Assessment Opinion

Status Quo vs. Common Sense

By Rick Hess — April 14, 2004 8 min read
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right Constructing a culture of competence in schools.

America’s schools are in a state of crisis, though not the one that we usually imagine. American schools are not awful, are not gutting our economy, and are not terribly unsafe. On balance, given the population they serve, they are probably doing about as well as they did two generations ago.

The crisis is that so few of our schools are excellent, so many are mediocre, and yet the adults responsible are content to tinker and theorize. The crisis is that performance we deemed adequate 50 years ago is neither tolerable nor defensible today, yet demands for radical change are met by protestations of good intentions, pleas for patience, and an endless stream of ineffectual tinkering.

The dimensions of the problem are straightforward. Researchers have estimated that in 2001, just 32 percent of all 18-year-olds graduated from high school with basic literacy skills and having completed the courses needed to attend a four-year college. The 2003 National Assessment of Educational Progress reported that just 31 percent of 4th graders and 32 percent of 8th graders were “proficient” in reading, and that fully 37 percent of 4th graders and 26 percent of 8th graders scored “below basic.”

Perhaps most distressing, our children lose ground during their years in school. While our 9-year-olds score above international norms, our 13-year-olds slip below average, and our 17-year-olds avoid the bottom only by eking past nations like South Africa, Cyprus, and Lithuania.

Among the institutions of a civilization, schools have a limited but crucial role. Churches tend to the spirit. Hospitals serve the body. Courts secure justice. Schools inform and train young minds.

Before all else, this means that schools must ensure that children master the essential skills of civilization: most critically literacy and numeracy, but also a broad understanding of history and the sciences and a grasp of the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. These skills ensure that children are at least minimally equipped to pursue schooling or secure employment, frame and express their thoughts, and participate as citizens.

The common culprit for our educational travails is a lack of spending. However, by any reasonable standard, American schools are exceptionally well-funded. In 2000, the most recent year for which international comparisons are available, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reported that the United States spent significantly more per pupil than any other industrial democracy—including those famous for the generosity of their social programs. For instance, at the primary level, the United States spent 66 percent more per pupil than Germany, 56 percent more than France, 27 percent more than Japan, 80 percent more than the United Kingdom, and 62 percent more than Belgium.

The problem is a system of schooling seemingly designed to frustrate competence. Teachers are hired, essentially for life, through haphazard recruiting processes. There is little systemic recognition for excellence. Compensation and desirable assignments are treated as rewards for longevity. Informing decisions with data is considered novel, while the very words “efficiency” and “productivity” are derided as alien. The result is a culture of incompetence in which educators learn to keep their heads down and avoid causing waves.

Confronting this grim reality, there are two paths to education reform: “status quo reform” and “common-sense reform.”

“Status quo reformers” believe that the nation’s millions of teachers and administrators are already doing the best they can and will willingly make hard choices or seek new efficiencies. Consequently, status quo reformers presume the way to improve America’s schools is to provide more money, expertise, training, and support. They embrace new pedagogies, smaller schools, new assessment strategies, and any number of widely hailed reforms. Status quo reformers run the school systems, staff the schools of education, lead the professional associations, and dominate the education bureaucracies. Unwilling to consider fundamental change, they allow the status quo to define what is possible.

Status quo reformers are happy to dabble in curricular and pedagogical reforms, but steer away from radical changes in job security, accountability, compensation, or work conditions. The only substantive changes that status quo reformers embrace are those that would occur outside of the schools.

It is true that there are a number of nonschool changes like better nutrition or more engaged civic leadership that would improve the lives of children and boost their academic success. However, the status quo tendency to allow discussion of school improvement to meander into these issues makes it easy to dismiss education problems we can address in order to bewail larger questions that schools are ill-equipped to manage. Issues like economic or racial inequality have a tremendous impact on children’s opportunities, and must be addressed by policymakers, but it is unhelpful to allow musings on public housing or welfare reform to stand in for tough thinking about problematic practices.

