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Margaret Spellings

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What It's Going to Take to Transform Our Schools

Posted: 10/10/11 03:25 PM ET

Remember the adage, "the only constant is change"? True -- unless you're talking about education. The number of people in the education system who have actually embraced change is so completely dwarfed by the number who resist it, that the impact our innovators have had in moving the dial on student outcomes is almost inconsequential when you look at the overall data. 

While there are pockets of innovation happening across this great nation, the failure to fully integrate new ways of managing time and resources into our public school system is holding back the academic progress of our kids. It's a failure of leadership on so many levels. The question for policymakers is what can be done to alter the current course? It's not an easy question to answer, in part, because the very people who have readily constructed obstacles to progress now need to become agents of change. If they don't, there is little hope of narrowing the achievement gap between white students and their African American and Hispanic peers. 

I think it's helpful to quickly review the principles that have revolutionized nearly every other area of our lives: competition, customization, technology, modern management and a relentless focus on the customer. 

If real competition were brought to education, our parent customers would rule by voting with their feet. We'd move beyond the fashionable, and mostly politically palatable, charter schools to school vouchers or the more politically correct "scholarships." Students could take their state or federal funding allocations to the school that best meets their needs. All schools would likely respond by adapting to consumer needs and demands and new entrants -- likely from the private sector -- would engage.

If customization and technology were truly embraced, we'd see learners progressing at their own pace. The school day and year would be tailored to ensure students progressed to higher levels of proficiency and to free educators to customize their teaching to individual learner needs.

If modern management carried the day, we'd start to use time and people in more strategic ways. We'd have our most skilled teachers doing the hardest work and we'd pay them more for doing it.  We would spend more time and money serving our customers, the students, and less time and money serving adult and administrative needs. And we would constantly seek and incorporate their input. 
 
We'd respond to critical demands by employers to have access to a prepared and skilled workforce, including graduates who could read and cipher. They would know how to learn and adapt to changing circumstances and they would value work and responsibility.

It's ironic that America has literally led the rest of the world in technological advances in medicine, business and others sectors yet has failed to innovate the system it relies on to educate our children. But it's not too late. We can adapt what we know and the innovations that are commonplace in every other aspect of our lives to our schools. It's what we know and have always done as Americans -- strive to be the best in the world and lead others to success as well.

Lest we forget, the success of all of our children begets the success of America.