Guiding Principles for a More Enlightened US Education Policy
'We will create schools for tomorrow when we understand that excellence is about unleashing talent, not imposing rigid rules.'
Congress and the White House are doing the porcupine dance as they try to reauthorize the education law called No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Some of the disagreements are old: Should the federal government have more or less control over schooling? Some are newer: Must every child in grades 3-8 take federally mandated standardized tests every year?
Either way, however, the policy response from Washington and in statehouses continues to focus largely on silver-bullet strategies that lack a foundation in research and have fallen markedly short of their goals.
Current policy tries to force improvement by holding educators accountable for students’ test scores and by creating competition among teachers and schools. But these strategies are not improving learning appreciably, let alone creating schools for the 21st century. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), younger children’s learning improved most in the 1970’s, before the accountability era. Since the late 1980’s, their gains have been modest, while 17 year-olds’ scores have been essentially flat. Additionally, we’ve made little recent progress in closing achievement gaps. There was a large improvement in reading between 1971 and 1980 and a smaller one after 1980, for example. However, it’s narrowed by just four points in the NCLB years.
According to most studies, charter schools do about as well on average as regular district schools. Meanwhile, Ted Kolderie, one of the movement’s early advocates, has recently written that charters have fallen short on their promise of sparking teacher-led innovation because, in recent years, they have largely promoted a single academic model. They also continue to siphon resources away from district schools.
Furthermore, the accountability and competition strategy has too often undermined the quality of education. Test prep has displaced efforts to make learning interesting and inspiring. Curriculums have gotten narrower. Educators have become increasingly demoralized. And growing numbers of parents are angry about a testing system on overkill.
In short, the accountability movement that began in the 1990’s, then became codified in NCLB, is not what America needs. Considering the human and financial resources that have been poured into the approach, its results are at best unimpressive and often worse. Instead of trying to improve education by the numbers so that performance converges on a low average, we need to establish ‘schools of tomorrow’ that will redefine what and how students learn in order to lift all of them up.
Guiding Principles for More Effective Education Policy
It’s time to consider what a more enlightened policy might look like.
After 16 years, I recently left the position of superintendent of one of the most successful school districts in the country, Scarsdale, New York. Graduation rates and college acceptances were exceptional. SAT scores were consistently in the top one percent of the top one percent.
Scarsdale and its schools have admitted advantages. Nonetheless, we can learn from them, just as we can learn from overseas nations like Finland. The most important lesson may be that quality education isn’t the result of additional testing, more AP courses or doubling down on charter schools. It can be compatible with tenure laws and unions. Basically, it is the product of five factors:
*A collective commitment to quality. Community, parents, motivated students and professionals have a common sense of purpose and a belief in the value of the schools. Each is an essential part of a self-perpetuating cycle of achievement. The culture is what leads a Scarsdale freshman to say, “It’s cool to be smart here.”
*An accomplished, self-motivated professional staff drawn from a strong, diverse applicant pool. Salaries and benefits are attractive. There’s an active effort to employ people who reflect the growing diversity of students, the community and the nation. Faculty have ample opportunities for professional learning, so that they remain questioning, vigorous, and abreast of best and emerging practices. In Scarsdale, faculty building has been the work of a century, and union involvement a positive force. Teachers are deeply invested in the welfare of schools and children.
*Board and professional leaders who guide the schools in a positive direction. They understand the importance of developing trusting relationships; of listening to the wisdom of the people in the school community; of striving to improve and at the same time of being advocates for the schools. That was the orientation that led Scarsdale to drop AP courses and resist the abuses of high-stakes testing.
* High expectations grounded in teachers’ own scholarship, the demands of a rich curriculum, assessments that get at “un-measurables” like critical thinking, and a high international standard of performance. To evaluate these efforts, for example, Scarsdale initiated the Global Learning Alliance, a group of high-performance schools in top performing nations whose goal is to discover what the strongest student work looks like and how schools help their pupils produce it.
*A culture in which students and teachers are learners. The operating assumption is that nobody is ever a finished product, that people learn collaboratively, and that everyone continues to grow personally and professionally throughout his or her life.
These established principles are the foundations of quality schooling and have existed in many places, including high-performing segregated all black schools in the 1930s through 1950s, such as Washington D.C.’s Dunbar High School, for example. But an education for tomorrow blends the familiar with practices that are less common and, in some cases, still being invented.
