Common Sense School Reform

Frederick Hess, Beacon Hill Institute – June, 2004
(Guest Columnist) 

 A Measure of the Need for Reform America’s schools are in a state of crisis.

Few of our schools are excellent, many are mediocre, and yet we, the adults responsible, are content to tinker and theorize. Demands for radical change are consistently met by protestations of good intentions, pleas for patience, and an endless stream of ineffectual reforms. The dimensions of the problem are straightforward. Researchers have estimated that in 2001 just 32 percent of all 18-year-olds graduated from high school with basic literacy skills and having completed the courses needed to attend a four-year college. The figure was just 20 percent for African-American and 16 percent for Latino 18-year-olds.

 The 2003 National Assessment of Educational Progress reported that just 31 percent of fourth graders and 32 percent of eighth graders were proficient in reading. Fully 37 percent of fourth graders and 26 percent of eighth graders scored below basic. We’re not talking a high bar here, to suggest that children be able to read on grade level. In 2002, three-quarters of employers expressed serious doubts about the basic skills of public school graduates in the areas of spelling, grammar, and writing clearly. More than 60 percent reported that public school graduates had fair or poor math skills. College professors teaching a self-selected group of the nation’s graduates expressed similar concerns at almost identical rates.

 Perhaps most distressing, our children lose ground during their years in school. While our 9-year-olds score above international norms, our 13-year-olds slip below average, and our 17-year-olds avoid the bottom only by eking past nations like South Africa, Cyprus, and Lithuania.

 The common culprit blamed for our educational travails is a lack of spending. However, by any reasonable standard American schools are funded exceptionally well. In 2000, the most recent year for which international comparisons are available, the OECD reported that the U.S. spent significantly more per pupil than any other industrial democracy, including those famous for the generosity of their social programs.

From 1995-96 to the current school year, U.S. education spending grew by more than 53 percent, from $287 billion to more than $440 billion. The problem that policymakers and education officials are loath to address is a system of schooling seemingly designed to frustrate competence. Teachers are hired, essentially for life, through haphazard recruiting procedures. There is little systemic recognition for excellence.

 Compensation and desirable assignments are treated as rewards for longevity. Advances in technology and testing have made accountability and information available in a manner unimaginable even 15 years ago. Yet informing decisions with data is considered a novel, nifty idea, while the very words “efficiency” and “productivity” are derided as alien to education. The result is a culture of incompetence, in which educators learn to keep their heads down, avoid causing waves, and play defense.

 Educational leaders routinely complain that they don’t get the resources they need and therefore cannot reasonably be held responsible for educating all our children. Ken Baker, principal at the Wyoming High School in Cincinnati, told Ed Week last year, “We’re supposed to drive all the kids toward success, and we have to do it with one hand behind our backs.

The fact is, there are going to be children left behind.” Cincinnati spent $10,328 per attending pupil in 2001-02. In Buffalo, Marion Cañedo, the superintendent of a district spending well over $11,000 per pupil, opined, “I don’t know how to make services multiply with decreased revenues. I don’t know how that’s humanly possible. Unless it’s like the loaves and the fishes.” In fact, one-quarter of the nation’s superintendents told Public Agenda last year that a lack of funding means that, “only minimal progress can be made,” in their schools.

 A police officer charged with apprehending a serial murderer who warned, “Unless we get extra funding, don’t expect us to catch the killer,” would be dismissed or held up to ridicule. Yet in schooling we are so used to these justifications and excuses that they don’t even faze us. We take them as the facts on the ground. The leaders of all organizations, even worthy ones, must make hard choices and find ways to do more with less. Organizations transform themselves by refocusing on the essentials, by tackling contract language and staffing routines once viewed as untouchable, and finding ways to use new technological and management tools to rethink their work. Companies on the verge of bankruptcy cut salaries, find ways to make due with less, or find a way to scale back services in an intelligent fashion. Service sector organizations like law firms and newspapers have slashed a majority of the support positions that 40 years ago were required to maintain files, handle correspondence, and prepare documents. When pressed, educational leaders have largely rejected such steps.

 Take the case of John Wilhelmi, a principal in Portland, Oregon. After No Child Left Behind enabled students to transfer out of his low-performing Marshall High School, he lost a lot of students and more than one-third of the incoming freshman class. How did Wilhelmi respond? By overhauling his school? No. He wrote an open letter to President Bush: “We can only do good things to the extent that we have the staff to do them. If we lose staff then we lose the capacity to do good things.” Only in education are leaders allowed to imagine that there is no fat to cut and no employees to spare, to believe it is impossible to deliver new services without new resources, or to assume that existing inefficiencies are a natural state of being. What Is Common Sense School Reform?

