A Nation at Risk stunned the establishment and captivated the public when it was released 20 years ago. This was something that hadn’t been seen before in American education-a startling indictment of a system that most regarded as sacrosanct. Condemning it was considered nearly blasphemous.
Nevertheless, Risk said, all was not lost. Its authors made a number of policy recommendations that they believed would improve American education before another generation fell victim to its empty promises. Now that everyone knew what the problem was, someone would surely get around to fixing it.
No one did.
To be sure, some progress has been made over the past two decades. For example, we have determined definitively-meaning with scientific research, not simply because someone said it in print-that there are some basic ingredients that are necessary for a good education. We know, for example, that teacher quality counts more than almost any other external factor, including class size or neighborhood attributes, in determining academic success. We know that phonics instruction produces the kind of real results that gimmicky “whole language” approaches can’t replicate. We know that competition-through vouchers, charter schools, and even simply a diverse array of school districts and private schools in a geographic area-creates an environment in which successful schools thrive.
Yet we risk another damning and depressing report 20 years from now if we simply assume that our advanced knowledge of what works can make it real for all of the nation’s children. Vast repositories of best practices and sage advice do no more to educate a child than a blueprint does to get a house built. Ideas need to be put into action, not just onto paper. Doing so is easier said than done, and, unfortunately, we don’t always make it easy on ourselves.
First of all, the nation suffers from a distinct confusion over who is in charge of what. We may know that learning depends on teachers’ solid understanding of their subjects, their clear appreciation of and enthusiasm for those subjects, and their willingness to tailor their instruction to the needs of each student. But that means little unless we also understand that the only people capable of ensuring quality instruction in a school are that school’s leaders. Governors, legislators, and even local school boards may all say they know “what works” in instruction, but they simply cannot create that quality with the stroke of a legislative pen, such as when they mandate phonics instruction.
They are also often unaware that the rules, policies, and laws that they have written or simply enforced may be direct impediments to creating an ideal classroom setting. Funding students based on where they reside, rather than where they attend school, for example, is a practice as old as the system itself, and just as outdated. That same finance system also mandates that districts receive their appropriation based on their enrollment at a single date during the year, funding schools for an entire year for a child who may have left his school the next day. Archaic funding policies like these do little to encourage innovation within the system.
Proactive teachers, principals, and administrators are both the gatekeepers and the keymasters of education reform. Any changes in the system must be carried out by educators working at the school level. Without great school and classroom leaders to make sure reforms are implemented, even the most ambitious and sweeping policy changes can sputter out by the time they hit your children’s classrooms.
In the world of schooling, the majority of highly successful turnaround cases seem to be those where an individual educator had not only the right idea about instruction, but also the tenacity to bend or break those rules that would have prevented meaningful changes at the school level. But it should no longer be the case that only the lucky students get to learn in schools where teachers have decided to work against standard expectations.
It is critical, then, that education reformers begin recruiting, grooming, and mentoring potential leaders not just for key policymaking positions in the hierarchy of education, but for positions in which they would lead, innovate, teach, and inspire. Those who matter most in the reform movement are those in the school. It’s time to start putting leaders in place in the classroom and at the school level first.
It won’t be easy. As the Koret Task Force’s report continually observes, the resistance to change within the system is not only intense, but also, in the majority of cases, overwhelming. Any effort to improve or change education is usually met with a backlash from unions and other organizations that sense that changes in the way the system works can often cut into their power base.
In 2000, for example, Arizona voters approved Proposition 301, an initiative meant to inject funding directly into classrooms, implement performance pay for teachers, encourage school-based management, and complete a statewide system for collecting and reporting data. Voters understood that passage of this proposition would mean more money in their classrooms, better pay for the teachers in their schools, more control at the local level, and more information for parents.
That didn’t sit well with the unions, however. After the proposition passed, state union representatives immediately lobbied the state attorney general to issue a “clarification” explaining that performance pay actually meant an across-the-board bonus for every teacher in a school or district, regardless of performance, and that funding classrooms directly actually meant passing the funding through the district first so the district, rather than the school, can make the major funding decisions. That was the end of direct classroom funding, and school-based management went with it-and that was essentially the end of the reforms of Proposition 301. Where the voters had seen an opportunity, the unions saw a threat. It’s likely to continue that way for quite some time.