A Different Vision for Schools of Tomorrow
To be prepared for the demands of a technologically advanced economy and a globally engaged democracy, people need to master basic skills such as reading and writing. In addition, an education for tomorrow must help them to understand the human and natural world around them as they develop capacities they’ll need as adults. Increasingly important are the ability to ask good questions and think innovatively, to take initiative and persevere, to work independently and collaboratively on complex problems that don’t fall neatly into any one academic discipline.
Regardless of what is taught, technological innovation is changing how people learn. In a world that’s networked 24 hours a day, schools and teachers have to think how they will remain relevant. What will they do that the Internet or other digital resources can’t do as well or better?
With an overwhelming array of resources and information now available to everyone all the time, schools are in a unique position to help to sort out what is more and less worth learning. They also have the advantage of being where the students are, places where people learn to interact, work together and learn from one another. Additionally, technology has the potential to free teachers from some traditional tasks so they can probe and challenge individual students’ thinking, guiding and supporting them more personally than before. Classical methods like seminar and lecture are enduring, but technology makes it possible to blend them with other, more personally responsive, modes of instruction.
In schools for tomorrow, students initiate more of their own learning. They’re taught to ask good questions and to uncover answers as they pursue projects and research similar to the work they’ll do in college or in many jobs. They demonstrate what they’ve learned in settings that mimic college or the workplace: presentations, papers, proposals for action, for instance. There’s more time for these kinds of activities because students can often earn academic credit for demonstrating what they know, as distinct from sitting through a set number of class hours.
In schools for tomorrow, furthermore, students don’t just study the traditional academic subjects. They engage with important issues that involve more than one academic discipline: How to distribute water in America’s arid West, for example, a problem that calls for inquiry in history, politics, science, math, and potentially literature. They also may be asked to find relationships among seemingly disparate subjects or topics they are studying. Learning becomes meaningful to them when they connect pieces in recognizable patterns—especially when they can connect it to their own ideas and experience.
Students also become effective participants in an interdependent world, people who possess “global consciousness.” They learn how nature and culture shape life elsewhere, and they learn to see through others’ eyes. By the time they graduate, they’ve had direct experience of another culture (which may be overseas or a few miles or a few blocks away from home). In the words of one Scarsdale student, “my two weeks abroad helped me realize that the culture there is not just a translation of mine, but something unique.” The ideal result of the experience is an other-centered ethic that disposes people to lead lives of contribution.
Elements of this kind of education exist in many schools, but no place is a fully realized model, if only because teaching methods, curriculum and school structures such as the daily schedule are evolving. Nobody understands the full potential of technology to transform teaching, for example; only more experience and robust professional education will enable greater numbers of teachers to realize its promise. It is time for both the federal and state governments to take stock of what’s been achieved, and to consider the gap between the education we have and the one that is essential for the 21st century.
More enlightened policies might include, but not be limited to:
* Supporting the development and dissemination of knowledge about teaching in the technological era. Increasingly, “an education” is something people pursue in cyberspace through online networks and other resources. Accordingly, teachers must redefine and re-design what they do. The amount of emerging practice is overwhelming; there’s a need to develop and disseminate authoritative, discriminating information about the most promising uses of technology to help personalize teaching, improve learning, and open school walls to the world.
* Studying student work in high performing nations. To ensure that U.S. students are producing work that is comparable to—or better than—that of their peers in the world’s highest performing nations, we need to support research that will help us understand what high quality student work looks like elsewhere, as well as how schools and teachers help pupils produce it.
* Creating a tighter set of core standards and associated learning requirements. We need to extract a more economical, sometimes cross-disciplinary, core of standards (basic skills, big ideas, thinking capacities) from the Common Core. Relying less on traditional course titles and state-mandated syllabi, educators will have more flexibility to innovate and tailor instruction to their students, while concentrating on, and still being accountable for, what’s most important to learn.
* Enabling students to earn credit and to progress when they demonstrate that they have mastered required skills and knowledge. Capitalizing on the emerging experience of states like Maine, states need to adopt a credit system that is more competency-based. Some learning depends on an extended process of class discussion or Socratic dialogue. However, when a student’s paper, project, declamation or other appropriate exhibition demonstrates that she has mastered discrete skills or content, she should be able to move forward. Time served in class—the measure of the traditional Carnegie Unit—should be less important than what she actually knows and can do.
