7 Essentials for Education Reform

Over the past five years, education reform has gained enormous traction. A new generation of reform-minded policy makers has taken up the cause of transforming state school systems to prepare students for a dramatically changing economy, urged on by state-level advocacy groups who are playing a crucial role in advancing reform state by state. But while urgency has increased and many fresh faces have taken up the cause, the core ideas guiding education reform have remained remarkably stable, defying the ideological or partisan claims that can often stifle political change.

Ironically, that stability is essential to achieving fundamental change in the policies governing our nation's schools. It's therefore especially encouraging that most of the leaders of this reform renaissance are eschewing silver bullets and quick fixes in favor of working systematically to reorient the guiding policies that shape schooling. The groups who work together through the Policy Innovators in Education (PIE) Network cross the ideological spectrum and their members agree to disagree on many things, but they share a commitment to fundamental reform goals and to a systematic approach to achieving them.

Five leading national organizations serve as the PIE Network's policy partners. Like our 25 state-based members, they recognize that some issues are too important to be left to ideological gamesmanship. In a new collection of essays, "Schools in High Gear: Reforms That Work When They Work Together", our partners explain why certain core ideas are crucial to the formula for education reform and how those policies continue to be sharpened through the interplay with other policy commitments.

Which policies matter in this effort? Chester E. Finn Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, asserts that change begins with a system of clear, rigorous goals for learning, followed by regular measuring and reporting on progress. He cautions that standards are not self-implementing. He writes, "It's far better to have good standards than shoddy ones -- without a worthy destination in mind, the journey is pointless -- and better tests will bring many benefits. Yet without quality curricula, top-notch software, knowledgeable teachers, equitable resources, effective pedagogy, well-led schools (and good alternatives to those that aren't), a demanding accountability system and other sound policies in place, standards won't amount to much more than aspirations and assessments will continue to reveal unsatisfactory performance."

Ulrich Boser and Cynthia Brown from the Center for American Progress illustrate how the pursuit of basic fairness in public schooling has evolved as other policy goals came into view. For instance, with the advent of standards and measures, the focus on equity shifted from counting inputs to assessing the adequacy of resources and closing achievement gaps. They tell us that "a fair education system is necessary for our nation to remain successful," and conclude, "The question then becomes when -- and how -- our nation's policy makers will devote the political will to ensure a fair education system for all."

In the section on teacher effectiveness, Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ), demonstrates that the shift occurring from "teacher quality" to "teacher effectiveness" is only made possible with respected systems for measuring student learning. "Improved student assessments, objective education data collection and reporting efforts, and stronger accountability policies have made it possible to consider an individual teacher's impact on student learning," she writes.

Michael J. Petrilli, vice-president for Thomas B. Fordham Institute, parses the fundamental goals that shape parent choice and charter school polices, and then acknowledges that charters do not always measure up. Ideally, charters are prodded toward excellence by the same policies designed to improve performance of traditional public schools, such as systematic approaches to accountability that define quality and create urgency for change. Where public systems fail the most vulnerable students, charters fill the void by providing options. Petrilli states, "The debate is not whether parents should have choices but how broad those choices should be."

Taking promising education reforms to scale will require innovation and reinvention, argues Robin Lake, associate director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE). But she writes that those two goals will remain elusive unless addressed directly through policy. She notes that strategies to increase innovation must, like charter schools, embrace the rigors of evaluation, and require fiscal flexibility. "Without strong state accountability systems, school districts and schools have very little incentive to experiment to find better approaches to instruction," she states.

Accountability may be the most ubiquitous of all reform aims, promised as a dividend once other goals are achieved. The theory goes that once we pass standards, create charters, etc., the pressure from these strategies will create basic accountability. But as those policies are implemented, we see again and again that the habits shaping performance are stubborn. Accountability, therefore, must also be a policy focus in its own right. Bill Tucker, managing director of Education Sector, demonstrates this by taking us right to the doorsteps of a struggling school. He writes that states fail the accountability test by "keeping chronically low-performing schools -- including charters -- open without improvement. The public is shown a veneer of accountability; there's no real change."

In the final essay, CRPE Director Paul Hill argues that none of the policy aims discussed by the network's policy partners can be achieved "until fiscal systems are redesigned to provide the transparency and flexibility needed for continuous improvement." He writes, "Our current system of financing schools was built around controlling inputs, at a time when the system lacked clear goals and meaningful measures of school and teacher performance. There is no excuse for an inputs-based system now, when goals are clear and performance can be measured."

Together, these essays by some of the leading minds in education reform illustrate a common theme: that while policy goals are often promoted in the abstract as stand-alone issues, they work best when implemented in conjunction with other change strategies. They reminds us that improving education will not be achieved through a three point plan in a single legislative cycle. It's a constant effort that requires dedicated advocates who work relentlessly to improve state policies in favor of school improvement. That's why in any given year, PIE Network advocacy groups work to advance reform on multiple fronts in their states. They are the closers of the reform movement, working to see these good ideas get implemented.