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Published in Print: April 1, 2001, as A Holistic Approach

A Holistic Approach

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The 50 states have created more education policy in the past 20 years than during any comparable period in history. Why, then, aren’t the problems being solved?

The 50 states have created more education policy in the past 20 years than during any comparable period in history. Tens of thousands of pages of laws and regulations have been enacted, affecting virtually every aspect of education. The primary objective of all this activity has been to improve schools and increase student achievement.

Considering the enormous amount of time, energy, and money spent in the process, we have to wonder why so little progress has been made. Some critics argue that policymakers are not well-enough informed and don’t really understand the complex problems of education. That’s easy to believe when presidential candidates argue about who will test the most, or when a state is poised to deny up to 40 percent of its high school seniors a diploma because they can’t pass a test on material some never learned.

Still, state policies generally seem sound. One that requires teachers to be certified in the fields they teach and to renew their certification periodically certainly seems to be on target. So do policies that set standards, establish accountability systems, reduce class size, and promote the use of technology. There is probably no educational problem that is not addressed by a reasonable state policy somewhere.

Why, then, aren’t the problems being solved?

I’ve concluded that policies aren’t working because they don’t address the entire system of public education in coherent and logical ways.

After attending dozens of meetings during which this question was asked, I’ve concluded that policies aren’t working because they don’t address the entire system of public education in coherent and logical ways. All of the important parts of the system are inextricably linked to one another. So for public education to operate effectively and efficiently, those parts must function well simultaneously.

Enacting and implementing sound policies in a logical sequence could take decades. Because most policy is initiated by politicians who respond to public pressure and rarely think beyond terms of office, no state has done that.

Take, for example, standards-based reform, the nation’s number one strategy for improving schools. Common sense dictates that, as a first step, each state should have mounted a full-court press to improve teaching because if teachers are not committed to a new strategy and are ill-prepared to teach to the standards, reform will fail. Recognizing this, states might well have limited standards to reading and math until their districts developed the capacity to require standards in additional disciplines.

To monitor the performance of students and schools, policymakers knew they would need tests that are aligned with standards and truly measure what students know and are able to do. They also knew that it would be unfair to attach high stakes to those tests until they were sure the kids had access to the teachers and curricula they needed.

Unfortunately, they didn’t act on what they knew. Instead, 49 states established standards before their teachers were adequately prepared to teach to them. Most states then adopted unaligned, off-the-shelf tests to assess students, and a growing number are now attaching high stakes, such as graduation or promotion, to these tests, even though many students have not had an adequate opportunity to learn the material.

How could intelligent people make policies that are so obviously flawed?

How could intelligent people make policies that are so obviously flawed? I recently asked a colleague who has advised prominent politicians. He replied that policymakers usually have only a handful of bad options to choose from, so they pick the one that appears the least problematic. And, he added, they don’t have the option of not acting or postponing action until the conditions for success are better.

I found his answer persuasive and somewhat scary. Perhaps it’s time for an independent or quasi-governmental agency to develop and propose long-range education policies for consideration by the states. After all, imagine what our economic policy would be like if it weren’t for the Federal Reserve.

—Ronald A. Wolk

Vol. 12, Issue 7, Page 3

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