* Encouraging and supporting efforts to break the tyranny of the schedule. Especially at the secondary level, the traditional schedule, course and Carnegie Unit requirements make it difficult, if not impossible, to accommodate some studies: efforts to solve non-standard, cross-disciplinary problems like water shortages, for example. The same is true for connections with real-world resources like museums and libraries or opportunities to learn in a laboratory setting in a hospital or business. States should make it easier for local districts to try alternatives to the standard school day.
* Supporting the creation of “authentic” assessments that evaluate higher-order thinking and problem-solving and adopting a standard of “minimal invasiveness” for standardized testing. States should support professional networks that develop and help localities to develop high quality assessments of difficult-to-measure capacities like critical and creative thinking and problem-solving. States should also adopt a standard of “minimal invasiveness” for mandated standardized testing, among other things, using methods similar to those employed by the NAEP, which periodically samples student performance within districts and states.
There’s no easy fix. Quality is built over time, a district and a school at a time, often encountering obstacles that are no less challenging for being prosaic, from limited resources to worries about college admissions to more generalized fear of the unknown. In the end, deep, systematic progress depends on good ideas, effective human relations and plenty of elbow grease. More enlightened government policy will recognize these realities, understanding that a more authentic, more mutual partnership with localities is essential if America’s schools are to realize their promise and if all children are to learn.
Part II: Leadership for School Success
At a time when many businesses are undergoing radical transformation, critics of public education, often unfamiliar with the culture of schooling, can see it as hidebound, unresponsive and deeply resistant to change. While business leaders introduce initiatives overnight and hire and fire at will, schools seem to be recalcitrant, unwieldy, afflicted by due process and other roadblocks to progress. This point of view is understandable, but it fails to appreciate important realities and desirable aspects of our democratic system.
Public schools are unique. They are academic institutions like independent schools or colleges; they are subject to democratic governance; they are part of state bureaucracies; and they commonly use private sector practices. They operate according to rules established to ensure transparency and due process and to protect against favoritism and corruption. Public schools are also diverse. Scarsdale is not New York City, or Newark, or New Hampshire. Nonetheless, what they share is our pluralistic democratic system, common principles of leadership, and the fact that their success depends heavily on the willing cooperation of the people within them.
The Nature of Democratic Leadership
The unique character of public schooling means that no one policy, strategy or leadership style works everywhere. It also means that leaders can seldom make positive change by decree. Rather, they must engage in a challenging process of working with stakeholders—including unions, teachers, parents, and community members–to improve teaching, learning, student motivation and many other aspects of their operations. The process can be frustrating and slow. When the parties have earned each other’s trust, however, it can also forge powerful partnerships that get more mileage than centralized command-and-control decision-making.
Superintendents who operate in mayoral control districts sometimes say that they are fortunate not to have to report to a school board and to be able to act decisively on their own. College presidents don’t have to answer to the public. But a beauty of public schools is their potential to be democratic communities, if not democracies. They engage in an ongoing conversation about how to offer an education that will reflect residents’ broad hopes and values, parents’ desires for their children, and educators’ expertise. The process is messy and imperfect. At its best, however, it helps conserve the best of what is, invites consideration of what might be, sorts the good from the bad and moves to implement changes with broad support and conviction.
Mark Twain famously said that God set out to make an idiot, but for practice he created a school board. The sentiment vastly undervalues trustees who are able to lead the community conversation and build consensus from it, sometimes in an environment of conflict. That is what Scarsdale board members did when they shepherded a transition from Advanced Placement to local Advanced Topics courses, a move intended to deepen student learning and gain time for students to “own” and demonstrate their knowledge.
As the AP/AT experience illustrates, the most effective trustees understand their community’s broad values, then use their own judgment on behalf of their fellow residents. Most residents, in turn, expect their elected representatives to understand issues in a kind of depth the average citizen normally doesn’t, and to do what is best for students and the community at large. While the results may or may not reflect popular opinion on any particular topic, they are consistent with broader community values.
To promote this kind of stewardship in Scarsdale, school trustees are nominated through a non-partisan committee process. Candidates are expected not to have agendas other than to make decisions on their merits and to make school and community welfare the standard for their actions.
