In the late 1980s and early 1990s, top business and government leaders in the United States rallied together around school reform. Their vision stemmed from a belief that transforming education was a necessary economic-development strategy to improve global competitiveness. The strategies of that era—including high academic standards for all students, measuring academic progress, improving teaching, and introducing school choice to a monopoly system—found reinforcement in federal law with the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001. For the past quarter-century, the nation has embraced these reforms by investing billions of dollars and lots of hard work.
Yet, school reform investments of these past decades were insufficient and, unfortunately, alienated a number of constituents along the way. Our education system made only modest progress in closing achievement gaps and preparing greater numbers of students for success in college and 21st-century careers. In spite of the aspirations of private- and public-sector leaders, achievement gaps continue to correlate closely with socioeconomic status, ethnicity, race, language-learning status, and disabilities. This is especially disturbing given that more than 50 percent of U.S. public school students are children of color and from low-income backgrounds. A profound change will require bold, visionary leadership for reforms that allow schools to more successfully educate disadvantaged students.
But the current reform climate is one of disillusionment and intense pushback against the improvement strategies of recent decades. Anti-standards and anti-testing activism is at an all-time high, while wars over strategies such as the common-core standards, teacher evaluation, English-language learning, and charter schools deeply divide the education community. As a longtime education reformer and a former secretary of education in Massachusetts, I lament the distraction these battles cause and would much rather see our nation focus on where education should go from here, rather than where it has been. This requires a renewed focus on strong leadership.
In this period of dissonance, many education and political leaders are weary of the very concept of transforming our school system. Change-makers lack the consensus vision that brought governors and CEOs together in the 1990s. We need look no further than the current presidential campaign to witness the absence of vision and the avoidance of education as a public-policy topic. This dearth of leadership is not only a lost opportunity in the presidential campaign, but also a threat to our education system’s future.
Building more robust, successful systems of education is the most pressing challenge of our time."
Those leaders who are involved in education reform today often pursue strategies that bypass the existing system with the belief that the only viable pathway to change is through starting over completely. While charters and outside-in organizations have generated some successful results, it is unlikely that the United States is going to abandon its current education system. And, it appears that for the foreseeable future, the overwhelming majority of U.S. students will learn in that system. Because of this, improvements must start from within.
Building more robust, successful systems of education is the most pressing challenge of our time. Transforming education will require input from government officials, particularly governors and mayors; persuasive economic arguments from corporate CEOs; and collaborative efforts from state, district, and school leaders. These leaders should see opposition to existing reforms as an opportunity to conceive, promote, and implement a new vision for public education. They should take what’s best from successful schools of all kinds—and from other countries’ education systems—to formulate that vision and drive implementation with the same vigor and determination that characterized past reform leaders’ efforts.
This new vision will also need to move beyond the key strategies of the recent era, finally abandoning the 20th-century factory model of education, to envision a system built for 21st-century realities. Education must to take into account the whole lives of children from birth through some level of their postsecondary education, with more customization, personalization, and differentiation—trends that are also catching fire in the private sector. Leaders need to focus on creating the full range of personalized supports and opportunities necessary for all children to achieve the levels of success now typically reserved only for the affluent few. This requires leveling the playing field, with equal access to social capital and out-of-school learning opportunities to ensure every child is successful at each stage of the educational journey.
Without this strong, united leadership for change, a collective, articulated vision, and a sense of urgency for realizing that vision, the nation will continue to produce mediocre education results. This, in turn, will create dire consequences for our economy and society. Most critically, we will fail the next generation of students. Who will stand up?
A version of this article appeared in the October 12, 2016 edition of Education Week as A Call to Action For K-12 Leaders