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School & District Management Opinion

The Urgent Need to Reframe National Education Policy

By Elizabeth Demarest — April 12, 2011 8 min read
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For almost a decade, since the No Child Left Behind Act became law, national education policy has focused on improving standardized-test results through a combination of top-down accountability and market competition. But there is no evidence that this approach is working.

Test scores in the United States have not significantly improved in recent years, the achievement gap has not closed, and other developed nations have continued to build their educational capacity and surpass U.S. performance on international assessments. Political rhetoric exhorts Americans to catch up, but the national policies that are driving education reform do not provide the means.

There is an urgent need to fundamentally reframe the goals and strategies of education reform. To succeed, future reform must be solidly grounded in knowledge about education. Recent advances in knowledge about learning, teaching, and educational contexts that foster learning can potentially serve as a foundation for reform.

Today’s reform rhetoric focuses almost exclusively on the economic goals of education: workforce preparation and international competitiveness. Economic goals are important, but incomplete as a vision of educational purpose. A nation with a government increasingly characterized by uncivil discourse, political gridlock, and avoidance of complex problems cannot afford to ignore civic goals. High levels of achievement require student engagement, but studies show that most students are not motivated and engaged.

A viable framework of education goals must encompass what students themselves care about, such as developing their identities. Reformers should advocate for a broad and balanced set of education goals.

The myopic focus on standardized-test scores trivializes student achievement. These tests, especially those used for accountability purposes, primarily measure basic knowledge and skills, and, while mastering the basics is necessary, it is insufficient. Today, there is a demand for advanced knowledge and skills that involve thinking, problem-solving, and creativity. Thanks to decades of research on learning, we know more about how to address these dimensions of achievement, and we also know that the academic, social, emotional, and physical aspects of development are interconnected and that education needs to address the “whole child.”

But while research has expanded the concept of educational achievement, policy has moved in the opposite direction. This narrow policy perspective discourages educators from defining and measuring achievement in a way that would actually advance it.

America needs a national dialogue about the goals of education, the meaning of achievement, and what high school graduates should know and be able to do. Past shifts in the direction of public education have been kicked off by authoritative reconsideration and restatement of these fundamental educational issues either by educators or the government, such as the report of the so-called Committee of Ten in 1893, the Cardinal Principles in 1918, and A Nation at Risk in 1983.

A viable framework of education goals must encompass what students themselves care about.”

Who could lead such a national dialogue today? Education associations have not been major players in recent reforms and, despite having crucial expertise, have abdicated their past leadership on matters of educational substance. No wonder reform makes so little educational sense! Educators (including researchers) should organize themselves to lead a dialogue to create a new vision of educational purpose. Research associations, such as the National Academy of Education, should conduct the scholarly work. Associations representing teachers and principals and district and state leaders should organize participatory deliberative processes that draw in all stakeholders.

The upcoming reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—the most recent version of which is the NCLB—offers an important opportunity to reframe strategies. For decades, national policy has relied on incentives and sanctions to achieve its objectives. However, these strategies work to influence behavior only when the intended agents already have the capacity to perform, but lack the will or resources. Today, the most serious impediments to higher performance are lack of capacity at all levels of the educational system and inequality in the distribution of school funding.

Capacity-building should become the centerpiece of the new ESEA. What is educational capacity? High-capacity organizations produce superior results because they know how to acquire new knowledge and use it to improve practice. A schema or diagram often used by researchers to depict the core educational practices of learning and teaching is a triangle illustrating interactions between teachers, students, and content.

Because classroom practice takes place within multiple contexts (e.g., schools, local communities, and the intergovernmental system), imagine the triangle surrounded by circles representing multiple systemic influences that may either enable or constrain learning and teaching. Leadership is also critical because it coordinates all these elements, guarantees coherence, and drives improvement.

This simple schema illustrates that educational capacity is both comprehensive and systemic. It is comprehensive when it focuses on improving all aspects of classroom practice, as suggested by the core triangle. It is systemic when it follows the logic of the triangle throughout the system by developing a supportive infrastructure for students, teachers, leaders, and content spanning multiple contexts. For example, the systemic elements of improved content were identified during the standards era (i.e., classroom lessons, curricula, texts and other materials, and assessments—all aligned around challenging standards). Unfortunately, this objective of stronger content remains unrealized. In addition, it takes adequate financial resources to build capacity, but resources remain very unequally distributed among schools, districts, and states. This means that focusing on school finance equalization is also important.

The discussion so far has identified key elements of educational practice and infrastructure that should constitute the strategic foci of reform, but the question of how to promote the acquisition and use of new knowledge in this work remains. Better preservice preparation of educators is one obvious step. But ideological debates (e.g., traditional vs. alternate routes) should be replaced by serious inquiry into the specific components of effective teacher education programs.

Equally important, ongoing opportunities for collective learning and knowledge use should be embedded in everyday practice, such as teacher professional communities within schools, school improvement teams, professional networks, and learning communities in educational organizations at the district, state, and national levels. Interconnected, research-based learning communities throughout the system can develop and apply new knowledge and build sustained, collective commitment to improvement.

As capacity-building moves to the foreground, accountability should not be abandoned, but radically reconceptualized. There needs to be less reliance on punitive, top-down strategies and more emphasis on professional and public efforts that not only serve as accountability mechanisms, but also encourage learning and improvement. To consider just one example: The ESEA, in turn, could strengthen professional accreditation for elementary and secondary schools. Many schools already voluntarily participate in a continuous improvement process that involves self-assessment and external review for accreditation. A revised ESEA could make professional accreditation mandatory and subsidize improvements in the process, such as supporting more research-based criteria, more extensive reviewer training and feedback to schools, greater experimentation in benchmarking to enable schools to learn from each other, and enhancements in state and district capacity to help schools that cannot earn accreditation.

The ESEA of the future should recognize a broad set of educational goals and promote understanding of achievement’s multidimensional nature. Further, the law could be streamlined by organizing its main components, or titles, around the key elements of capacity (i.e., students, teachers and leaders, and content); stating long-term objectives for capacity in each title; and then promoting relevant programs, eliminating ones that do not fit, and filling gaps. To ensure adequate financial resources nationwide, federal policymakers should also consider addressing interstate school finance inequity. These same policymakers should eliminate existing accountability strategies in the ESEA and replace them with a hybrid approach that emphasizes professional and public accountability over legal and bureaucratic approaches. Finally, the ESEA (and other legislation) should continue to support research and development and build the learning communities and social networks needed for knowledge-sharing and use.

It is time for a new round of education reform. National policymakers can lead the way by abandoning outdated ideologies and fundamentally rethinking their goals and strategies. President Barack Obama promised to bring change to Washington and to base his policies on knowledge rather than ideology, but he has failed to do so in elementary and secondary education. A midcourse correction by his administration is overdue.

The NCLB exhorts others to use research, but Congress has ignored research in formulating its own legislation. The new ESEA will not be effective in improving education unless it is reframed to be more consistent with research and best practice.

A version of this article appeared in the April 20, 2011 edition of Education Week

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