Once elected, they’re expected to take principled positions and to be above-board. They’ve historically gone out of their way to consider different points of view and have found ways to respond to dissenting perspectives—creating oversight committees and teams of visiting scholars to validate the controversial Advanced Topics program, for example. The approach is “inefficient,” but it helps residents sort out issues and end up owning a workable outcome.
Defining Leadership and the Role of the Leader
To this view, the leader’s job—whether he is a board member, superintendent or principal—is largely about sharing a vision and then building understanding and consensus around it in a school community that includes residents, parents and educators. Part of the work is an ongoing process of educating others about what is valuable and why it is. Especially challenging is the gritty labor of getting people to support change, especially if it means asking them to transcend what they know and are comfortable doing.
Of course, this definition of leadership is a long way from the one implied by the Time magazine cover that featured former Washington, D.C., superintendent Michelle Rhee with a broom in her hand. To elaborate: A board member once asked me what I thought leadership was. My answer involved things like raising people’s sights and actions to a higher ethical level. He shook his head and said, “No, it’s what causes them to go forward when someone says, ‘Follow me.’” In retrospect, I realized I’d been way too theoretical. On the other hand, what about the officers who ordered their troops over the top at the Battle of the Marne? Excellent leaders not only have a vision; they also know what risks are smart and which ones aren’t. Understanding the difference, they find ways to mobilize others in active support of a vision that’s intelligent.
How do they do that? Over the last 50 years, a whole industry of research, writing and consulting has cropped up, producing a large body of theory, practical advice, and any number of conceptual frameworks and rubrics aimed at making leadership into a craft, if not a science. These tools can be useful. Process planning exercises, for example, can help people in an organization understand—and participate in defining—how non-standard decisions will be made, who will be involved, what their roles will be. Clarity minimizes ambiguity and confusion and improves the chances of a good outcome.
The Problem of Teaching
In addition, we have learned a lot about quality teaching. Teachers in America, unlike those in some other nations, don’t usually graduate near the top of their college classes. Still, many are capable people who are motivated when they first enter the classroom. Historically, however, the work has been isolated and isolating, with limited opportunities for ongoing professional or personal growth. Under the circumstances, it may be surprising that so many teachers remain effective and vibrant as long as they do.
One thing that teachers often did have was a significant amount of control over their own practice, with enough independence to innovate and to respond to the needs of children in their classes. For many, that was a major attraction of the work. Today, when government policies promote standardization and limit individual initiative, a primary challenge for leaders is to maintain a healthy balance between that kind of individuality and efforts to minimize unhealthy variability in the quality of instruction. The most effective solutions have less to do with auditing and monitoring, and more with building professional capacity.
There are hundreds of teaching strategies, management skills and content-specific methods at every level. People can learn to use these tools through clinical training analogous to what goes on in hospitals and batting cages. They can also get better at developing and using information about what students know and can do, so they can better address individual and group needs. Scarsdale initiated the Global Learning Alliance with that end in mind, for example. Samples of student work from Scarsdale and other nations collected through the initiative suggested that differences in performance may be more about style than quality. Also, evidence of critical and creative thinking seemed to be associated with activities where students collaborated and constructed their own knowledge, demonstrated their learning in authentic settings, and reflected on their own learning.
With all that said, the work of educational leadership is human at its heart. Exercises like long-range planning or rearranging the superstructure (graduation requirements, curriculum, the daily schedule, for example) may be good things to do, but unless leaders get the human part right, innovation will never be deep or lasting. Or worse, it may produce a chain of consequences that are deep, lasting and unpredictable. That is why trust and collaboration are so important. Change is most likely to succeed when leaders listen to citizens, value teachers’ perspectives and their unique knowledge about students, give them a place at the table, and do their best to assure that no single individual or group has disproportionate influence.
Characteristics of Effective Leadership
Because it is most fundamentally about people, effective leadership is grounded in attributes like integrity, decency, compassion and strength, as well as what I’m going call heft, a personal quality that often comes with seasoning and maturity. It is about knowing and doing what is right—recommending a qualified teacher for tenure, for example, when a superintendent knows some board members don’t want him appointed.
