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Top Priorities for an Education Makeover

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As the school year kicks off, parents, students, employers, workers -- just about everyone with a stake in education -- can see that our system isn't working as it should. Yet we all know that education is the key to the future. What, then, is the single most important priority for improvement? I looked for answers in the realms of policy-making, public education and universities. Here are a few ideas:

1. No Dollar Left Behind

What people are willing to pay for "education" is wildly out of sync with common sense.

The case is clearest with higher ed. Harvard, Princeton, Yale and similar schools cost something north of forty thousand dollars a year. But hundreds of other institutions come close, even though it's obvious that most offer students a lot less, no matter what you think the Ivies really provide. If you read newspapers, then you know that thousands of students attending for-profit higher ed institutions appear to have spent themselves into debt peonage for life, with, all too often, only remote prospects of obtaining the work they thought they were preparing themselves for.

What does this tell you, besides that hope springs eternal and that government regulation is, once again, inadequate? Probably this: that there's something weird about the product that makes it hard for people to assess what they are paying for. A good guess is that the market for education resembles the "market" for medical services. As everybody but our political leaders knows, individuals are just not in a position to sort between doctors and recommended treatments. So most of the time they just accept whatever the network of oligopolies dish out. In medicine, markets typically don't work and, I will venture, they probably never will.

Is there anything that might improve higher education? My usual advice to people who want happy endings is to go see a Disney movie. Now that Tim Burton has signed on at the Mouse factory, that nostrum is looking shaky. There are many reasons for doubting that higher ed is going to get fixed anytime soon, but I think it is clear that at least one reform is possible. The recent wave in favor of "accountability" has produced at least one serious effort to measure the higher intellectual and analytical skills that colleges are supposed to impart to students. That's the Collegiate Learning Assessment, which has the additional merit of being relatively cheap to administer and not taxing for students. That development, though, fills many schools, including at least some Ivies, with dread that their "value added" might turn out to be a lot less than people expect. So all sorts of other methods of assessment are getting airtime, to blur and confuse everything. Tests are often poor guides for individuals, but they are much better for assessing the progress of large groups.

If I were Secretary of Education for a day, I would stop yammering about teachers unions, "races" to the top or bottom or wherever, and simply insist that all higher education institutions getting federal funds be required to report (and certify the truth of) scores on the CLA to IPEDS, the government educational statistics database. Everyone would still be welcome to propose other measuring rods, but if this one step were forced on state assessment boards and reluctant college administrations (whose salaries continue to rise far above that of faculties), we'd probably see some change for the better. Especially if, at the same time, the public institutions also got some new money to make up the savage cuts they've taken recently.

~Thomas Ferguson, Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston and Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow (*member of the Council for Aid to Education's Public Advisory Committee that developed CLS)

2. Resource Equity

The single most important factor in a quality education is access to equitable material, human, and financial resources. It is no secret that the U.S. public school system perpetuates a form of educational apartheid that forces low-income students (who are also disproportionately students of color) to attend schools in districts that have been systematically under-resourced. This is largely due to our reliance on using local property taxes to provide the bulk of funding for local schools. When you combine this funding formula with segregated residential patterns in many communities and requirements that force students to attend public schools in the areas in which they reside, you will get what our nation has: a public school system that systematically under-educates its students by design.

The fact that the public school system in some communities is fundamentally broken is driving our nation's current focus on fixing the problem. Unfortunately, while most understand that closing the achievement gap is essential for our nation's prosperity, many still do not understand that not all kids in the U.S. receive an equal opportunity to learn. It is common sense that students can't learn effectively if the schools they attend do not have the materials (books, facilities, and equipment), quality teachers and leaders, wrap-around services/community involvement, and the financial resources they need to support an expansive, enriched, and engaging curriculum. Nevertheless, in the debate over the direction of education policy it has become de rigueur among some education policy experts and leaders to claim that financial resources don't matter (ironically, some of these same experts say money doesn't matter for public schools while arguing for equal funding for charter schools). But this line of argumentation is not only wrong, it is reckless.

The only way our nation will reach the goal of providing a quality public education for all children regardless of their socioeconomic background is to dismantle the inequitable funding system on which public schools currently rely. This means that our nation's local, state, and federal leaders have to get beyond discussions about Title I funding formulas and Race to the Top funding to systematically address the root structural issues driving the inequities. If we do not summon the political will to address this issue, we will continue to see a decline in U.S. educational performance and a decline in our nation's standing in the world.

~Maya Rockeymoore, President and CEO of Global Policy Solutions.

3. Human Capital: Our Most Valuable Resource

Two issues, the problem of quality in undergraduate education and the role of human capital, intersect in ways that present the most important opportunity to improve education by resetting the way we think about it. The education system has failed 47 million high school dropouts (16% of the U.S. population). Moreover, close to sixty percent of students who enter college do not read, write or do math at a college ready level. And many students graduate from college still not college ready.

