Executive Skills & Strategy Opinion

How to Create a New K-12 Engine

By S. Paul Reville — April 21, 2014 6 min read
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Despite the cacophony over the Common Core State Standards, new assessments, teacher evaluation, portfolio districts, and other hot-button issues, education leaders are bearing down ever harder on tried-and-true school reform strategies. Whether employing higher standards, tougher accountability, choice, or deeper professionalism, we are desperately attempting to force our early-20th-century school system to do the education work of the 21st century.

Our progress in attaining the goals of education reform has been slow. This incremental march to excellence and equity for all, launched in the early 1990s, has borne some fruit, especially in states like Massachusetts, but we have a long way to go toward preparing all our children for success in a 21st-century economy.

It has been nearly a quarter-century since the passage of the Kentucky Education Reform Act in 1990 and the subsequent widespread adoption of various standards/accountability and choice schemes. Yet, after more than two decades of improvement efforts, the results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, are largely flat, our performance on international tests is mediocre and slipping, social mobility is rapidly diminishing, and we still have millions of children, often students of color and the disadvantaged, caught in the achievement gap and largely unprepared to assume productive citizenship.

The human-capital challenge of the 21st century is to prepare all the nation’s children to assume a meaningful place in a high-skills, high-knowledge economy. Our current engine of human-capital development, the public school system, was built in the early 20th century to do a different job: prepare large numbers of Americans to take their places in a low-skill, low-knowledge economy. Our public schools performed this service ably, but when the mission of schools shifted to educating the vast majority of students to standards previously achieved by only a precious few, the engine sputtered. Now, as years of standards-based reform has amply demonstrated, it is clear that, even with significant changes, the old system is not up to the bigger challenge of educating all kids to a 21st-century standard of mastery.


Two of the chief weaknesses of our current school system are its one-size-fits-all design and the fact that schools account for an average of less than 20 percent of a child’s waking hours during his or her years of school attendance. How could a system receiving children with such widely different assets and deficits—and such continuing advantages and disadvantages in the educational opportunities and obstacles presented in their personal, out-of-school lives—serve them all in the same way (same curriculum, instruction, and length of learning time) and expect similar results? If 80 percent of children’s lives are lived outside of school, and some of those children receive constant educational stimulation and enrichment in those nonschool hours while others get little or none, how can a 20 percent schooling solution make up for these vast differences in opportunity?

It’s time to face up to the fact that the school system is just too weak an engine to drive the results America needs if we are to remain prosperous. As many scholars and practitioners have observed, schools, as now constituted, are, on average, too weak an intervention in the lives of children to overcome the many disadvantages of poverty. To be sure, some individuals triumph over the odds, but the data unflinchingly tell the story: There continues to be an iron-law correlation between socioeconomic status and educational achievement and attainment. We are further than ever from realizing Horace Mann’s ideal of a school-created American meritocracy.

What’s the solution to the problem of our failing schooling engine? Design a new engine with enough power and versatility to meet the challenge of educating all students to a high level

What would it look like, this new education engine/system? I’m convinced it must meet at least three challenges.

It would differentiate between children by meeting each child where he or she is in early childhood, giving that child the educational opportunities needed to be successful at each stage of education, finally to emerge with some measure of postsecondary education and ready for meaningful employment and citizenship in the 21st-century economy. For example, some children need more instruction in the primary years to make up for vocabulary deficits that developed in early childhood. Other children need substantial amounts of additional instruction and time to be able to master English when it is not their native language. To address these challenges, the new engine would have to expand daily and annual school time for most students, extend education entitlements to include access to early childhood and postsecondary education, and differentiate the needs of each student in prescribing the quantity and quality of educational opportunities required to prepare each child for mastery.

Secondly, the new system would close gaps in students’ health and well-being, making it possible for each child to attend school daily and to be fully attentive and supply motivated effort when in school. Physical-health, mental-health, and human-service supports would need to be more fully integrated into the functioning of the educational system so student and family needs could be more efficiently met. Simply trying to perfect schools’ academic strategies is not enough. For some students, learning will be impossible until we eliminate obvious impediments to their health and well-being.

Finally, the new education system would have to greatly increase access to out-of-school learning opportunities—like summer school, camp, tutoring, lessons, sports, and the arts—for disadvantaged students because these opportunities are every bit as responsible for achievement gaps as anything that happens inside schools.

We claim to want a system that educates all our students to a high level so that they can successfully participate in our high-skills/high-knowledge 21st-century economy, thereby assuring the growth of that economy and prosperity for them and their families. But we haven’t built an engine to drive such an enterprise. We just keep tinkering with the old engine, trying to get it to do a job that is fundamentally different from that for which it was designed. To be sure, the current system is effective at reproducing the existing social order, but that’s not what we need.

While we hotly debate which standards are most appropriate, or whether we should have standards at all, and while we fulminate over how to measure mastery and how to hold teachers accountable for student learning, we lose sight of the fact that we don’t have a strong enough education system to do the job of educating all of our children for prosperity.

We know what the new system must accomplish, but not exactly how it should work. What we need now is a national design charrette—a national competition to design the “new engine.” Too much of our reform work now happens on “islands” or in “silos,” isolated from other reform initiatives, competing for attention and scarce resources. If our education systems are going to be transformed to meet the demands of the 21st-century economy, then we will need an integrated vision of a new education, child-, and youth-development system that is practical, affordable, and effective at preparing all our children for success. Without a cohesive, comprehensive vision of the new engine, I am afraid we’ll become preoccupied with reforms du jour and fail to complete our journey to equity and excellence.

A version of this article appeared in the April 23, 2014 edition of Education Week as Stop the Tinkering: We Need a New K-12 Engine


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