Education Reform Run Amuck

Ms. Diana Cheever works with her kindergarten class on letter sounds at George Buck Elementary School in Indianapolis, Tuesda
Ms. Diana Cheever works with her kindergarten class on letter sounds at George Buck Elementary School in Indianapolis, Tuesday, March 25, 2014. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)

As a military leader I spent much of my time developing grand strategies but I always knew our success depended on the ability and commitment of the people on the firing line. I dedicated my book, From Pigeons to Tweets, "to the sergeants and warrant officers of the Signal Corps who always find a way to get it done."

Since the 1983 publication of "A Nation At Risk," we have invested hundreds of billions of dollars in our public schools to little effect. I believe the key reason for our continuing failure is an outsized emphasis on grand strategy instead of the people on the firing line.

The sheer magnitude of spending on education reform attracts people who know little about education. High-tech billionaires sincerely believe improving schools depends upon wholesale embrace of technology. Computers have their place but can never supplant the critical relationship between teacher and student or inspire the all-important love of learning.

Then there are the ideologues who advocate pet causes such as Common Core, which has spent $15.8 billion in an effort that is taking us backwards. "It could have been used instead," said the distinguished educator Martha Ratner, "to address the real problems of education, such as helping teachers to teach better, raising the performance standards in schools and making learning more challenging."

We need to learn from the real educators on the firing line. For example, I know of one school -- the Tracy Learning Center in California -- that is doing an incredible job of educating K-12 kids from all walks of life. The school, run by teachers, operates 11 months a year and its days are long. The students work together in teams to master difficult subjects. Somehow Tracy conveys the love of learning to students. Tracy's primary school was ranked third among California's charter schools though its average student expenditure of $7,000 per year is much less than those ranked above it, or indeed the state's public schools in general. It has a waiting list of thousands of kids wanting to get in. Most importantly, Tracy was carefully designed to be easily replicated.

Education reformers have come to see Tracy but can't embrace it as a model. Tracy embraces technology but stresses collaborative teamwork more than computers or textbooks. It is not built upon Common Core, but rather project-based learning in accord with California standards enhanced by teacher input. It does not teach to the test; all it does is succeed.

I have no doubt there are other successful schools out there, but the powers driving educational reform are too obsessed with great strategies to be distracted by real people on the firing line who know how to teach. We are putting the cart before the horse.

Lt. Gen. Clarence E. "Mac" McKnight, Jr., (USA-Ret) is the author of "From Pigeons to Tweets: A General Who Led Dramatic Change in Military Communications", published by The History Publishing Company.