Effective leaders aren’t naïve. They recognize that systems are self-protective and that some individuals are self-serving, ineffective, or worse. They address these problems when they encounter them. But they also understand that most educators want students to succeed and are doing the best they can. Very often, the problem is that practitioners don’t know how to do better, and sometimes that nobody does. That is why a developmental approach is usually more productive than audit, control and punishment. In the end, it’s the best way to help the largest number of people do what’s right for most children, not to sabotage improvement, as some critics believe.
Leadership is as much about sharing power as it is wielding it, about giving others opportunities to use their talents, about building a cadre of leaders on ground, and enabling teachers themselves to feel the power to lead. To be effective, in fact, a leader may have to go against his or her own instincts and yield control. Scarsdale began to make significant progress on a critical thinking initiative, for example, when I was able to let go and trust teachers’ and other administrators’ ideas.
There is great wisdom in the ranks of experienced professionals. The results were far better than if I had tried to push all the levers myself. Most fundamentally, schools are about relationships among teachers, between parents and educators, between unions and districts—so leadership is about relationships. A strong leader takes time to understand the place she is in and openly values its strengths. She allows herself to be known as a person: among other things, expressing her opinions but being clear that she understands and values others’ ideas as well. She identifies their professional interests, links people with similar agendas, and talks knowledgeably about themes she is hearing in the process. The more fully realized the relationships, the more a leader will be trusted and listened to, and the more effective she will be.
Engaging Professionals in Improvement
In the long run, perhaps more important than any particular innovation is the value of “the conversation” among professionals, and within the school community as a whole. It is what generates and spreads ideas. Wherever the professional discussion starts out, a skilled leader poses good questions and interesting provocations and also introduces relevant evidence, all with the goal of making the exchange as productive as possible. Then, as people talk, think together, probe and seek common ground, they begin to move generally forward, collectively pursuing initiatives they “own” and support. Buy-in is rarely, if ever, unanimous, but people implement change more effectively when they are part of it than when it’s forced on them.
When districts and leaders honor these principles, students, parents and educators can join in the self-reinforcing cycle of aspiration and achievement I described earlier. Unions and superintendents don’t always agree, but the teachers’ association sees itself as a professional organization with responsibility for the whole educational enterprise, not just narrow obligations to its members. In fact, as Scarsdale’s experience illustrates, progressive unions can facilitate change when it reflects an authentic partnership between and teachers and leaders. Under these circumstances, teachers often are leaders.
Ideally, then, democratic process enables school communities to embrace a collective mission and to piece together enough common ground to move forward together. It assumes that citizens should make the common good, not just individual welfare, the standard for decisions. It can even go further to imagine a reality in which people dignify one another, celebrate the spirit and ennoble the human condition. But in a socially, economically and politically fragmented nation where impatience with authority is widespread, how much common ground can there be? How many Americans have the patience to tolerate their differences and do what’s necessary for democracy to work?
Implications for Federal and State Policy
Federal and state governments can foster effective teaching and leadership that is more able to overcome today’s divisions, raise sights to higher levels and create schools for tomorrow. They can do that by:
*Modeling the behavior they hope to encourage. While it’s necessary to acknowledge shortcomings in the system, strong leaders inspire confidence by emphasizing its strengths and the reasons it is worth supporting. They strive to forge an authentic, mutual partnership with other stakeholders. They understand that people must have a common belief in the value of the place if they are to work in common cause for its growth and long-term health. Federal and state leaders can also raise others’ sights by advocating and helping to legitimize innovative practices that local districts might be reluctant to try by themselves.
* Providing, supporting and promoting research-based leadership training for boards of education and educators. What I’ve just offered is one definition of leadership. Nonetheless, elected officials often have very different understandings of what boards do, what their own individual roles are, how they should interact among themselves and with the organization. There is an extensive literature about effective board leadership, public, not-for-profit and private. Regulations should require training in best practices, provide for ongoing coaching and problem resolution, and create a system for rating the effectiveness of board dynamics.
* Investing in strategies to help fragmented communities and unengaged families join with educators in a self-reinforcing cycle of achievement. Funding for a single position can help forge important connections between a school district and other community institutions. Government policies can give teachers opportunity and time to understand how parents can help children and how to encourage parent involvement. And as Yale professor James Comer’s groundbreaking work in New Haven illustrated, support for family outreach can help connect parents to their children’s schools and help them develop skills that help their children learn. If as few as a third of parents become more engaged, the cycle of achievement improves.
