A way to dramatically increase the quality of education in America


  • Today, by the time they graduate from high school, American children are performing at the bottom end on the international scale. Even our brightest children are testing only on par with the lowest performing children in other countries. Yet, when our kids enter our school system, they are among the most capable in the world. The inescapable conclusion is that every child in America is currently being "left behind" children in other countries by our public K-12 educational system.


  • Give every child in the US the best K-12 education in the world. For example, in TIMSS, we should be gaining each year on other countries and end up at grade 12 as the best in the world, not in virtually the dead last position (see this graph of the TIMSS scores).
  • Increase accountability and choice in a responsible manner.

Our fundamental premise

  • Our approach is: "the best way to get US schools to be comparable to the best schools in the world is to copy what works best, i.e., adopt the core best practices of top performing schools and school systems." If a school adopts world-wide best practices in a few certain key areas (such as standards, assessments, principal and teacher hiring, training, accountability, and authority), there is an excellent probability that the school can perform at a level comparable to the best schools in the world. 

Our basic approach

  • Create a relatively short checklist of requirements that must be present to achieve education excellence and provide cash incentives to those schools which agree to meet and implement the checklist, and continue that funding as long as the school is performing at a superior level.

  • Only programs and policies which exemplify international best practices should qualify (adapted, if needed, to work in the US). For example, "an assessment system aligned with standards" might be a requirement and the assessment methodology developed at Cambridge University (which is used in over 100 countries, including the top performing countries) would be an eligible approach to satisfy the requirement. Similarly, a requirement for "principal training" could be satisfied if the principal attended the National Institute for School Leadership (to be launched in 2002 by NCEE, New Schools Venture Fund, Carnegie Corporation, and Broad Foundation) since this Institute draws from best practice leadership development practices in a variety of fields. 

  • Programs and policies which meet these requirements exist today in the US. We need not invent anything new. A school need only select from a mix of programs and policies which have already been proven to work in the US or require little modification to be able to be used successfully in the US.

Justifying the premise and approach

  • Independent test results from schools which adopt one or two key requirements are on our checklist are an excellent indicator that our fundamental premise is both sound and replicable on a large scale

  • Schools using NCEE's America's Choice comprehensive school reform design model (which is based on adopting international best practices) have achieved astounding results within a very short amount of time. Within 12 months of adoption in 3 different states, the pass rate on official state tests improved by more than 50% at all schools, and over 100% at one school.

  • The Accelerated School (K-8), a public charter school in South Central Los Angeles, CA, which uses the Accelerated Schools Project comprehensive school reform design model, was selected by Time Magazine as the top elementary school of the year after the magazine began a search last fall to determine "the most accomplished" schools in the country. Time carried a two-page article about The Accelerated School, pointing out that the school "outperformed the community's other public schools by 270 percent on last year's standardized tests.
  • Just properly implementing a single requirement, such as giving a qualified principal freedom and authority, can have dramatic results as shown at Fox Tech where the school went from being the worst school in Texas to being the top school in its district.
  • Since CSRD passed and continues to be supported by Congress, this approach, which is a more "accountable" version of CSRD (because it has higher standards of proof), should be legislatively viable.

Legislative strategy

  • Pass legislation that provides substantial cash incentives to schools that adopt a set of certified programs and policies that ensure educational success. The funds are provided to enable schools to adopt, implement, and maintain new programs. Funds continue as long as the school meets milestones and checklists on adoption, implementation, and expected performance gains. This is similar to Obey-Porter (CSRD), but with the following differences:
    • the money is available to all schools (not just Title 1),
    • the funding is on-going as long as milestones and gains are achieved and maintained (rather than only for 3 years),
    • the incentives are large: $1K per pupil minimum and over $2K per pupil for low-performing schools
    • the incentives are tied to achievement of milestones and results (adoption, implementation, and demonstration of performance gains)
    • only qualified programs are eligible (schools must adopt programs that have been independently shown to have substantial, statistically significant efficacy over a range of schools, i.e., both the program is effective and the results are replicable), and
    • for non-Title 1 schools, there is a much longer checklist of reforms which must be adopted to qualify (not just a whole school design program, but other factors that ensure success). Example of such checklist items are: teachers are paid based on performance (rather than degrees and credentials), ability to fire teachers including tenured teachers without a costly and time consuming process (in California, for example, the number of tenured teachers that have been fired is virtually zero over the past 10 years), principals must be accountable for school performance, but must also have the power to decide things such as textbooks, class size, staffing decisions, etc (i.e., the same autonomy that that principals in most Catholic schools have), differential pay for teachers based on subject (some subjects are harder to find teachers for) or location (harder to get teachers to teach at low-performing schools), all teachers are certified/qualified to teach the material they teach, maximum class sizes, higher teacher and principal pay, PreK program, mandatory Kindergarten, stable funding guaranteed by the state, etc. Hopefully, this checklist will also encourage states and local school districts to change their policies in order to make it possible for schools in their areas to qualify for the program.
  • Pass legislation that establishes national standards and a methodology for assessments. These standards and assessments can be used as one of the optional or mandatory checklist items in the first bill.