If human capital -- the knowledge, skills, and education that citizens of a country possess -- is the principal national resource, education should be recognized as the key to the success in all other policy areas such as health, economic, environment, energy, agriculture and national security. This means that the quality of education should be the central priority of the national government. Instead, our leaders continue to put up with what has become an education "tragedy of the commons." The case of the quality of education falls under what recent Nobel-laureate Elinor Ostrom calls a common pool problem (CCP). Common pool problems arise whenever a group of people depend on a public good that everybody uses but no one owns, and where one person's use affects another person's ability to use them, and either the population fails to provide the resource, over consumes and/or fails to replenish it. When the CPP becomes acute, as in the problem of education quality, either bold action is taken to solve it or the common pool problem becomes a permanent crisis, a tragedy of the commons.

The implications of the human capital argument will create new and higher limits for the role of education because leaders will connect the dots and come to understand the critical importance of dealing with the problem of quality of education because it dwarfs all the other issues this country faces.

~Roger Benjamin, President of the Council for Aid to Education

4. The Blind Men and the Elephant

What single issue most influences the lack of satisfaction with the current educational system? The answer to that question could identify the priority for improvement, unless the answer is an issue tangential to the reason for student and school failure. Low test scores are an immediate response to educational dissatisfaction. However, what if all students received test scores that met or exceeded proficiency levels on any measure of assessment? Would that desirable result improve our educational system or at least one's perception of it? It probably would not, especially when colleges, universities, and employers would still need to offer remediation to unprepared students who score satisfactorily on standardized tests that do not reflect authentic learning.

What, then, is the priority that could improve our educational system, not just make it look good in the public's eye? No one answer is probably adequate; however, one can examine the basis for a student's ongoing education to see what lies at the core of this formative process. For example, where is the student's initial placement in life? The family is the core of the student's existence and formative experiences. As long as families continue to disintegrate, we will continue the downward spiral of children born in the womb of conflicting views about conception and child rearing practices.Our system is plagued with dysfunctional families that send emotionally imbalanced, academically unprepared, and chronically apathetic students.

But there are many other influences. Students are sent to schools where beleaguered teachers range from fully- to not-even-qualified-and-interested. We see school administrators who make empty claims about being instructional leaders as they maintain a holding pattern of discipline and conformity with sometimes arbitrary expectations. We find local school boards that shift with the community's political persuasion. We have voters who cannot understand why schools demand increasing shares of a locale's budget. We deal with state officials who vary in their competency and commitment to educational issues and children. We face federal officials who increasingly want a return on their financial and political investments. We cope with businesses that want to protect their bottom lines as they demonstrate good public relations. On the other hand, we have a global community that transcends the local disputes among stakeholders about the cost and failed promises of education. And then, finally, there is the child, who interacts with this global community via rapid advances in technology that are not subject to boundaries of political issues or educational impact.

What, then, is the problem? Which problem then becomes the priority? It's almost as if one is blindly describing the proverbial elephant by concentrating upon that one part of the elephant that is accessible to the blind person's sense of touch, hearing, and smell. When we insist that our individual points of reference become the defining description of this massive elephant, we become mired in verbal battles about the most accurate description of the elephant. The elephant, meanwhile, does not remain dormant, unless it is tranquilized or dead. How we resolve the multiple perspectives about this elephant's description depends upon our purpose for describing this elephant and the elephant's ultimate purpose for being in our midst. Educational priorities are no less cumbersome and problematic.

~Vinetta Bell, Coordinator of Special Projects: K-12 Curriculum and Instruction, N.C. Department of Public Instruction

5. Qualitative Measuring

To say that current education reform efforts are facing resistance would be an understatement. I think we all support the goals; we want all students to have equity and opportunity, to be college and career ready, and to attend schools with great teachers and leaders. Certainly raising the bar and rewarding excellence is not a bad thing.

Quite frankly, I believe the problem lies in how we define the achievement of these goals -- how we measure success. It is our definition of success that drives how we achieve such goals. Current policy appears to dictate: if you can't quantify the learning, then no learning has occurred. Crucial components of learning like innovation, creativity, and critical thinking are stifled in an educational environment that is driven by a definition of success that hinges on quantitative data.

We need to redefine success. It's time to stop equating improved statistics with learning, and see education for what it really is: individuals uniquely growing as students, as people, and as citizens. When we recognize that measuring sticks are not the best way to gauge student performance and opt for a holistic, qualitative approach to measuring success, I believe we will start seeing real improvements in the nation's quality of education.

~Kirsten Hill, Summer Advantage USA Graduate Fellow and National Director for Educational Policy Implementation, Roosevelt Institute Campus Network

Cross-posted from New Deal 2.0.