Transforming Education: Policy Framework

In my last post I suggested that all schools should be held accountable for a “every student meets a without remediation at the next level ” standard. That leads to the question “what levers do we have to make that happen as quickly as possible?

My answer: close chronically failing schools and grant the ability to open new schools only to districts, authorizers and education management organizations who have created high student achievement schools. This means that there are clear consequences for performance at the school and the enabler (my term for districts, authorizers, etc.) level.

Enforcement should be entirely governance and location neutral. Same carrots and sticks for charter schools and traditional district schools as well as same treatment for schools no matter where they are located (urban, suburban or rural).

Getting the standard right and designing a reliable process for closing low quality/opening high quality schools trumps by orders of magnitude anything else we might do to get better schools. We need to get the standards, sticks and carrots right and enforced!

This, of course is very different from the policy approach we have been trying for years. Which has been a combination of (1) trying to fix chronically failing districts (mainly Detroit) with state threats and edicts and (2) letting the market work with charters and choice. Neither has worked well.

If we have learned anything over the last three decades it is that outsiders can’t change districts. We should stop trying. Rather we should impose accountability standards on them that are the same as other enablers. If they meet the standards they get rewarded, if they don’t there are sanctions.

We need to accept that over the long term, we don’t have to fix failing districts to meet the goal of every student attending a quality school. What the state needs is an entire system that is rigorous about closing failing schools and only opening new schools that have a high likelihood of high student achievement.

In terms of letting the market work, what we have ended up with is greatly expanded choice for parents and students, but not much, if any, improvement in student achievement. What those – including Michigan Future – who were early supporters of charters didn’t appreciate is that most charters are operated to get customers. Very few are student achievement driven.

If parents shop – as they do – for attributes other than student achievement (safety, discipline, close to work, nice facilities, etc.) you get schools that give the customers what they are looking for.

The last decade of education reform should have taught us that neither centralized planning/edicts nor reliance on the market gets high quality teaching and learning for most students. Instead the levers that have the best chance of working are a combination of choice, a variety of school operators and enablers, and centralized standards that are enforced. No matter how your school is governed, where it is located or how many students you enroll the rule should be: low student achievement, you are out of business.

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