Special Report
School Choice & Charters Commentary

A Second Front

By Ronald A. Wolk — January 03, 2006 8 min read

For the past 15 years, standards-based reform has been the nation’s strategy for improving public schools. Forty-nine states and the federal government are behind it 100 percent. It is a one-bet, all-or-nothing strategy. There is no Plan B. And the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001 raised the stakes considerably by setting hard goals and deadlines and real penalties for missing them.

Betting everything on standards-based reform is neither wise nor necessary. If this strategy doesn’t succeed, the system will be about where it was in the early 1980s, mired in mediocrity and riddled with failure. And a frustrated public might understandably rebel against pouring more money into a system that doesn’t work.

A Second Front
National Standards
Our Mission
One Language
What’s Next?
Table of Contents

Policymakers should hedge their bets and open a second front in the struggle to improve public schools. For both practical and moral reasons, they should proclaim and promote a policy of creating new schools to accommodate growth and to replace low-performing middle and high schools. The new schools should be innovative, different from traditional schools, and open to all students.

This is not a radical proposal. Indeed, the beginnings of a new-schools strategy are already in place. As many as 5,000 nontraditional public schools are operating today—alternative schools from the 1960s and ’70s; magnet schools from the 1980s; and charter schools that first appeared in 1991 and are now operating in 40 states and the District of Columbia.

A Second Front in Education Reform

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and a number of other foundations and nonprofit organizations have been in the vanguard of the movement for small, innovative schools. They have helped create more than 1,000 new schools so far, and are working with mayors and district superintendents to establish more.

Some of the nation’s largest cities have signed on to the new strategy, according to a report in March of last year by the Education Commission of the States:

• Pursuing what he called “the only solution left,” the mayor of Chicago is closing 60 low-performing schools and creating 100 new ones—a third will be charters, a third will be operated under contract with independent agencies, and a third will be started by the school district.

• New York City has opened 50 charter schools and will add another 150.

• The Philadelphia school district has authorized 52 charter schools and has contracted with six for-profit and nonprofit organizations to run 45 other schools.

• The District of Columbia has created a charter school district, separate from the regular school system, and has authorized 26 schools at 31 sites, serving 11,500 students.

• The Milwaukee school district has 27 charter schools—15 are staffed by district employees, and 12 operate independently.

• In the Miami-Dade County system, 40 charter schools are in operation, 27 charter schools have received approval to open, and 28 charter applications are pending.

• San Diego has authorized 24 charters, and Denver has authorized 17 charters and four contract schools.

Governors are exploring such options as charter schools, vouchers, tax credits, distance-learning opportunities, and inter- and intra-district enrollment. Last summer, the National Governors Association published “Providing Quality Choice Options in Education,” which lays out the policy steps states should take to pursue these options.

Until recently, it was nearly impossible for a public school to be different. Now, states are delegating to private and public agencies, for the first time, the authority to start publicly funded schools that are different from traditional schools and different from each other. They tend to be small, with a clear sense of mission shared by administrators, teachers, and students, and with exceptional parental support. They tend to be relatively autonomous, with their own school boards and the freedom to function outside of the district’s union contract, which allows them to hire their own staffs and make their own budget decisions. They are likely to be child-centered and committed to personalized education. Their approach to students is usually based on what researchers have discovered in the past 30 years about how youngsters learn. Finally, these new schools tend to enroll disproportionate percentages of poor, minority, and immigrant students.

Critics of a new-schools approach warn against gambling children’s future on an untested strategy. While it is far too early to cite scientific evidence that these new schools do better than traditional schools, positive anecdotal evidence abounds. And considering how many young people drop out or languish in low-performing traditional schools, the current strategy is already gambling … and losing.

What are the odds that standards-based reform—given what it has accomplished in 15 years—will transform the schools we have into the schools we need in the next 15 years—or 25, or 40? What is the likelihood that it will even come close to meeting the No Child Left Behind law’s demand that every American student be proficient in reading and math by 2013-14?