Legislative tactics

  • Try to get something into S.1 conference report (the BEST Bill) that moves closer to what we want to do. Unclear at this time how much we can do on this, but there is an amendment to expand and reform the comprehensive school reform program.
  • Pass a bill that would amend Obey-Porter to add "accountability" to the whole school design programs to ensure that all programs that are being incentivized are actually producing significant positive results (for example, NAS only certifies 10 whole school design programs, yet Obey-Porter allows many more). Extend the bill to allow non-Title I schools to participate if they meet all the requirements of the original CSRD bill as well as an additional checklist of components necessary for educational success.
  • Pass legislation that would either set national standards and assessments or get NAEP to issue a set of national standards that are aligned with the NAEP test. These would be non-mandatory standards. One option is to create/use these standards in schools for the children of military personnel. This would be a good reason to create national standards. The important point is to officially adopt a set of standards and assessments now. 
  • Tighten eligibility requirements over time.  If, for example, a school consistently fails to achieve certain performance standards, it would be required to adopt additional checklist items (such as national standards) in order to continue to receive incentive payments.

Key points

  • The program is a monetary incentive program. It does not force anyone to do anything.
  • Schools are not required to adopt the national standards and assessments to obtain the incentive. However, if they are not performing to a set national level of accomplishment (i.e., not passing the national standard), they will be required to adopt the national standards if they want to continue to receive the incentive funding associated with this particular bill.
  • Choosing a set of national standards and assessments actually increases choice (over the de facto 3 choices we have now).
  • The monetary incentives are more to enable schools to meet the standards of educational excellence, rather than to "incentivize" compliance. The true incentive to adopt this program will be the superior academic performance of schools that have chosen to adopt the programs and policies and thus qualify for the incentives compared with the academic performance of those who have not.

How it works

  • Schools agree to adopt a whole schools reform approach (and must adopt one that has shown statistical efficacy in other schools), and meet a chinese-menu checklist of qualifying requirements

  • Schools get incentive dollars that allow them to make the necessary changes, 

  • Schools start improving under the new program, meeting milestones for implementation of committed programs as well as demonstrating superior performance

  • Schools continue to get $$ incentives in succeeding years so long as enhanced performance standards are maintained (e.g., a threshold average pass rate for the school on national assessments)

Obey-Porter (CSRD) w/accountability


  • Amend CSRD to ensure that it is actually funding "effective" programs and extend the funding to continue so long as the school continues to perform at a superior level
  • Extend CSRD to all schools, not just Title 1, if the school adopts items from a checklist of requirements necessary for superior academic performance


  • Add accountability to CSRD: Amend CSRD to add a provision that ensures that the programs being incentivized are effective in producing a successful outcome, i.e., to qualify for funding, a school program must provide some amount of independent test data (such as from state test data from other schools) showing a high level of statistically significant efficacy. If a particular program is already being incentivized by CSRD at over 50 schools, funding shall be provided to allow for independent testing of the efficacy of the chosen program according to a more rigorous standard set by a panel (see below).
  • Extend beyond Title I schools: Extend CSRD to non-title I schools if those schools meet a more stringent checklist of components such as necessary for success (see above). This checklist will initially be flexible and, after showing proof of success, can be tightened up over time through subsequent legislation.

