It has been incredibly difficult to gain momentum for the systemic change necessary for success in all of America’s schools. True change requires a comprehensive strategy that focuses on the many variables that affect student performance. While many individual programs are working toward this goal, those organizations working alone will not produce the education our students deserve and require in order to be competitive in the world market.
The politics of education overshadows the merits of education change in America. The two camps have become so entrenched that many politicians determine which side they need to be on by who supports or fights against any given program. While conservatives usually focus on working toward education reform, that reform is perceived as principally revolving around school choice. As Andy Rotherham opined in a recent blog, conservatives are seen as “reflexively hostile to public schools.”
On the other side, there are powerful groups that want to maintain the status quo. They have been very effective in positioning themselves as the student advocate through a comprehensive strategy to push for smaller class sizes, universal pre-k, more spending on education in general, higher salaries for teachers and reduced testing for students. These have the appearance of advocating for students when they really benefit the adults. A state group will work at the state level toward these goals, often with the advice and additional resources of a national group.
Meanwhile, education reform groups operate in a single silo with national leadership and maybe a state group that is advocating for a single item in the reform agenda. Each state represents a win or lose scenario for each group. But each silo really only impacts a small number of students so it is too easy to marginalize that group when compared to the entire system. Reaching a small number of students has not, and will not, induce systemic change to provide better opportunities for all students. The position from the defenders of the status quo is that each education reform does not address the larger need of all students so we should continue to stay with the current and implement their strategy.
In order to overcome the status quo and have more true reforms become law, state leaders and others advocating for change cannot focus on only one part of the spectrum of improvements that could have a significant positive impact on America’s students. The legislative and policy focus must be to champion all strategies that will enable student success.
This approach is similar to the legislative strategy attributed to Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform. He believed that systemic change was like a crowded airport. In order to land at that airport your plane had to be circling in a holding pattern above. All the planes would eventually land, but you didn’t really know which one would be next. But if you weren’t in the pattern, you most certainly wouldn’t get to land. He made sure that there were numerous tax break bills introduced in every legislative session so that one or more would get approved each year. Applying this strategy to education policy will ensure that some changes are implemented each year in a larger number of states. As more reforms are implemented, more data will be available to demonstrate the success of these programs to new states.
ABCTE’s experience in seeking acceptance of an alternative teacher certification program in Oklahoma provides a good example of how Norquist’s airport theory can be applied to education. In 2006, during a time when no other meaningful education legislation had been introduced in Oklahoma, ABCTE had a bill introduced. Due to the timing of this initiative, those who supported the status quo had only one bill to fight and they applied all their resources against ABCTE’s efforts. Obviously the legislation failed. There was nothing to compromise on and the status quo defenders expended very little political capital in the defeat. For education change in Oklahoma that year, it was a 100% loss rate.
Fast forward to 2008 when Oklahoma had numerous education improvement bills moving through both houses. There were two bills that would have had significant adverse impact on the teachers union. The first was a bill to end collective bargaining and the second was a bill to turn troubled urban school districts into home rule charter districts. If there is a spectrum going from most reviled to somewhat acceptable, these two bills would be clearly at the reviled end.
Because there were multiple bills in the spectrum moving forward, a school choice bill passed the senate and ABCTE passed the senate and the house, but died in conference. This multi-faceted approach came much closer to succeeding as status quo defenders needed to split their resources and use political capital on other bills. For these defenders, opposition to all education reforms with the exception of spending more money is an untenable political position as it leaves them painted as blocking any change that could help students. With multiple reform bills before both houses again this year, conditions look very good for an ABCTE bill to pass.
Research by Matt Ladner and Dan Lips on the education agenda implemented by Governor Jeb Bush in Florida provides further evidence of how a Norquist-style approach could benefit education reform. The staggering improvements in closing the achievement gap in Florida during Bush’s time as governor were brought about by increasing the number of charter schools, increasing the number of alternative teacher certification routes, implementing school choice and using research based reading programs. Bush’s plan did not focus on one element but created an atmosphere of systemic change and the results demonstrate the potential success of this strategy.
Today that agenda in Florida is supported and defended by the Foundation for Florida’s Future with Patricia Levesque as the director. This foundation continues the legacy of Governor Bush by educating legislators on the gains that have been achieved by Florida’s students. The foundation works to ensure continued progress through high standards, accountability, rigor and relevance, school choice and teacher pay.
Another great example is Robyn Bagley who as Board Chairman of Parents for Choice in Education in Utah fought hard for the voucher referendum in her state. When it lost, she could have retrenched in her fight for school choice. But she felt that her group could do more for education as a whole now that they had a much wider base of support and relationships with many more legislators and education leaders. Robyn worked with the Association of American Educators to help push the growth of a professional teacher’s organization to serve as an alternative to the teacher’s union. She also worked with ABCTE and succeeded in expanding alternative teacher certification options and came close to winning merit pay for teachers. Her group’s efforts helped pass powerful open enrollment legislation for public schools and increased ongoing funding for the Carson Smith Special Needs Scholarship. Because of these victories for students, they have demonstrated that they are a force for education change and decision makers are depending on them for advice in all education matters – not just one specific option.