 Confronting this grim reality, there are two paths to education reform. Status quo reformers believe that the nation’s millions of teachers and administrators are already doing the best they can. Status quo reformers presume the way to improve America’s schools is to provide more money, expertise, training, and support. They embrace new pedagogies, smaller schools, smaller classes, new assessment strategies, and any number of widely endorsed educational reforms, but steer away from radical changes to job security, accountability, compensation, compe-tition, or work conditions.

 The only substantive changes the status quo reformers embrace are those that would occur outside of the schoolhouse. Issues like economic inequality or racial division have a tremendous impact on children’s opportunities and must be addressed by policymakers. But we should not allow musing on public housing or welfare reform to stand in for tough-minded attention to improving schools.

 Common sense reform rests on two precepts: accountability and flexibility. Centuries of experience in fields from architecture to zoology tell us that people work harder, smarter, and more efficiently when they are rewarded for doing so. People do their best work when goals are clear and they know how they’ll be evaluated. Smart, educated, motivated people will find ways to succeed.

 Common sense reform seeks to construct a culture of competence in schools—a culture where success is expected, excellence is rewarded, and failure is not tolerated. Absent the pressure of markets or centralized accountability, it is not hard for mediocrity or inefficiency to seem the norm. Absent such pressure, even the best-intentioned educator may shy away from pursuing efficiencies when they require dislocation or wrenching adjustments. The common sense reformer assumes that educators, like attorneys, journalists, doctors, professors and think tankers, will be more effective when held accountable for performance, when rewarded for excellence, and when given the opportunities to devise new paths to success. Accountability forces managers and leaders to rethink systems and practices. It relies on toothy testing systems and market competition working in tandem to compel educational leaders to make hard choices.

 Consider the Detroit automakers who fell on hard times in the 1970s. Energetic new leadership rethought the product line, under duress; redesigned quality control, under duress; slashed middle management, under duress. They renegotiated contracts while cutting costs. And they weren’t happy about any of it. The transformation was not about asking folks on the assembly line to work 60 hours rather than 40. It was about requiring those in charge to bite the bullet and make painful decisions and those below them to accept those changes.

 Flexibility, the other half of common sense reform, is about empowering educators and educational leaders to serve their students more effectively and harness the forces of accountability. This requires rethinking how we hire, manage, and compensate educators, how we staff schools, how we select and compensate educational leaders, and how we utilize technology. Beyond the general tenets of accountability and flexibility, the principles of common sense reform are straightforward. Schools must focus on doing a few crucial things well. Schools must ensure that all children master the gate-keeping skills of reading, writing, mathematics, and that children have a fundamental grasp of science and history.

 School systems should relentlessly seek out talented and entrepreneurial teachers and leaders, and should strive to nurture these individuals. Licensure barriers that deter promising candidates from becoming teachers and leaders should be stricken. Educators who excel at serving children, who contribute in meaningful ways to their schools, or who take on the toughest assignments in terms of schools or coursework must be appropriately recognized and compensated.

 Contractual relationships that stand in the way of this must be overturned. And it’s not the union’s job to overturn it; it’s our job to overturn it. We’re supposed to be saying, “Okay, you guys get to negotiate for that and nothing more.” You have to push back. It’s our job to stand up for the kids. Contractual relationships should be modified so that ineffective educators can be identified and either remediated or readily fired. School districts should promote flexibility and accountability by decentralizing and using data management and information technology advances to inform decisions throughout the organization.

 There is nothing uniquely businesslike about asking that organizations be accountable, flexible, or efficient. These are not business principles. These are sensible guidelines for motivating adults and ensuring that they will competently perform their chosen work. The travesty is that these are regarded as business principles because they are the norm in the private sector while we have permitted our most significant domestic institution, or nation’s schools, to totter along with little more than good intentions as a guide. Common sense reform reflects the recognition that we should approach our children’s education with at least the same degree of seriousness that we currently reserve for the production of breakfast cereal and designer jeans. The fact that we have not done so reflects an appalling lack of moral seriousness on our part.

 Common sense reform is not a miracle cure. It will not solve all or even most of what ails American education. It is only a beginning, it is a foundation, it is the thing that we must do first before tackling the instructional and pedagogical and curricular challenges. Visionary leadership requires a certain basic toolbox—that executives be able to assemble their own teams, reward excellence, remove the inept, measure performance, encourage entrepreneurial activity, access information, and reinvent operations as necessary. Whether we will unflinchingly embrace common sense reform is the question of the era. In a world as complex as ours, it is easy for simple truths like responsibility, merit, and opportunity to get lost.