I was an early advocate of the standards movement and an enthusiastic supporter, even though there were worrisome omens at the outset. Those who formulated the standards movement specified several essential conditions for its success. They urged that:

• States adopt “opportunity to learn” standards to ensure that all children would be taught the material on which they would be assessed.

For both practical and moral reasons, policymakers should proclaim and promote a policy of creating new schools to accommodate growth and to replace low-performing middle and high schools.

• Standards be parsimonious, concentrating on relatively few main ideas and concepts, leaving considerable latitude for local schools to develop appropriate curricula. In addition to content standards, there would be performance standards.

• Statewide tests be administered at or near the 4th, 8th, and 12th grades to monitor students’ progress. These assessments would be aligned with standards so that students would be tested on what they were taught, and judged against the standards—not in comparison with other students.

• Learning would become the constant and time the variable, at last recognizing that students learn in different ways and at different rates and that some need more time than others to master skills and content.

None of those conditions has been fulfilled. Opportunity-to-learn standards were jettisoned at the starting gate, parsimony and flexibility disappeared at the first turn, and tests proliferate and assessments are still not aligned with standards in many states. In the mid 1990s, some of us saw a train wreck ahead and called for a course correction. The calls were ignored, and I concluded by the end of the decade that standards-based reform was more part of the problem than the solution.

Now driven by the federal No Child Left Behind legislation, standards-based reform is actually reinforcing the least desirable features of the traditional school: obsession with testing and test prep, inflexibility and inefficient use of time, overemphasis on coverage in curriculum and memorization, and increased standardization that offers a one-size-fits-all education to students regardless of their differences.

At least 40 percent of our young people—mostly poor, minority students—are poorly served by the traditional school. Most of them drop out, but even those who graduate tend to leave without having learned much or grown intellectually. For every 100 American students who enter the 9th grade, only 67 graduate from high school; 38 of these enter college, 26 are still enrolled after their sophomore year, and only 18 graduate with either an associate or baccalaureate degree within six years. That is a combined school-college failure rate of 82 percent.

As National Assessment of Educational Progress data in this report show, 15 years of standards-based reform has raised some test scores that were abysmally low to start with, but produced little else. Not a promising return for an all-or-nothing bet.

A new-schools strategy can be pursued without abandoning standards-based reform. The question is whether advocates of standards-based reform will permit another strategy to coexist with it. Because these new schools are committed to personalized education, they probably cannot succeed if they are compelled to meet the voluminous and detailed statewide content standards that now exist and be assessed by the single flawed measure of standardized tests.

If a new-schools strategy is to have any chance of succeeding, it will require:

• Standards that emphasize performance and focus on helping kids learn to think critically and creatively; that stimulate curiosity and expose students to major ideas and concepts in the humanities and sciences; that involve them in real-world issues and help them develop the commonly agreed-upon values of good human beings and responsible citizens. Advocates of a new-schools strategy acknowledge that schools without standards and periodic assessment are not acceptable. But they also argue that a system of standards and assessments that precludes innovation and diversity should also be unacceptable.

Considering how many young people drop out or languish in low-performing traditional schools, the current strategy is already gambling ... and losing.

• Assessments that go beyond standardized tests and include multiple measures that evaluate students on the basis of their work, performance, and habits of mind and behavior.

• The same funding and material support that traditional schools receive, including physical facilities. The design of the traditional school makes it so labor-intensive that it is not now, and probably never can be, cost-effective. The new-schools strategy offers an opportunity to use funds differently, and more efficiently, by making students more responsible for educating themselves, using teachers more as advisers who help students manage their time and effort, shifting the emphasis from content coverage to thinking and solving problems, and capitalizing on new technology.

For almost a quarter of a century, we’ve been trying unsuccessfully to reverse “the rising tide of mediocrity” in education by making schools better without really changing them or the traditional organizational arrangement of K-12 public education. We owe it to future generations of kids and to the larger society to consider seriously a second strategy of designing new schools for a new century.

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