05/23/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

At Sea Without a Compass: Chart a New Course for Education Reform

Bush may not have been able to make the grade himself, but he did set the bar for our nation's students. Under No Child Left Behind, there was one common goal: improving test scores. Whether it actually benefited our nation's youth remains a clear point of contention.

Unfortunately, guidance from the federal government today on how to improve the education system is somewhat ambiguous. President Barack Obama wants to initiate improvements in teacher effectiveness, progress toward college ready standards and improvements in low-performing schools. It is easy to agree with his vision. Who among us would disagree with these goals? But how exactly will success be obtained and what will it actually look like?

In truth, the devil is in the details, which are currently relegated to the sideline as Obama's administration tackles other pressing issues such as the economy. That's not to say the American education system is more or less important than the economy, but the two are closely intertwined. If states continue to slash education budgets by as much as 36 percent, our education system will suffer and so will the next generation of Americans. Reductions in the quality and affordability of education will eventually lead a "once-great" nation to lose its competitive edge in the global economy.

Where are we today? Short-term financial greed has crippled our economy and disintegrated trillions in personal assets. Our high-priced health care system is bankrupting some families and is completely out of reach for others. Millions of Americans are saddled with debt, and the unemployment rate is expected to top 10 percent during 2010, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Some of the most iconic companies have failed in the face of economic pressure and innovative overseas competitors.

How do we want America to look in thirty years? Will our country be innovative and provide the best products and services around the globe? Or will America continue losing ground to nations overseas?

Think of a class full of six year olds today. This generation will be the future leaders of America. We need to provide these children and their peers with the right educational tools to enable them to create solutions to problems we face today, to discover scientific breakthroughs, to capitalize upon rapidly evolving technology, to foresee the opportunities and challenges the future will bring, and to employ business practices not built upon unbridled greed.

We are at a unique moment in time. President Obama is pouring money into the system through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA), and states and their school districts are relieved to have some additional funding. In many cases, that money will go to hiring back the teachers which districts had laid off during the previous six months. With this funding comes a general plan to improve student achievement and assessment and teacher effectiveness, but there are no specific standards yet for states to meet.

It's not the federal government's responsibility to chart the course for the future of K-12 education. You could argue that education is a state responsibility, and you'd be right. But in America's tenuous position today, with states focused on plugging budget gaps and skyrocketing unemployment rates, Obama's administration needs to shine a light on the problems with our education system and to provide a clear destination for educators to pursue nationwide. And through its stimulus education funding, his administration has given itself the power to influence every state educational system and to determine the outcomes.

If our school systems nationwide are in intensive care today, then stimulus funding has stopped the bleeding. But this relatively quick fix is just returning the public education system to the status quo, which, Obama readily admits, has been failing our children.

While keeping schools' doors open gives us time to fix the system, we need more specific guidelines than "progress toward high-quality assessments" and "improvements in teacher effectiveness." We need a clear set of quantifiable goals.

The federal government needs to call a public advisory committee, comprised of representatives from every stakeholder group that cares about what is happening in public schools. Besides education industry experts from K-12 and higher education, this committee could include policy leaders and government officials, which also includes individuals and organizations that have been traditionally critical of the public schools. State policy makers and current P-20 councils can support this advisory committee by working with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to offer perspective and opinions to help refine the committee's proposals.

The responsibility to meet these new standards, of course, should rest squarely on the shoulders of the individual states. And, to ensure that states will focus on these standards with a sense of urgency, the federal government also needs to put into place a clear system of accountability.

While the No Child Left Behind Act did have many problems, it did establish the expectation to hold schools accountable for the outcomes for all their students. The problem was that it didn't calculate annual yearly progress in a sustainable manner, and improvements in test scores didn't always translate into improvements in performance. The truth is that rewarding schools that meet certain passage rates of standardized tests, and punishing those that don't, clearly encourages teachers to teach to the test, focusing on the skills needed to increase testing performance rather than encouraging teachers to impart a deeper understanding of concepts behind a given subject.

We need to hold our public schools to a higher standard--one that will meet all students' educational needs. We need to measure students' writing ability, focus on improving graduation rates and increase the number of students who pursue--and are adequately prepared for--post-secondary education degrees. Most importantly, however, we shouldn't waste ARRA funds on bureaucratic systems of measurement and compliance, as in the past, but instead carefully use it to support programs that have been demonstrated to improve student outcomes.

It is true that teachers and schools today are taking steps to improve their courses and programs, but these one-off efforts are not enough to enhance the effectiveness of our educational system. And neither are the ambiguous standards currently proposed by the Obama administration. We need the federal government to chart a new course aimed toward specific standards and outlined by accountability. Education reform is larger than grades or test scores; it is how we will create a new foundation for our country.