Absent centralized accountability, it is not hard for mediocrity or inefficiency to seem the norm.

Common-sense reformers recognize the merit of many status quo suggestions, but believe that these are tangential to or distractions from the larger task of rooting out the culture of incompetence. Common-sense reform rests on two precepts: accountability and flexibility. Centuries of experience in fields from architecture to zoology tell us that people work harder, smarter, and more efficiently when they are rewarded for doing so; that people do their best work when goals are clear and they know how they’ll be evaluated; and that smart, educated, motivated people will find ways to succeed.

Common-sense reform sets as its guiding beacon the goal of constructing a culture of competence in schools: a culture where success is expected, excellence is rewarded, and failure is not tolerated. Absent the pressure of markets or centralized accountability, it is not hard for mediocrity or inefficiency to seem the norm. Absent such pressure, even the best-intentioned educator may shy away from pursuing efficiencies when they require dislocation or wrenching adjustments.

The common-sense reformer assumes that educators, for better or worse, are a lot like everybody else. Some educators are passionately committed to their craft, highly skilled, and will be so regardless of rewards or guidance, but most—like most attorneys and journalists and doctors—will be more effective when held accountable for performance, when rewarded for excellence, and when given the opportunities to devise new paths to success. Common-sense reform is the indispensable foundation upon which any number of instructional advances can comfortably rest, but without which systemic excellence will prove illusory.

Accountability forces managers and leaders to rethink systems and practices. It relies upon toothy testing systems and market competition in tandem to compel educational leaders to make hard choices. Common-sense accountability is not about berating workers, but about requiring—not requesting, but requiring—those in charge to bite the bullet and make painful decisions that their employees have to accept.

Flexibility is about empowering educators and educational leaders to more effectively serve their students and harness the forces of accountability. This requires rethinking how we hire, manage, and compensate educators; staff schools; select and compensate educational leaders; and use technology.

Beyond the general tenets of accountability and flexibility, the principles of common- sense reform are straightforward:

Schools must focus on doing a few crucial things and doing them well. At a minimum, schools must ensure that all children master the gatekeeping skills of reading, writing, and mathematics and have a fundamental grasp of science and history.

Test-based accountability and market competition should be used in tandem to provide quality control in the essentials while creating room for diverse forms of excellence. Together, these measures can moderate the homogenizing nature of centralized testing and mitigate the need to trust blindly in parental discretion.

Real school reform begins by resurfacing simple truths: Responsibility, merit, and opportunity.

School systems should relentlessly seek out talented and entrepreneurial teachers and leaders and should strive to nurture these individuals. Licensure barriers that deter promising candidates from becoming teachers and school leaders should be stricken.

Educators who excel at serving children, who contribute in meaningful ways to their schools, or who take on the toughest assignments can be appropriately recognized and compensated. Contractual relationships should be modified so that ineffective educators can be identified and either remediated or fired.

School districts should promote flexibility and accountability by decentralizing, using technology to reinvent provision of services, and using data-management and information-technology advances to inform decisions throughout the organization.

Some may point to school choice programs, merit-pay experiments, and No Child Left Behind-style accountability and suggest that common-sense reform is ascendant. In truth, most of these are half-measures born of a reluctance to unapologetically embrace common-sense principles. Policymakers rhetorically speak of using test-based accountability to harness tough-minded incentives, then settle for vague, eventual school-level sanctions that have little impact on individual educators. Efforts to compensate educators based on their work yield timid, tepid pay adjustments or bonuses pegged to criteria crafted by status quo authorities.

Whether we will unflinchingly embrace common-sense reform is the question of the hour. In a world as complex as ours, it is easy for simple truths to get lost. Simple truths like responsibility, merit, and opportunity. Real school reform begins by resurfacing those truths.

Frederick M. Hess is the director of Educational Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute and is the author of Common Sense School Reform, published this month by Palgrave Macmillan.


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