How to fix our public schools
Steve Kirsch, firstname.lastname@example.org
- Our K-12 public schools are performing at a level well below their
potential and virtually in last place on an international scale. We are also
failing on our own standards. For example,
half the 4th and 8th grade kids in California can't meet the minimal
"basic" national standards (NAEP) in math. All our
kids are being "left behind."
- The situation isn't getting any better. In fact, the official US government
report on our own National Education Goals shows we've made zero to negative
progress over the past 6 years on virtually all goals. For example, our
official goal is to be first in the world in science and math education. The
reality is that we've remained in virtual last place.
- The current education bill (ESEA) does nothing to fix the problem and may
make things worse by encouraging teachers to teach to the test, rather than
focusing on learning. In principle, annual testing is a good idea since we
need to know what schools and/or classrooms are not improving. And holding
people accountable is fine if you've given those people the time, guidance,
responsibility, authority, and resources necessary to succeed. But
because the ESEA bill skips those steps, it is highly likely fail for for four reasons: (1) we already know we are doing poorly so annual
testing isn't going to tell us anything we don't know, (2) if a school is
failing, we have no pool of "good" schools to move kids into (in
fact, if these existed, we'd move these kids today) or a "magic fix" that we require a school to adopt, (3) since state
lawmakers, local school boards, and labor unions collectively haven't
given the management of the schools the responsibility and authority to make
necessary changes and the financial resources to succeed, holding individual
schools accountable for
results in a system that is setup for failure is ludicrous and will lead to
fraud, (4) requiring consecutive annual gains is unrealistic since even the
best programs have statistical variation. In fact, under the ESEA bill passed by the House, a
recent op-ed in the NY Times (August 13, 2001) pointed out that
75% of the schools in our top performing states would be forced to
completely re-structure (by laying off most of their staffs, becoming public
charter schools or turning themselves over to private operators). In short,
despite valiant efforts by a lot of responsible lawmakers, we often end up
with hastily drafted and
completely untested legislation that make matters worse.
- The problem isn't our kids, their parents, lack of pre-school, etc because
we have many large scale examples that, given the proper instruction in
school, virtually all these kids can be remediated within a year.
- There is no doubt the problem can be fixed. Even with the current
constraints, there are success stories. There are US public schools that
have gone from worst in the state to best in the state. It can be done. But it
needs to be done on a larger scale. We need to replicate our successes by
making changes that will ensure success. Success needs to be the rule, not
- To fix the problems with education, we must make
some dramatic policy changes. It is insane to think we can achieve dramatically
different outcomes if we keep doing the same things over and over again. It
is irresponsible to "experiment on our kids" by adopting
piecemeal reforms that, in most cases, have never been proven to be
effective, even on a small scale.
- It's time to stop the experiments. Other countries do a superior job of
education. The safest and most straightforward way to improve (and achieve
our National Education Goal of being first in science and math) is to adopt
a comprehensive and coordinated system of reforms based on the
"best practices" from our own country and other countries. We already know what specific
reforms we need to adopt to get there, but we have lacked the political will
to implement these reforms on a large scale (the lack adoption of a
world-class set of national standards is a perfect example). The good news
is that we know it can be done. For example, the America's Choice program
from NCEE, a program that was designed based on 11 years of research into
international "best practices," has been adopted by over 400
public schools in the US with astonishing results (such as a 100% increase
in pass rates in state exams). So we can import international "best
practices" into our schools and see dramatic benefits.
- The simplest way to encourage the adoption of "best practices"
in the US is to pass federal legislation that provides the financial means
for schools to implement a "checklist of success," i.e., a
checklist that, if implemented by a school, is both necessary and sufficient
to ensure success. Similar legislation can be passed at the state level as
well. By providing a template, guidance, and technical support, as well as
incentivizing state and local governments to remove necessary political
barriers, we can set our schools up for success, rather than set our schools
up for failure. All schools, not just Title I schools.
- Formulating the "checklist of success" is non-trivial and we
will seek input from all different sources. We must set the bar high, but
not so high that it is unachievable. We can raise standards over time. The
success checklist will be in the form of a Chinese menu ("choose at
least 3 from Category 1, at least 5 from Category 2, etc.), rather than
requiring a rigid checklist. This provides flexibility for both schools in
being able to qualify and lawmakers in being able to get political support.
An example of a checklist item would be: "The school must have
alignment of standards, curricula, and assessments." A more
controversial checklist item would be: "The school must adopt the
- Here are the four areas we are pursuing:
- State legislation in Maryland to implement this as a pilot program
- Federal legislation to implement this as a pilot program
- Federal legislation to either change or re-affirm our existing national standards.
We should benchmark them against other standards and selecting a
new set if our standards are not internationally competitive. We can do a
pilot program by having our military schools adopt these standards.
Standards are a major reason we are behind other countries in science
and math (other countries, particularly those in Asia and Eastern
Europe, emphasize analysis, proofs, and puzzles, while the United States
focuses on pencil-and-paper drills).
- Organize alignment of support behind these programs: parents,
teachers, administrators, academics, college presidents, local and state
school boards and superintendents, state and federal lawmakers,
governors. Involvement of celebrities can help us accelerate our ability
to reach and persuade
- We must not think we've "solved" the problem or have done
everything we can. We must think long-term. We may need to elevate education
to "crisis" if necessary to make a change. The payoffs are
- Our work is complementary to the work of others, such as New Schools (Kim
Smith) and EdVoice (Ted Lempert). Each of us has the same end goals (to
improve education), and we are pursuing that goal with different
strategies that are mutually re-enforcing.
- Current energies are being devoted to determining what the Chinese menu
should look like. We are assembling two independent 5 to 6 member blue-ribbon
panels in two states to determine this list. The expert panels will be
comprised of at least one of the following: an
outstanding teacher, a principal who has turned around a school, a highly
respected superintendent, a highly respected state education administrator,
and a nationally known academic. We will refine each menu
item to ensure it is unambiguously measurable. Neither of these are trivial
tasks, but we are confident that are achievable. The emphasis will be on
doing what is right for our kids, and not on political expediency.
Therefore, it is quite possible many schools may be unable to qualify
initially. Because (a) this is a limited pilot program, (b) participation in
the program is at the option of the school, and (c) the flexibility of the
Chinese-menu, we believe that our focus on doing what's best for the kids is
- Our goal is simple: put together our best vision of a responsible series
of reforms and prove that they are both replicable and effective.
How to fix our public schools (details)
Contains the details on which this summary is based.
Background education research
Contains a whole bunch of interesting facts about education.
Steve Kirsch Political Home Page