09/07/2011 11:47 am ET | Updated Nov 07, 2011

Three Ds for Education Reform: Dollars, Data, and Digitization

Heroes and villains abound when it comes to considering the failings of America's schools. And sometimes they're one and the same.

Charter schools are the salvation of our education system and dangerously overhyped. Teachers are underpaid professionals making enormous personal sacrifices or a group of bad apples protected by a powerful union. Federal mandates could prove to be invaluable measures that help ensure consistency or inadequate ways to evaluate the complex skills needed by today's graduates. Web access can help unlock the potential of students or serve as a distraction that hinders any true learning.

As we look to the start of the 2011-12 academic year, three factors must be taken into account in any serious discussion around education reform: the realities of state and federal budgets; the emphasis placed on standardized test scores; and the impact the Internet is having on our lives. Or, simply: dollars, data, and digitization.

Money first. A child is not a widget, and education cannot be considered just another budget line item. Instead of fixating on cost savings, the states need to recast the terms of the budget debate toward increased educational readiness and return-on-investment. For example, school-wide high speed Internet access that provides online resources can help curb costly and unnecessary spending on annual textbook updates.

Consider Indiana. Under its authority, the Indiana State Board gave each school corporation a blanket waiver from textbook adoption requirements if the educational needs of students could best be served by not adopting a textbook or by using one that has not been adopted by the State Board. This policy change, which broadened the traditional idea of a "textbook," allows schools to purchase computers and other data devices, Internet resources, and other media to better meet the needs and interests of students.

Indiana knows that students are more likely to be engaged if teachers employ formats that are familiar and engaging to them. That engagement is vitally important because school attendance drives district budgets and the distribution of educational resources. Smart investments now will save money down the road.

The coming of 2014 Common Core State Standards has also ruffled some reformist feathers. While individual states can choose to ignore these standards -- and one of the stated goals of the common core is "not to have more tests, but to have smarter and better tests" -- there remains across the education reform movement a profound emphasis on exams and assessments. The fixation on figures and test scores, however, obscures deeper-rooted issues.

College drop-out rates are a scandal even greater than our nation's disappointing high school graduation figures. High drop-out rates reveal the corrosive side of "teaching to the test" and speak to general lack of preparedness. For example, about three-quarters of New York City high school graduates who enter community colleges require remedial instruction in reading, writing, or math. Readying students for success in the postsecondary academic world and beyond requires more than fulfilling mandatory graduation requirements. Preparedness goes well beyond being a "good test taker" and rote memorization.

We need to rethink significantly how we measure college- and career-readiness, and how educators assess content mastery and critical thinking skills that exist outside of multiple choice boxes. There is growing acceptance around adopting the "deeper learning" skills of critical thinking, problem solving, effective communication, and collaboration to help students develop a strong foundation in traditional academic subjects to prepare them for life after high school.

How might dollars, data, and digitization come together to accomplish true education reform in America? Warren, North Carolina is an example of a public school district engaged in such rethinking. Faced with high dropout rates, low graduation rates, and low college enrollment rates, Warren made a choice that resulted in dramatic changes rooted in innovative high school models and widespread access to technology.

Warren New Tech's first graduating class in 2011 offers outstanding results -- zero percent dropout rate, 100 percent graduation rate, and 100 percent college acceptance rates. More importantly, each member of the 2011 class of Warren New Tech High School completed an internship with a local business or community agency. Warren County isn't just talking about college- and career-readiness; they delivered ready graduates with the Class of 2011.

In this low income, rural district -- where the inclusion of Web-based technology in the classroom would, indeed, seem to leave many children behind -- this school will instead make the grade. In recent years, the affordability and ubiquity of low-cost connected laptops, tablets, and smartphone technology has put digital tools into the hands of more and more children from low- and middle-income households. Disparities concerning Internet access remain, but this "digital divide" has crumbled in important ways. Technology is now part of most students' DNA and the flattening of the digital playing field has provided enormous opportunities for education reform.

We needn't wait for Superman. The national scalability of proven, effective high schools shows that if we demonstrate the will, and rethink the three Ds of the education reform debate, great American schools can be ours today.

Dr. Ray Spain is the Superintendent of Warren County Schools.

Lydia Dobyns is President of the New Tech Network.