*Creating incentives that attract more highly qualified people to the profession and encourage the able and motivated to stay in it. Government can develop policies aimed at drawing teacher talent from the top 30 percent of students who take the SAT by offering university scholarships, setting a higher bar for teacher preparation that includes stronger clinical pre-service training, and channeling funding to salaries and benefits. It can also promote the creation of local career development plans that expand professional options as teachers enter mid and late career.
*Encouraging and providing support for robust programs of continuing professional education. For example, government policy can create incentives for professional collaboratives (schools, universities, education departments, research organizations) to identify, develop and disseminate information about effective practice and then support and/or provide clinical professional education at local level.
*Requiring local districts to adopt accountability systems that rely on responsible judgments about evidence. These rigorous systems will depend heavily on collaborative supervision, where teams of local educators, supplemented by external personnel where appropriate, review observations, portfolios of work, test results and other evidence to make judgments about individual as well as school performance. Independent inspectors or visiting committees will conduct periodic school visits similar to New York City’s quality reviews or reviews by the United Kingdom’s Office for Standards in Education (OFSTED).
*Offering districts incentives to innovate and to reach for educational excellence by granting them greater regulatory freedom for evidence of progress, success, or special promise.
More broadly, federal and state policies must evolve in three critical ways.
First, they must recognize that a strategy of audit and control cannot produce the results of the same quality that human development can, let alone liberate the talent necessary to create an education for the 21st century.
Second they should acknowledge that even though schools and educators must act as if they can make all the difference in the life of every child, many children fall short of their potential because they are disadvantaged by economic disparities or racial discrimination or both. It is essential and just to offset the burden of those inequities. Funding is an indispensable part of the solution.
Some funding, doubtless, can be redirected from existing sources or used more effectively. California, for example, is trying to give communities more say in how to use state aid grants. At the same time, new revenue streams are also essential if every child is to have an education for tomorrow. Throwing money indiscriminately at our schools is not an answer. On the other hand, adequate funding s absolutely necessary, if not sufficient, for quality education.
Finally, all the partners in the education enterprise—governments, localities, universities, the research community—must move beyond today’s reality, in which they too often talk past or fail to listen to one other. The collective goal must be to re-engage in relationships that are both authentic and reciprocal, so that the parties respect and draw on each other’s wisdom and energy.
All people deserve respect, and a most profound form of respect is to nurture the talents and the spark of humanity that reside within each one. That our nation’s schools sometimes have failed at this task is no reason either to devalue what they have accomplished or to be satisfied with anything less than a new tomorrow in which every child has a fair chance and an education that opens the door to the promises of America.
Schools for tomorrow don’t look like the ones most adult Americans went to. They draw on the best classical practices, like Socratic dialogue or powerful lectures. They also focus more explicitly and purposefully on an economical core of skills, concepts and capacities. Students understand up front what’s expected of them and what a quality result looks like. They have meaningful opportunities to pursue questions that interest them and to initiate their learning. Capitalizing on the power of technology, teachers often act as guides or mentors who address individual student perceptions and misapprehensions in the moment. This is all possible because of a new flexibility in old forms: the daily schedule, course requirements, ways of demonstrating learning.
We live in a time of significant polarization in education policy, in government, and within the commons. How, under the circumstances, will we provide all America’s children an education that prepares them for lives of success and contribution? How will we help the ninth grade boy in Newark or the girl in rural New Hampshire to think learning is cool? What will lead both students and educators, all of them, to see themselves as lifelong learners? Now more than ever, we need leadership that can work across divides, create shared understanding and thereby shape a common agenda that works for all children.
That agenda must be about quality. First and foremost, it has to concentrate on the work of fostering accomplished, self-motivated faculties. We need to spend less time waging war on teachers and more time building a professional teaching force that attracts the most talented and committed people. Leaders at every level must develop trust, listen to others’ wisdom, and advocate for the public schools. High expectations should be grounded in a high international standard of performance and in evidence about what works.
We will create schools for tomorrow when we understand that excellence is about unleashing talent, not imposing rigid rules. What is hopeful is what we know about ourselves: with opportunity and vision, human initiative and the resources to support it, America has done and still can do astonishing things.