Why Not Commit to Win-Win School Improvement?

05/27/2015 09:09 am ET | Updated May 25, 2016

NPR Marketplace's Amy Scott, in "The Changing Role of Advanced Placement," explains that the number of students in North Country High School, a working class school in the Baltimore suburbs, has more than tripled in the last five years. Scott reports that students who ordinarily would not be full members of a college-going culture now learn:

...concepts like 'polysyndeton' and 'metonomy.' In an assignment designed to help prepare them for the upcoming exam, students are asked to identify the rhetorical strategy in a passage from literature or popular music.

One result of expanding A.P. is that two thirds of the school's A.P. students don't pass the test and earn college credit. But, who cares if the pass rate drops? That is a political issue of interest only for adults. (Of course, I'm assuming that the world might not come to an end if some students don't completely master the word, "polysyndeton.")

Expanded A.P. helps students, who might otherwise be denied an opportunity to improve their writing and critical thinking skills, to learn challenging skills for mastery. Isn't that also supposed to be the purpose of Common Core -- providing college readiness learning opportunities?

Scott's story got me rethinking about the opportunities to invest in win-win education programs that have been squandered. What if school reform was limited (as much as possible) to policies that help as many students as possible? Rather than focus on incentives and disincentives, where some must lose so others could win, what if federal education policies concentrated on helping working class and poor children who have been left behind?

The expansion of A.P. to underserved populations could have even allowed market-driven reformers the chance to experiment in a kinder, gentler, junior version of incentives. It would make no sense to pay students for their "outputs" i.e. passing the test, but we could pay them a generous wage for attending A.P. tutoring sessions.

In contrast to the untried nature of Common Core, A.P. has a long history of success. It offers a test worth teaching to which is equally valuable as an assessment for teaching with. Students are rewarded for passing the tests but, above all, they are not punished for failing. Moreover, students could choose to take the number and the type of classes they believe they could handle (and do so without fear of retribution if they bit off more than they could manage.)

Above all, recruiting students for A.P. would have been a expression of respect for students. In my experience, show kids the respect of challenging their minds, and they will rise to the occasion.

Scrolling up and down the NPR web site, the number of their reports on successful win-win policies is noteworthy. Had we not gone down the test, sort and punish path of accountability-driven reform, we could have invested in the student supports needed to increase Promoting Power, graduation rates, and college-going. We could have funded apprenticeship-style programs and invested in community colleges.

Even the reformers who insist that "teacher quality" must drive school improvement should now wish that the billions of dollars used for computer systems to keep score so that teachers could be held accountable for test score increases was invested in National Board Certification.

And, of course, early education and Early Warning Systems to address structural barriers that cause truancy are the ultimate win-win solutions.

This raises the larger question of why reformers are so devoted to the punitive. Think of what could have been accomplished had the contemporary reform movement built on previously existing efforts like A.P. and National Board Certification, and helped finance existing but dramatically underfunded early education and counseling programs. Even if they still sought a set of national college readiness standards, Common Core could have been offered not as a one-size-fits-all package, with a test to teach to.

Had Common Core offered tests to be taught with, would it now be facing defeat by the Opt Out movement? Had the Gates Foundation's Measures for Effective Teaching been a tool for improving instruction rather than mandating not-ready-for-prime time value-added teacher evaluations, would it now be seen as the enemy?

Regardless of one's position on Common Core standards, reformers should have recognized the injustice of denying kids a high school diploma because they couldn't pass college readiness tests. Even top down reformers with no awareness of realities within schools and systems should have anticipated the impossibility of implementing Common Core testing while also implementing value-added teacher evaluations. But, they couldn't wrap their minds around the idea that education could be improved without their metrics for carrots and, above all, sticks.

The social engineering movement known as corporate reform has been obsessed with top-down micromanaging. Elite reformers hurriedly sought a lever to move a world which was beyond their understanding. Eschewing the goal of incremental improvements, they set out to kick down the education barn, assuming that disruptive innovation would somehow replace it.

Data-driven reformers still remain blissfully ignorant of the real challenges faced by schools and adamant that it is not their job to help educators tackle problems. Competition-driven reformers demand that the schools (that they still know little about) focus not on problems to be solved, but on incentives and disincentives that would supposedly invent new solutions. The Billionaires Boys Club continues to demand rewards and, more importantly, punishments to drive transformative change. Even now, I bet few or none of them have an awareness of the constructive policies that they could have built on.