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Do We Need a Virtual Education Ministry?

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The conventional wisdom among reformers today is that "we know what to do, but we don't have the political will to do it." I'd frame it differently: We increasingly have good policies in place, but we don't know how to turn them into reality. And because most policies aren't self-implementing, we have to solve the problem of "delivery" if reform is going to add up to a hill of beans.

Those of us at the Fordham Institute (and our partners at the Center for American Progress) have been making the case that the governance structures of U.S. public education impede our ability to do implementation right. Local school districts -- with their elected school boards, susceptibility to interest group capture, and lack of scale -- aren't always inclined or well suited to turn legislative reforms into real change on the ground. I've wondered out loud whether we should abolish school districts and run the whole kit and caboodle out of state departments of education.

That's still a tantalizing idea, but probably too radical for anyone to take seriously in the immediate future. So here's an alternative: How about creating a "virtual education ministry" that school districts would choose to associate with voluntarily? (Creating more than one of these entities would even better.) Think of it as a private-sector department of education, but run much more efficiently and with higher-quality staff than the government ever could.

Such a ministry would be akin to the comprehensive school reform organizations of the 1990s (such as Success for All, Modern Red Schoolhouse, Expeditionary Learning, etc.) or the charter management organizations of the 2000s (Aspire, Achievement First, Uncommon Schools, etc.), except that it would focus on "whole district reform" rather than "whole school reform." (This would also distinguish it from myriad other organizations that provide piecemeal consulting or solutions to school districts. The intent here is to be soup-to-nuts.)

Picture a non-profit organization governed by a prestigious board with a range of experience and expertise. Its mission would be to build the capacity of interested school districts in order to prepare their students for college and career readiness, as defined by the Common Core. It would be particularly attractive for small- to medium-sized districts that don't have the scale to develop their own curricula or engage in their own research and evaluation (in other words, most of the school districts in the nation).

This "ministry" would tackle the following responsibilities (as bona fide ministries of education do in most European and Asian countries):

  • The development and continuous improvement of a curriculum aligned to the Common Core. This curriculum would incorporate the best available resources -- from textbooks, online learning materials, etc. -- into a coherent scope and sequences for every major subject in grades K-12.
  • The creation and management of a robust instructional support system. Such a system would incorporate curricular materials, lesson plans, videos of master teachers, interim assessments, social tools for professional interaction among teachers, etc. (The "ministry" could very well buy this, rather than build it, as several vendors are working on this sort of solution.) The ministry would have personnel on staff to facilitate conversations among teachers, answer questions, identify promising practices, load "master videos," and otherwise ensure that a true professional community develops online that stays focused on effective classroom practice.
  • The development and continuous improvement of "standard operating procedures." What are the best approaches to classroom management? How to build a strong school culture focused on achievement? What goes into an effective "Response to Intervention" system? What are the best ways to serve students with certain disabilities? What staffing models are most cost-effective? What do strong programs for English language learners look like? In elementary school, how often should students take "specials" (art, music, P.E., library, etc.)? What do model student schedules look like in middle school and high school?
  • The development of a virtual HR office. This office would publish guidelines on best practices around teacher and administrator recruitment and selection (including offering screening tools, examinations, etc. for schools to use); model collective bargaining agreements; model teacher evaluation forms (and ancillary materials); and training for school leaders in inducting, managing, and, when necessary, terminating staff, among other topics.
  • The creation of a robust research and development function. This R&D capacity would be essential to ground as many decisions as possible in sound research, as well as feedback from on-the-ground educators throughout the network. It would stay busy (via staff or contractors) answering practical questions. Which parts of the national curriculum are working well and which aren't, and why? Which instructional strategies are leading to strong achievement growth, and deserve to be highlighted in the instructional support system? How should the "standard operating procedures" be revised over time? For example, what new evidence is available about effective classroom management strategies? What is current "best practice" in the treatment of students with autism, or those with developmental delays? How should the screening tools for principals and teachers be fine-tuned, based on the latest data? How can the network's school model be made as cost-effective as possible? This shop would also be responsible for screening the myriad vendors that want their products to be part of the ministry's school model. (More on that below.)
  • Accreditation of teacher and administrator preparation programs aligned with the ministry's model. It would recruit schools of education and alternate-route providers into a network of programs dedicated to preparing educators for the ministry's approach. Candidates would be screened according to the ministry's criteria (based on rigorous evidence); fieldwork would take place in participating school districts; and coursework would be tightly aligned with the curriculum and standard operative procedures of the network's schools.

When this "virtual education ministry" is built out, then, participating schools and school districts would be immersed in a coherent system that includes teacher selection and preparation; a common curriculum and related (and robust) instructional supports; detailed guidance on key instructional issues, such as those related to special education; and support for school leaders on essential management tasks, especially evaluating their teachers. And because the "ministry" wouldn't live in the governmental sector, it wouldn't face all the impediments that make it so hard for school districts or state departments of education to recruit and retain high-quality staff.

Imagine if the network grows to serve one-fifth of the nation's student population, or 10 million children. Tool-builders could petition the "ministry" to include their solutions in its instructional support system or standards operating procedures. If a product is approved -- because of its compelling evidence -- the ministry could encourage all of its participating school districts to purchase it -- perhaps at a discount rate through the ministry itself. This would facilitate the "scaling up" process dramatically.

Is it possible that such a "virtual education ministry" (or two or three such entities) could provide all the benefits of a national or state-driven education system, without the political risks and backlash? Let me know what you think.

Originally published on the Fordham Institute's Flypaper blog.