How to fix our public schools

Steve Kirsch,

Executive Summary

  • 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 the exception.
  • 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 national standards."
  • 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 enormous.
  • 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 politically achievable. 
  • Our goal is simple: put together our best vision of a responsible series of reforms and prove that they are both replicable and effective.

Other documents

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

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