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Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

An Expanded Education Highway

By Guest Blogger — May 21, 2014 4 min read
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Note: Tony Lewis and Amy Anderson with the Donnell-Kay Foundation are guest posting this week.

Day two here guest blogging. On Monday, we drove Gus the truck into the present and found the need for system reform. Today, we’ll talk more deeply about the path forward. But first, let’s revisit “A Nation at Risk":

“All, regardless of race or class or economic status, are entitled to a fair chance and to the tools for developing their individual powers of mind and spirit to the utmost. This promise means that all children by virtue of their own efforts, competently guided, can hope to attain the mature and informed judgment needed to secure gainful employment, and to manage their own lives, thereby serving not only their own interests but also the progress of society itself.”

This, of course, is the reason we’re all engaged in improving education. Trying to tweak various pieces of the system without a fundamental theory of design is akin to adjusting the idle, changing out the brakes, or tuning up the engine while Gus is hauling down a country road...interesting and sometimes helpful, but more often just an exercise in trying to find causality without a thoughtful approach.

When you identify the big drivers of the system--governance, finance, and accountability--you quickly realize the huge impact they have on the learning within the system itself. The current system is filled with mandates--statutes, rules, regulations, and policies that attempt to dictate the work and to mitigate against any bad decisions or practice. It is, for all practical purposes, like driving Gus with his brakes on. We seek a system that echoes the call put forth by people like Philip K. Howard from Common Good--one that “overhaul(s) governmental and legal systems to allow people to make sensible choices.”

Let’s give a couple examples.


  • Our current system of accountability is overly reliant on annual summative assessments. In an era calling for more personalized approaches to learning, expanded learning opportunities, and progression based on mastery of content, not seat time, we need an updated approach to accountability. We aren’t suggesting moving away from having metrics and assurances of quality; however, the ones we are using now aren’t right for the system we need today. While interest exists among many in our current education systems to move in this new direction, the actual act of transforming how business is currently run, modernizing existing data and information systems, and reorganizing to accommodate a new approach is extremely hard (and expensive) to pull off. A fresh start, with an adaptable system and structure, seems much smarter.
  • Geographically organized school systems made perfect sense at the onset of public schooling, and for many years thereafter. However, governing by geography is increasingly difficult to manage in our modern society. For example, recent efforts to close the opportunity gap through expanded choices (across and within district lines and via multiple providers) and to facilitate anyplace, anytime learning and global competence via technology are running into challenges with current governance approaches. While some organization by geography will likely remain essential, we need to think beyond this structure moving forward.

If one cannot tweak the current system (by adding more mandates), then you must consider re-designing it. And this is the bold work we’re embarking upon: to rethink the key drivers and to create a new and parallel space for students, families, and educators to do their work. We know this will not be a perfect utopia, but we firmly believe that creating student-centered, welcoming, and dynamic learning environments, through a fundamental re-design of the system, is the only way to create the quality we seek in a scalable way.

Let’s take the Gus analogy a bit further. We seek to do what President Dwight D. Eisenhower did--create a new highway system for new versions of Gus the truck. However, unlike Eisenhower’s program which was interstate in scope, we are focused on starting at the state level--in Colorado. This work in our state to create a new education system will be much like what they encountered when building the highway system. It did not make the old roads obsolete, it augmented them. It changed the speed at which you could travel, the loads of products that could be transported, and, most importantly, the design of the vehicles that could take you and the cargo there. We are not seeking to design new trucks nor schools; rather, we seek to design the system that will encourage and incent new learning opportunities to be created.

In this new system, bureaucracy and governance should be thin. Local control will signify greater parental control. The system will hold itself accountable and not confuse assessments with accountability. Educators will be trusted and given freedom to make choices, judgments, and decisions. We have no interest in “blowing up” the current system--only in designing a new, parallel path that has a different--and, we believe, better--value proposition for many students and families.

Our imperative to re-design the educational system of Colorado is clear, compelling, and essential. We look forward to your input and to driving Gus forward to a new landscape via ReSchool Colorado, which we will describe in our final blog post.

--Tony Lewis and Amy Anderson

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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