Here are the critical elements of a student success strategy that can increase student achievement on standardized tests and improve graduation rates:
1. Student Experience - teacher quality, time on task and curriculum
2. School Environment
3. Accountability and Administration
All of these elements are interconnected. Quality teachers without enough time on task for students will not succeed. A longer school year with lousy teachers will not deliver success. Keeping students in a school setting that is not right for them will lead to drop outs. Creating charter schools and opening up enrollment in private schools without enough quality teachers will lead to failure. Precise student achievement data with a weak curriculum or poor instructional quality will not raise test scores. And the list goes on.
Evidence of these concepts can be found in KIPP schools. It is debatable as to whether KIPP schools could scale to serve millions of students, but their success has been demonstrated repeatedly. They have stronger, more committed teachers with most coming from alternative certification routes and they are not constrained by collective bargaining agreements. Their students have significantly more time on task in every school day and a longer school year which is why they are able to get back on grade level in two to three years. They have a school setting that is a perfect match for these motivated students and parents and they use a research based curriculum.
Based on the elements that are known to improve student success at KIPP schools and in Florida, what specific areas of focus should the student success agenda target?
Teaching Strategies for Student Success
• True Alternative Certification: ensure that programs like ABCTE are available to provide rigorous yet efficient methods for getting new teachers in the classroom
• Differentiated Pay: ensure that these opportunities are available for both high needs subject areas and for teaching in high needs school districts
• Accountability: using the Louisiana model, determine the student achievement realized by teachers from each preparation program in the state including alternative certification programs and hold those programs accountable for performance
• Core Subject Expertise: ensure your elementary teachers have proven knowledge in research based reading instruction and improved math expertise. Ensure secondary teachers know their subjects.
Support and Retention
• Performance Based Pay: provide performance incentives for teachers and schools that demonstrate increased student achievement
• Career Ladders: create a career ladder based on results – not based on inputs
• Professional Organizations: provide the ability for teachers to join a non-union professional organization such as the Association of American Educators as opposed to being forced to join a union
• End Seniority as basis for teaching assignments: allow principals to have control over who they hire for their schools to end the practice of passing bad teachers from school to school
Time on Task
• Longer school year: KIPP students are in class for 197 days a year. Create longer school year for all schools or at least for failing schools
• Real Math: ensure all students get basic math skills before high school / ensure high school math is not “dumbed down”
• Research based reading instruction: if you can’t read, you can’t compete in a world market
• End Social promotion: ensure all students have the basics before advancing to the next grade
Match School Setting to the Student
• Special Needs
• Foster children
• Low income
• Military members
• Tax Credits
• Public school open enrollment
• Lift the cap: use waiting lists and lotteries as a strong reason to increase the number of charters in the state
• Increase autonomy: allow charters full authority over hiring – eliminate requirements to use only state certified teachers
• Provide full funding: give public charter schools the same funding as traditional public schools
• Lift any student caps: don’t limit the number of students
• Increase use for online recovery programs: allow community based organizations to help provide access to allow students to finish high school through credit recovery programs online
• Each state should follow the Data Quality Campaign’s guidelines that include student identifier, teacher identifier and can link teacher to students to determine performance
• Highlight the difference between NAEP and State Test scores to look for indications of “racing to the bottom” by lowering standards to falsely show progress
• Allow school districts to become home rule school districts, giving them the freedom to operate as a charter school
• End collective bargaining in schools
• Alternative principal certification to create better talent in the administrative ranks
A paper without action is just paper. So what is the call to action from the data demonstrated by Ladner and Lips and the progress made in Utah, Florida and Oklahoma? The call to action is for leaders to:
Take charge of education as an issue and be the catalyst for true, comprehensive education change that results in lasting student success
In order to accomplish this goal at the state level, leaders should develop a comprehensive education legislative strategy. Using some of the changes listed above, and the expertise available from national groups to help facilitate that success, legislation should be pushed to accomplish a broad spectrum of education changes each year. State leaders can work with businesses to create an education advocacy group that takes on a comprehensive agenda like Parents for Choice in Education and Foundation for Florida’s Future. Since these organizations will not be viewed as “single issue groups”, they will be seen as education change experts. They can also aid in local and grassroots efforts.
Ross Douthat wrote in a recent blogpost in The Atlantic Monthly that “on too many issues, conservatives have simply avoided the most important emerging debates, changing the subject whenever possible and leaving liberals to argue against liberals” and that education is “where the most interesting arguments are between liberal reformers and liberal interest groups, with conservatives sitting on the sideline talking about vouchers and occasionally praising the Michelle Rhees and Corey Bookers of the world.”
It is time to take charge, evolve beyond the old ways of thinking and create a strategy for true systemic change in America’s schools.
Links to success:
“Demography Defeated: Florida's K-12 Reforms and Their Lessons for the Nation” by Matt Ladner and Dan Lips
ABCTE – American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence
AAE – Association of American Educators
The Friedman Foundation for Educational School Choice
The Alliance for School Choice
Center for Education Reform
The New Teacher Project on the effects of seniority based hiring practices
Data Quality Campaign
Ross Douthat article