller.” That is, instead of expecting parents and students to leap from one school to another, you can give them the option of choosing, say, a Spanish class taught by a local teacher or a Mandarin class taught online. For White, the beauty of this approach is that it allows students to leverage the many other institutions - colleges and universities, private firms, the military - that can provide developmental experiences as valuable as those offered by K-12 schools.

More broadly, course-level instructional choice might even improve the cost-effectiveness of education. Burck Smith, the CEO and founder of the low-cost higher education provider StraighterLine, has floated the idea of an educational “cafeteria” plan, in which students would be assigned a fixed budget that could be used for a wide array of courses. By taking a low-cost online language course, for example, a student could save money for extra precalculus tutoring or a summer enrichment program.

Relinquishers remain a small minority in the education world. Most education visionaries are still chasing after the One Big Solution, whether it’s merit pay, better teacher evaluations, or mimicking Finland or Shanghai. Charter schools are still seen as a boutique movement, and relatively few policymakers have even heard of course-level instructional choice. But as Americans face up to the limitations of one-size-fits-all school reform, the relinquishers are slowly gaining ground.

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