It is reasonable to assume that the next generation of potential leaders will come from pipelines other than colleges of education-a virtual breeding ground for educational stagnation-such as alternative certification programs for teachers. The Koret report rightly endorses choice, but choice must apply to the adults, as well as the children, in the education system. Alternative certification programs like the American Board for the Certification of Teacher Excellence-which provides teachers with a certification based on their mastery of subject area and excellence in classroom management-need to be endorsed by states as a viable route to ensuring excellence in the classroom. Teachers need to be recognized for their ability to teach, not for their ability to toe the party line in a teaching college. Only in this way can we hope to truly professionalize the teaching profession and pave the way for needed changes in tenure, performance-based pay, and other policies that contribute to the transparency in the system that Koret envisions.
Shaming the education establishment into doing the right thing-as Risk attempted to do-only motivated educators to defend their turf and the status quo more creatively. As a result, reformers have let the establishment define the terms of the debate. Advocates for school choice suddenly become “anti-public school.” Those who want to professionalize teaching are labeled as unsympathetic to the “plight” of teachers. Those who push high academic standards for all students are scolded for supposedly forcing poor children to drop out of school.
Reform is presently being resisted in an act of self-preservation, which the unions have cleverly labeled “looking out for the best interests of children.” Don’t believe it. Only the interests of structures and systems are being safeguarded, not those of children. And reformers need to stop apologizing for advocating reforms that are good for children, but might cause some adults somewhere a bit of discomfort. Again, leadership matters.
Another unintended effect of Risk was the proliferation of federal education programs shortly after its publication, as policymakers struggled mightily to respond to the report and its recommendations. Gimmicks and fads-such as efforts to reduce class size or to create parent education programs-suddenly became federal policies as legislators scrambled to find the Next Big Thing to improve education. When the nation’s governors lent their voices to the demand for change in education in the late 1980s, President Bush put together the America 2000 proposal, which eventually became President Clinton’s Goals 2000 program, which was mothballed when it became apparent that it, too, wasn’t doing much to increase education achievement. Meanwhile, federal funding on programs mushroomed, without any noticeable gains in student achievement.
As a result of the legislative activity of the past 20 years, school systems have grown in size and power, under the mistaken assumption that more funding and more authority would give educators the clout and resources they needed to improve achievement. It didn’t happen-and in the meantime, as the system grew, very little was done at the federal level to empower families or any others served by the system.
All that is starting to change, and change for the better. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 swept away much of the legislative clutter that had littered the education landscape for more than a decade, in favor of programs based in good science and research. High academic standards and quality teaching-two of the cornerstone recommendations of the Risk report-were finally embraced formally and built into the law. A number of state-based initiatives that favored parents and parental choice were reflected, albeit sometimes only partially, in the final legislation, including new requirements for school choice and supplemental services for children trapped in chronically failing schools.
While No Child Left Behind represents the most comprehensive and substantive change to education policy in more than 30 years, there has been some concern that the act overreaches, both in scope and in structure. Some have argued that not only are its objectives too lofty and ambitious, but in its haste to effect change immediately, the bill also arbitrarily makes some decisions that should be left to state and local decisionmakers.
For example, provisions in the law that require supplemental services, such as tutoring, and school choice for schools that have failed to improve have led some critics to bemoan these actions as a federal power grab. “This law moves against the tradition of local control in a fundamental way,” said one midwestern school board member in the autumn of 2001. “We all seek nationally defined excellence, but we must be free to adapt to local conditions.” What needs to be pointed out is that these same local decisionmakers have always had the authority to put such programs in place, but have simply refused to do so out of a need to protect their power base. Choosing not to act must no longer be considered “adapting to local conditions.”
The requirements of No Child Left Behind-which include, for the first time, real consequences for schools that do not show academic progress for all students-are beginning to break the stranglehold that entrenched interests have had on our schools for far too long. If local autonomy has been somewhat impeded by the new law-a debatable conclusion-then it could also be argued that this is a self-inflicted wound. Because the system could not be shamed into moving 20 years ago, the federal government has finally tried to move the system itself.
It is clear that Risk underestimated the influence of the education establishment in framing education policy and overestimated its interest in doing the right thing for children. While teacher unions and other organizations representing administrators, policymakers, and school chiefs all claim to be acting on behalf of children, they are all by their very nature really only looking out for their own best interests-that’s what they’re there for. Self-preservation is a strong motivator, and breaking the stronghold on the system of these interests-what Teddy Roosevelt would have called “trust busting”-will likely continue to be a major challenge for educators and policymakers.
Such trust busting will require a new generation of educators who not only know what works in education, but also know how to do it. Ensuring that these innovators have the authority to make the necessary changes to the system will take time. Until then, we need to hold those who presently have the authority to create successful schools accountable for doing so. The price for inaction is another 20 years of unrealized promises and another generation of unrealized student potential.
-Lisa Graham Keegan is chief executive officer of the Education Leaders Council and the former superintendent of public instruction in Arizona.