Specific provisions

  • The legislation should create an "FDA-like" panel to ensure that the reform programs being incentivized are effective in producing a positive outcome, e.g., use Dept of Education’s OERI to certify which programs will are eligible. OERI would be asked to come up with a metric and all programs that meet the metric should be allowable.
  • A tighter metric would be required once a program is adopted at over 50 schools. If this rigorous standard is not achieved, the program will not be eligible for incentive funding for adoption by any new schools (funding to schools who already use the ineffective program will not be disrupted and they would have 3 years to switch to an approved program or risk having their funding discontinued)
  • The checklist should be a "chinese-menu" type of checklist, e.g., meet 3 from column A, meet 2 from column B, etc. This can be easily tightened up over time, e.g., meet all 5 from column A, meet any 4 of 6 from column B, etc. This also makes it much easier to pass the initial bill since you can negotiate on the number of required elements in each category, rather than what they are.
  • It should be hard for a program which fails the more rigorous test to just slightly modify the program to pass the lower standard and get into the program again as a "new" program.
  • The higher standards for programs in use at 50 schools should set a performance bar based on the top-performing program. Any program that is not at the level of at least half the effectiveness of the top program should not be allowed. In other words, we allow a factor of 2 variation between the worst program we’ll incentivize relative to the best program. Another approach is to require that in order to qualify, a whole school program must be able to show at least a 50% improvement in pass rates in at least 50% of the schools using the program whose pass rate before the program was under 50%.
  • To qualify for the higher standards, the panel might only require submission of state test result data from at least 3 different states and at least 30 randomly selected schools. This makes the cost of testing extremely low (virtually zero) for a CSRD program developer.
  • require that the curriculum to be used must either be aligned with the official standard set approved by the State (which we hope nobody does) or with a standard set accepted by at least 20 states (provided that the state does not explicitly prohibit this).

Note:  all the above are strong provisions.  In legislation they each would be represented by one sentence and then further explained in the report language that accompanies the bill.


National standards and assessments


  • Select a single complete set of standards from the many good standards available and adopt those as the national standards. 
  • Repeat this process for an assessment methodology (e.g., NAEP, Cambridge assessments, etc.)
  • These national standards can later be amended improved/modified over time by a collaborative process, but the important goal here is to expeditiously choose a viable standard rather than wait 10 years to develop "yet another standard" that completely lacks a real-world test over a long period of time.

Why adopt national standards?

  • No country has achieved education excellence without a single set of national standards. The US has over 50 national standards and is virtually in last place internationally. 
  • An official set of national standards allows us to calibrate how states are doing relative to each other, and can provide useful guidelines for states modifying their standards.
  • The NAEP exam should be based on the national standard. To not have a national standard means that NAEP is based on some national standard that we never approved.
  • We can use these national standards for a variety of purposes, e.g., NAEP should use them for calibrating its exam, states can use them for benchmarking their standards, schools can use them as specified in the legislation above if the school is not performing to minimal national standards. Lastly, because textbooks and instructional materials are only created to be aligned with the state standards of the top 3 most populous states, the creation of a national standard will create a fourth standard that textbooks and instructional materials can be aligned with. 
  • In other words, creation of a national standard does not decrease choice in any way. It actually increases choice for states. Having clear national standards increases accountability because states can be matched up against these standards. Without standards to measure the states against, there can be no accountability.

Proposed legislation

  • There are two approaches to create a national standard: (a) get NAEP to create them since these are needed to create the NAEP exam or (b) legislate them by creating legislation that describes a non-partisan 100% inclusive process for selecting a set national standards from the many existing sets. My preference is to try (b) since that will lead to more buy-in using the process below. Failing that, we could try (a).
  • Legislation might look more like this (with detail and process left for report language, definitions or the floor debate and record):  “The President (or his designee) shall appoint a commission on national educational standards and assessments.  The Commission shall be composed of one representative (Superintendent of Public Instruction or equivalent) of each of the fifty states.  Each representative shall submit no more than two complete national standards for consideration by the whole commission, and no more than 2 assessment methodologies. The Commission shall also consider the national standards and assessment methodologies adopted by the ten countries with the best scores on the TIMSS test as well as any complete standard that is both used in at least 4 states in the US and in at least 50 schools (e.g., NCEE’s America’s Choice). 
    •  A possible process: In the first round, each standard will have their creator or a person selected by the creator present the benefits of that standard in front of the group including test data, etc. For the 100+ standards to be considered in the first round of voting, delegates will have 5 votes (you cannot vote more than once for a standard) and the 10 standards with the most votes will continue onto the second round where there will be another round of discussion. Second round: Each delegate has 3 votes will narrow the list to the top 3. Another round of discussion. Third round: Each delegate will have 2 votes and the system with the largest number of votes is declared to be the national standard.
  • A more complex approach would be to "pick and choose" standards components at the subject level, e.g., the math standard from California and the reading standard from Connecticut. This would require a lot more work by the committee since the standards need to interplay correctly. It’s much easier to adopt the best standard set "whole hog" and then tune it later. With all the standards available today in the US, plus the standards from other countries, we can do a lot worse than picking the single best standard/assessment set available.
  • Need to be careful about selecting committee members, sticking to the rules, and giving clear guidance on what and how to accomplish the goal.
  • An alternative to this is just to allow the programs in the amended Obey-Porter the ability to use any standard that is approved by the state (e.g., the New Standards Performance Standards). This will allow the states themselves to create (or adopt) standards that transcend state boundaries.


