Toward the Good School Promise: an Election Recap

While there are millions of happy democrats this week, a critic sees a landscape “littered with rubble and ruin and wreckage on all sides” in an open letter to the President. Elections leave aggrieved poles, but I live in a much more optimistic place. In particular, I’m optimistic about five things:

  • Measurement. To all the critics who want to get rid of testing, I just don’t get how things get better for poor kids without measurement. Instead, I’m spending a lot of time working on efforts to make the upcoming consortia tests as good as possible and believe big data is a path to more ed-equality.
  • Leadership. It’s clear that leadership matters and grant programs should leverage it where it exists to make step-function improvement. Race to the Top was the most effective grant program in history even before the checks were cut. I appreciate the irony of creating temporary inequities to improve long term equity, but spreading discretionary funding like peanut butter is usually ineffective. I appreciate state and district leaders representing real common college and career ready standards.
  • Tools. What Michael Moe called the “near spontaneous eruption of innovation” is attracting education talent and investment at unprecedented rates. Cheap devices, more broadband, open content, adaptive technology, and engaging media are dramatically increasing the ability to customize learning pathways for every student.
  • Schools. In the 90s, we learned how to open good new schools. In last decade, thousands of good new schools created by hundreds of school developers (but most districts continued to ignore lessons learned). A combination of what Clay Christensen calls “empowering” innovations like online learning and “efficiency” innovations like blended learning are creating a new generation of opportunity to boost excellence and equity. The charter initiatives that passed in Washington and Georgia will result in a few more good schools for underserved neighborhoods over the next few years.
  • Networks. The anachronistic structure of American public education only occasionally works well and then oscillating politics result in a reversion to the norm. Read Fordhams’ treatise, Rethinking Education Governance for the Twenty-First Century . I’m a big fan of networks. Critics call it privatization, a ridiculous label for the provision of public services via performance contracting used in every other form of public service delivery. Networks benefit from perpetual rather than political leadership; they can sustain an intellectual mission over time and at scale. In almost all cases they are nonprofit boards that operate under contract to a public entity: a district, a state commission, or a university.

Some edreformers are fighting tired battles with entrenched foes. RiShawn Biddle offered some sound advice, “Reformers must do better at rallying grassroots support, especially among the 51 million single parents, grandparents caring for children, and immigrant households.” But it’s also clear that innovation is rapidly reframing old problems and introducing new opportunities — and that’s where I’m spending all of my time.
Core blow. The worst news of the week was the defeat of Indiana’s chief for change Tony Bennett. Andy Rotherham speculates that, “He seems to have gotten caught in a pincer between conservatives upset about his friendliness to the Common Core standards and an education establishment upset about his unwillingness to pull any punches and his support for ambitious reform.”
Biddle worries that it “may lead Bennett’s soon-to-be former colleagues who have backed Common Core (and the reform-minded governors and legislators who support them) to either step away from Common Core or appease foes by watering the standards down.”
Tony is a champion for kids. Like Petrilli said, “This one hurts.” As he suggested, we need a REFR ( Republicans for Education Reform ) to complement DFER.
After encountering bureaucratic barriers in Florida, Indiana took on some procurement for PARCC. Superintendent-elect Glenda Ritz ran on an anti-testing platform, so she may be an odd purchasing agent for the consortia that will test half the kids in the country. Hard to tell where governor-elect Mike Pence will come down, but those of us that support the equity and excellence agenda behind the Common Core have work to do.
To make matters worse, the drop in Kentucky test scores announced this week is a sign of the decline in proficiency levels we can expect in most states as they adjust tests to reflect to real college/career ready standards in 2013 and as new consortia tests roll out in 2015.
IdaNO. All three of superintendent Tom Luna’s initiatives were repealed in Idaho including plans to provide secondary students with laptops. Early on the efforts to boost student access to technology were tagged as a trading teaching positions for laptops.
I’m glad that Maine went first. I appreciate Gov. Angus King’s leadership in Maine’s 1:1 initiative (and think he’ll be a great independent senator). However, as an alternative to big state appropriations, we illustrated in Funding the Shift to Digital Learning that states can make a matching contribution that encourages districts and schools to reallocate budgets over a couple years — about $200 per student per year. A user fee and encouraging students to bring their own devices (BYOD) can help create and sustain high access environments.
Reauthorization. Right after smoothing out the fiscal cliff, congress should reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education ActIt’s nearly criminal that ESEA has gone 11 years without a fix. The design principles of NCLB were sound–gap closing goals, disaggregated data, and progressive intervention–but there were obvious problems that should have been address several times over the last decade. If adjustments (e.g., growth models) had been made every two years, we would have a productive federal framework. Instead, as Biddle points out, the 33 waivers granted by the Department has “gutting accountability.”
Carrots are great, incentives work for many, but remember we got NCLB because of widespread chronic failure and massive gaps in achievement. I’m optimistic about inventing tools and schools that will help address these challenges, but they need to be part of the good school promise–federal and state policies that ensure that every family has access to a good neighborhood school and quality options online.
Fulfilling the good school promise starts with college and career ready expectations for all students. It means providing intensive support for struggling schools but it does not tolerate chronic failure. It requires collecting and and using data to personalize learning. It includes launching innovative new schools where there is opportunity and need. Now that the election is over, it’s time to do the people’s business.
This blog first appeared on EdWeek.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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