10/11/2012 12:48 pm ET Updated Dec 11, 2012

What's Next for School Reform?

Perhaps because they would not mind a Romney administration, conservative policy analysts are more candid regarding the failure of the Bush/Obama school of test-driven reform. Mike Petrilli was prescient in predicting the downfall of the hurried, social engineering of the last decade and now he says that other reformers are ready to take "a breather." He writes, "Like a snake that's just swallowed a deer, most reformers (and the education system itself) simply can't take anything else on right now."

Petrilli, a conservative, also noted that other reformers still have a surprisingly ambitious agenda for the next wave of experiments, such as designing new methods of recruiting and evaluating principals. A conference workshop at the PIE Network (which tends to be neoliberal) asked, "Are principals the new teachers?" So, just as the Obama administration doubled down on NCLB's most coercive features, do PIE members now seek to ratchet up the pressure on other educators? Real world, that would do to principals what they have been forced to do to teachers.

The best discussion of where school improvement should be heading can be found at Bridging Differences, where Deborah Meier and Pedro Noguera have been discussing some of the roles of unions in improving schools, as well the best approach toward teachers' countering our opponents and enemies. The part of their debate that taught me the most was their explanations of why progressive educators have not gone into the community as much as I think they should.

I do not have the institutional memory of Meier and Noguera, but that is only one reason why I would only offer a modest proposal for the next phase of reform. We are entering an era of austerity for federal innovations, as well as for exhausted educators who have been doing more with less. We cannot expect an overt system of waivers for "Race to the Top of Test Mountain" but, in a second term, perhaps the Obama administration would quietly allow or even encourage districts to invest less in consultants and data systems for punishing teachers, and more for directly serving students. Perhaps we could bridge our differences by investing in early warning systems and a campaign against chronic absenteeism.

The John Hopkins Everyone Graduates Center has identified three categories of absenteeism. Especially in the early years, absenteeism may result from "discretion," or choosing to not take attendance seriously. Older children are more likely to be absent due to "aversion," stemming from academic struggles or bullying at school. Too many children of all ages face "barriers," or structural factors keeping them out of school. John Hopkins recommends early warning systems, including longitudinal databases in the hands of social workers, to address absenteeism before it metastasizes into missing a month or more of school.

We can't wait until truancy becomes a crisis in ninth grade or until a 10th absence is recorded on a "data wall." Instead, teams of social workers must start early. Armed with daily attendance records, as well as other data for each student, they would visit homes to raise awareness regarding the importance of attendance. There could still be a role for truancy officers, but the emphasis would be on helping families get their kids to school.

Early warning systems would work if only if attendance and other data were honestly entered into computers. In other words, the creation of early warning systems would require a transparent effort to stop "juking the stats."

When addressing "aversion," absenteeism would sometimes (often?) be revealed as a symptom of poor instruction or poor administration of discipline that allows bullying. As in the rest of the campaign against absenteeism, we would concentrate on counseling and building on the positive. This is the area, however, where "win-win" efforts would also be complemented by sanctions. As long as the data are accurate, and evidence is being assembled by professionals with no motive for unfairly punishing teachers and principals, who could complain when the transparency fostered by early warning systems contributed to educators being held accountable for perpetuating environments that made students adverse to learning?

The big benefit of early warning systems would be addressing barriers due to complex and interdependent factors. Social workers would devote sustained attention to the chronic issues that educators can't handle in their spare time. For instance, social workers would help families design and implement plans for dealing with homelessness, chronic illness, and legal and chronic transportation issues.

A campaign against chronic absenteeism would have several additional bonuses. Firstly, by shifting attention to structural issues that are not the fault of individuals, it would help free us from the blame game. Moreover, social workers would become de facto scouts, documenting the realities that undermine performance in school. The data compiled in those early warning systems could then inform planning for schools and districts seeking to meet the full needs of children.

We can no longer afford to throw billions of dollars at innovations just because "reformers" think they sound like neat ideas. During the next era, we should look before we leap. With or without the help of the Obama administration (or, heaven forbid, a Romney administration), let's design systems for battling chronic absenteeism, as opposed to fighting each other. Let's ensure that early warning systems have timely and accurate data. After taking a breather, we can use this evidence to design the coordinated, aligned, and cost effective efforts that the next wave of reform will need.