  • States will be encouraged to adopt the national standards and assessments, and perhaps adding to the standards. This allows a base level of standardization over all states.
  • Teachers can be much more effective since they can focus on how to teach, and not what to teach.

"Fast track" approach

There is an alternative to two bill approach outlined above. This approach is simpler and the benefits are compelling. The basic concept is to create a "fast track" program for the BEST bill, i.e., if you meet the chinese menu checklist of requirements, your application will be approved and the funding amount is pre-determined.  Here are the details.

The purpose of this bill is to improve the quality of public K-12 education in the US. More specifically, it is to make it easier for schools to obtain funds under BEST by "pre-authorizing" certain configurations that have already been proven to be both replicable and effective. 

This has the following benefits beyond the benefits already in BEST:

  • Decrease bureaucracy and cost
    The application form is much simpler. This benefits both the school and government agencies who are evaluating the application.
  • Increase speed of implementation
    Because there is less work involved in creating and approving the applications, applications for funds can be created faster, and approved faster. In addition, the elements eligible for "fast track" are the most effective. Bottom line is that the impact on students happens much sooner.
  • Increase choice
    The "fast track" program doesn't take away anything. It creates more choice, not less. It introduces the concept of "national standards" and allows alignment with national standards. It also allows alignment with "multi-state approved standards". This increases the number of whole school design programs available for incentives in each state (e.g., America's Choice would be enabled under this provision). A second way that national standards increases choice is that it makes it more economically feasible for more whole school design programs to be created since the costs can be amortized over a larger customer base (rather than being state specific). As long as a state permits its local school district to make a choice, the options for local school districts are increased by this program. 
  • Increase local control
    The increase in choices described in the previous bullet means that schools have greater control over a student's education because they have more options to choose from. 
  • Increase standards
    Because only the most effective combinations of elements will be available through the fast-track program, the program will have the net effect of increasing standards.
  • Increase accountability
    Because only the most effective and easy to measure combinations of elements will be available through the fast-track program, the program will have the net effect of increasing accountability.
  • Increase predictability
    Because only elements that produce repeatable results will be available through the program, the program will have the net effect of increasing predictability.
  • Better performance/outcomes
    Because only elements that produce superior results will be available through the program, the program will have the net effect of increasing student performance.

The "fast track" program 
This is a simplified version to illustrate the form...the actual version will have more elements.

  • If a school complies with the following 5 requirements, the government will provide $1K per pupil per year in funding to be used by the school in support of meeting the requirements:
    • Required components
      • A "certified" whole school design (OERI shall certify any whole school design in use at at least 20 schools in at least 3 states which can show clear and convincing evidence of at least a 25% improvement in state tests within 12 months after launch in at least 50% of the schools using the program)
      • Kindergarten is funded by the state and is mandatory
      • Curriculum and assessments must be aligned to either the state standards, an approved multi-state standard (OERI shall certify any standard approved for use in at least 5 states), or the official national standards. If a standard other than the state standard is used, it can only be used if the state permits its use (i.e., the federal government will not over-ride the states on whether alignment to state standards is advisory or mandatory).
    • Optional components group I (choose 5)
      • School facilities meet state code
      • Principals are authorized to fire teachers (including tenured teachers) without going through a cumbersome process
      • School funding is guaranteed by the state/local governments to be at least $x per pupil each year
      • Principal and teacher pay meets minimum guidelines set annually by OERI
      • Principals and teachers are compensated based on teaching effectiveness using any one of a number of  OERI approved "pay for performance" compensation plans
      • Teachers are free to determine how they teach, e.g., materials, curricula and to be innovative and imaginative in their methods
    • Optional components group II (choose 1)
      • Maximum class size is 30
      • Average class size is under 25

Other Strategies

  • California ballot initiative to fix the teacher effectiveness issue (as articulated in the PRI report "Unsatisfactory Performance" by Dawson and Billingsley) and a second initiative that provides incentive funding for schools that meet a rigid checklist
  • Approach Annenberg Foundation for whether they are interested in this approach. They could single-handedly make this happen right, without going through extra steps and could serve as a demonstration model for federal legislation. This could save 5 to 10 years of time.
  • the end i am try to get to is something like:
    • goal: graduate students from HS that are top in the world within 20 years
    • strategies: set national standards so that cirrculum etc can be aligned certification and training for principals more autonomy/power for principals teacher pay based on performance stable funding for schools ...etc....
    • tactics: create pilot project in calif that embodies these principles to prove it works and can scale implement nationally

A PowerPoint presentation of the concepts presented above is available at http://www.skirsch.com/presentations/education.ppt.