Most of the school-reform action since the early 1980s has taken place at the state level. Governors and legislatures have earmarked hundreds of billions of dollars for schools and enacted a host of laws and regulations affecting public education. Class size, early childhood education, and teacher preparation and licensing have all come under increasing state control. And recently, states have taken on the task of mandating standards for what students should know and building accountability systems to hold schools and students responsible for achievement.
So why has there has been so little improvement in public education? Part of the answer is that state policy is too blunt an instrument to cut through the complex problems that plague schools. The status quo also has proved resilient; districts and schools regularly ignore or subvert state mandates.
But perhaps the most important reason for the lack of progress is that state initiatives are seldom part of a comprehensive, carefully formulated strategy to increase student learning. Last month, the Consortium on Renewing Education, a group of about 50 researchers, educators, and business leaders, completed a two-year study of school reform. CORE's main message: "If public education is to fulfill its most important goal, states and localities must reorganize their focus intensively and consistently on student performance. The litmus test for every education policy and every education program should be whether and to what degree it contributes to more-effective student learning and higher student achievement. . . . The issues confronting public schools are now well-known and understood, and, for the most part, there are reasonable proposals to deal with them. What has been lacking is a coherent, coordinated strategy that addresses the entire system in all of its complexity."
American public education is indeed a vast system of interlocking parts. And like any complex machine, if one part malfunctions, the system malfunctions. A comprehensive and coherent strategy would work on all the malfunctioning parts simultaneously. Yet lacking such a strategy, states have lunged from one promising reform to another, sometimes adopting policies that work against each other.
State plans to reduce class size are a good example. Chester Finn, whose analyses of problems are nearly always more compelling than the solutions he proposes, is on target with both in his essay on page 52. Smaller classes are more likely to enhance learning than larger classes, but that does not justify a sudden across-the-board reduction in class size like the one California Governor Pete Wilson pushed through in 1996. Although politically attractive, the initiative was not part of a carefully planned comprehensive strategy; as a result, it is as likely to create problems as it is to solve them. An example from Finn's essay: Veteran teachers exited California's inner-city schools in droves, eager to fill new openings in the higher-paying and cushier suburban schools.
The impulse toward smaller classes is a good one. But class-size reduction should not be enacted without considering its implementation, its potential for negative consequences, and the possibility that spending the money on other reforms might yield bigger dividends in terms of learning. An initiative to reduce class size, for example, might be more effective if it were phased in over a period of time or limited initially to poorly performing schools. Perhaps it should be accompanied by initiatives to recruit new teachers or to provide more professional development.
Like CORE, Finn argues that solutions to many problems should be crafted at the school site, not the statehouse. States might accomplish more if they empowered schools to set priorities, hire staffs, allocate funds, and determine curricula.
The problems confronting public schools are truly vexing. Though states spend more on public education than anything else, governors and legislators are generally unwilling or unable to commit the time needed to craft a comprehensive improvement strategy. Even if they were inclined to, they would quickly realize that it could never be completed during their terms in office. Unfortunately, it's the rare politician who can see beyond the next election.
--Ronald A. Wolk
Vol. 10, Issue 4, Page 6Published in Print: January 1, 1999, as Empower Schools