Student Achievement

States’ Faith in ‘Silver Bullet’ Solutions Has Failed Schools, Report Says

By Andrew Ujifusa — August 10, 2016 4 min read
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When it comes to improving schools, states have pretty much closed their eyes and dropped the ball.

That’s a primary conclusion of “No Time to Lose: How to Build a World-Class Education System State by State,” a report released by the National Conference of State Legislatures on Tuesday. The report says that this failure on the part of states to create cohesive and strong schools has hamstrung the U.S., even as other countries produce better-educated students and workforces.

“States have found little success. Recent reforms have underperformed because of silver bullet strategies and piecemeal approaches,” the NCSL report states, adding that other countries take very different approaches. “Pockets of improvement in a few districts or states is not enough to retain our country’s global competitiveness.”

In “No Time to Lose,” there are echoes of “A Nation at Risk,” the landmark 1983 report produced by a commission for President Ronald Reagan that sounded the alarm on what it deemed increasing mediocrity in American schools in the face of rising international competition. That 1983 report also urged significant changes to the nation’s schools, although some believe the report overhyped fears about education and has itself proven to be a flop.

So what’s the good news? Well, NCSL says we might finally be figuring out what works in K-12. And what works, according to the organization that represents state lawmakers, includes:

  • Making sure students are “ready to learn” when they arrive at school;
  • Professionalizing and putting a priority on U.S. teachers;
  • Robust career and technical education programs; and
  • Ensuring that policies are aligned, in order to create a unified K-12.

The report is the result of an 18-month study by a group of 28 state lawmakers along with legislative staff, according to NCSL. They focused on 10 countries and regions performing well on the Programme for International Student Assessment (commonly known as PISA), including the Canadian province of Alberta, Hong Kong, Poland, and Taiwan. NCSL also says it will continue meeting through 2017 to discuss issues raised by its analysis, which has received “endorsements” from officials with the National Education Association and the Business Roundtable, among others.

Uncoordinated and Unsuccessful

The report runs through America’s performance on PISA as well as National Assessment of Educational Progress. It throws a spotlight on how the nation’s students have slipped behind their international peers on PISA since 2000, for example:

The report also waves off several ways low U.S. PISA scores are downplayed by critics. The NCSL lawmakers reject the argument that other countries (unlike the U.S.) educate only relatively elite students by pointing out the relatively low U.S. graduation rate, which stands 80 percent, compared to other high-performing countries, although they don’t elaborate on this point. In addition, the claim that the U.S. is more diverse and therefore faces more challenges in educating students falls flat when changing demographics in Europe and Asia are considered, the report also says.

A variety of high-profile policies also get slammed by the NCSL study, in part because they are implemented “piecemeal” and “without setting decisive goals and creating a thoughtful, systemic approach to building a coherent system with an appropriate timeline for implementation, as did the other high-performing countries.” A few of these policies singled out for criticism in the analysis include:

  • “Increasing teacher pay without demanding better preparation”
  • “Improving early education without continuing supports for struggling students in K-12";
  • “Increasing funding without first shifting funds from unproven strategies";
  • “Decreasing class size without first restructuring staffing and time";
  • “Using test scores in teacher evaluations without ensuring that all teachers are receiving job-embedded, high-quality, ongoing learning.”

‘Best in the World’

We mentioned above policy areas where the NCSL report says there are clear solutions to what ails American education. Let’s briefly highlight what the report has to say about teachers.

The state lawmakers take a soup-to-nuts view of how the nation trains, supports, pays, and promotes teachers. The nation’s standards for preparation and licensure are too lax, the report says (that’s a common concern among those studying the teaching field), and produces too many elementary school teachers and not enough in crucial academic subjects. Other high-performing countries demand more of teachers before they receive tenure. Singapore is notable, the report says, for its high-quality school leadership. And those countries also create a variety of roles for teachers, including those in leadership.

Finally, there’s the issue of teacher pay.

“In high-performing countries, teachers are compensated more generously than American teachers, typically earning pay similar to that of senior civil servants and professionals such as engineers and accountants,” the report states. “They are expected to be the best in the world and are compensated accordingly.”

In sum, while their K-12 efforts have often flopped, states’ K-12 governance systems are still set up to perform well if they abandon the one-off approach, according to the lawmakers: “States are well-positioned to instead create the kind of clear vision and systemic reform that high-performing countries do. State systems more closely resemble education governance in the high-performing countries.”

See Marc Tucker’s view of the NCSL report in his “Top Performers” blog for Education Week Commentary. And read the full report.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.