Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The Free-Radical Approach To EduReform

The editorial board of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution is saying that what's needed in order to overhaul public education is to actually go ahead and really overhaul public education:
End high school at age 16. Take schools away from school districts and school boards and give them to hired private contractors, most likely liability corporations owned and run by teachers. Fund schools from the state rather locally. Pay teachers $95,000 a year, but demand quality.

Those and other recommendations — contained in a report titled "Tough Choices or Tough Times" — amount to a radical redesign of public education. The goal is to revitalize and reform schools so that American workers can compete in the new global economy.

The report was drafted over two years by the nonpartisan New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, chaired by economist and former University of Georgia President Charles Knapp. Knapp and former Cabinet secretaries, governors, mayors, business executives and state and local superintendents were charged with finding the best ways to re-invent k-12 education.

Now Knapp is shopping for a progressive state willing to adopt the reforms. He made a pitch last week to the Georgia House and Senate Education Committees, where legislators appeared more willing to embrace one or two ideas but not the whole package.

That's too bad, because Georgia's education system needs some kind of top-to-bottom transformation such as Knapp suggests. While schools are working harder than ever, students still don't fare well by many key measures, including national standardized testing, graduation rates and college attendance.

But no one in leadership is willing to rankle the established bureaucracies that would be affected by real change, and former Gov. Roy Barnes, defeated in his bid for re-election in part by opposition from teachers, takes the blame for that.

"I wanted to push education reform to the point where it was bipartisan and accepted," Barnes says. "My defeat led future leaders to take the safe route and leave education alone. I can't believe that has happened, but someone will arise. I just hope I live to see it."

At the current pace of education reform in the state — take a tiny step forward and then look around nervously, to make sure no major voting blocs are offended —Barnes isn't likely to see that change. Nor are his grandchildren. Georgia lawmakers refuse to even initiate a serious discussion about teacher quality, preferring to pretend that the answer to better teaching is a better crop of students.

That political rhetoric ignores the fact that Georgia recruits more teachers from the bottom third of high school students going to college than from the top third.

"It's time for truth-telling on this issue," Knapp told legislators. "Education is not a train wreck about to occur; it's a train wreck that has already occurred."

In 1971, the per capita cost of educating a child in this country was $3,400 in inflation-adjusted dollars. By 2002, that cost had risen by roughly two-and-a-half fold to $8,977. Yet fourth-grading reading scores over that time remained essentially flat, evidence that the higher investment is not yielding higher returns.

America's education system is not addressing the needs of students or the country, which, having already lost many low-skilled jobs to China and India, is now witnessing an exodus of high-skilled jobs to foreign shores.

Knapp's commission envisions an education process that would begin at age 3 and continue through 10th grade, when students would take European-style content exams to demonstrate they are college-ready. Upon passage — the commission expects a pass rate of 95 percent — students would be guaranteed the right to attend community colleges to obtain technical degrees or to complete two-year programs and then transfer into a four-year state college. They would also have the option of staying in high school to take advanced coursework in preparation for winning admission to private select four-year institutions. Students would not be locked into any single path; they could retake the qualifying exams again and again.

The commission predicts a $60 billion savings from the elimination of the traditional 11th and 12th grades. The savings would be invested into three crucial initiatives: Recruit a teaching force from the highest academic tiers; offer a pay scale that goes from $45,000 for novices to $95,000 for experienced teachers and give those teachers great autonomy; build an early childhood education system for every 4-year-old student and low-income 3-year-olds and provide at-risk students intense help to catch up with more affluent peers.

In exchange for the higher salaries, teachers would give up pensions in favor of 401(k) retirement plans. Teachers would no longer be financially rewarded for longevity, and they wouldn't have to enter the profession through colleges of education. The commission concludes that those schools, which now hold a virtual monopoly, don't do a good job preparing teachers.

Instead, applicants with a college degree would have to pass a teaching performance assessment.

"If colleges of education can't produce the best teachers, then get rid of them," said Knapp.

Under the commission's plan, school districts would not own or operate schools but rather oversee a field of entrepreneurs — often times teachers — who contractually agree to run schools and would have to meet performance standards, much as charter schools do now. Funds would come from the state, and schools would have full discretion over spending, staffing, scheduling and programs. But they would have to meet accountability standards imposed by the state.

This is no quick fix; the commission says it would take 15 years to put all the reforms in place. And the success of the reforms hinges on top-notch standards, assessments and curriculum, all of which take time to develop.

Daunting as such changes may be, they're vital if American students are to compete in the new global economy.

As the commission states, "It is a world in which comfort with ideas and abstractions is the passport to a good job, in which creativity and innovation are the keys to the good life, in which high levels of education — a very different kind of education that most of us have had — are going to be the only security there is."
Agree or disagree, (and we don't agree with much of this) there's plenty of food for thought here.

If one takes a cursory look at the Journal-Constitution's graphic, it's clear to see that what we're doing now isn't working.

And something has to be done.