Politics & Policy

An Agenda for K–12 School Reform

(Dreamstime image: Gary Lewis)
More choice, more accountability, less focus on reading and math scores. But not more money

American primary and secondary education offers a complicated challenge for reformers. On the one hand, some American schools clearly underperform, and the U.S. consistently underperforms in international comparisons. On the other hand, most parents are satisfied with their children’s schools, and educational officials from nations that top the charts in reading and math — such as South Korea, Japan, and Singapore — avidly seek to emulate America’s success at raising independent thinkers. The quandary facing reformers is perhaps best encapsulated in two survey results: Only 20 percent of respondents give U.S. schools, on the whole, an A or a B, but at the same time roughly 70 percent of U.S. parents give their oldest child’s school an A or a B.

The challenge, then, is to improve schooling without losing sight of the things that America does well. The strengths of our decentralized system include its responsiveness to parents and, relatedly, its avoidance of a narrow focus on preparing students for national reading and math tests. Efforts to centralize control — with decisions about everything from teacher evaluation, school improvement strategies, and accountability increasingly dictated by Washington — would almost certainly fail and, if they succeeded, would undermine these strengths.

Building on our strengths will rarely mean simply “more money,” or mean that at all. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that the U.S. spent $12,296 per public school student in 2012­–13 (in constant 2014–15 dollars). International measures find that the U.S. spends as much on public K–12 education as any nation in the world. The figures are stunningly high in some places: New York City spends more than $20,000 per student, Boston and Baltimore each spend more than $15,000. There are, of course, states and communities where money is a real issue — but the bigger problems are with how that money is being spent.

Contemporary K–12 reform is the product of two eras. The first stretched for about two decades from the 1983 report “A Nation at Risk” through the implementation of the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). The second has stretched from around 2003 to the present.

School reform in the two decades following “A Nation at Risk” was marked by bipartisan comity, due in no small part to the decentralized nature of reform. Reformers on right and left largely agreed on the need to expand parental choice, reduce the chokehold of education schools on the teaching profession, boost academic expectations, and hold schools accountable for results.  They also agreed in practice that all of this ought to happen at the state and local level, not in Washington, D.C. This era saw the birth of charter schooling, the enactment of the first voucher laws, and the creation of “alternative routes” into teaching.

The No Child Left Behind era built on these victories but made three problematic shifts. First, education reform became almost entirely a matter of reducing racial “achievement gaps” in reading and math. This meant that high achievers and middle-class concerns dropped out of the reform conversation. Second, because liberal reformers seeking to challenge the unions were unwilling to embrace vouchers or reduce the scope of collective bargaining, they were left trying to use a regulation-heavy approach to change the behavior of schools and teachers. Third, the federal government took an increasingly assertive role in shaping education policy, with reformers showing themselves to have more faith in prescriptive policies than in localized solutions or dynamic problem-solving.

Recent reforms — including Common Core, test-based teacher evaluation, and school “turnarounds” — have suffered for exhibiting all of these tendencies. Efforts to improve teacher evaluation rapidly morphed into a series of federally “suggested” state requirements that job performance for all teachers, in every school and every classroom, be determined by a legislatively specified formula. The Obama administration spent $6 billion on “School Improvement Grants” that required low-achieving schools to adopt one of four federally allowed strategies. The results of these Washington-led, bureaucratic education endeavors have been predictably disappointing. They have also spurred middle-class backlash by prompting parental concerns about over-testing, threats to student privacy, and a narrowing of the curriculum.

In 2015, responding to many of these concerns, Congress overhauled the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). In adopting the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), Congress retained the requirements for annual testing in reading and math but gave states much more leeway in deciding what to do with the results. ESSA retains NCLB’s requirement that states test once a year in reading and math (in grades 3–8 and once in high school) and science (once in elementary, middle, and high school). At the same time, ESSA gets Washington mostly out of the business of judging whether schools are failing and wholly out of the business of mandating school-improvement strategies. The challenge is now to decide just what ESSA means in practice, as states explore their options and as the Obama administration seeks to use regulation to impose federal mandates that it couldn’t win in the legislation.

The goal for reformers today should be to build on what’s been working, work on fixing what hasn’t, and replace bureaucratic excess with a spirit of decentralized problem-solving. The Left, with its taste for federal control and grand policy solutions, is ill positioned to do that. Conservative reformers therefore have an enormous opportunity.


Policy Proposals

Solving real problems in American education requires tempering today’s monomaniacal focus on closing “gaps” in reading and math scores. It also means recognizing that today’s reform agenda, which has focused on addressing broken city schools, might not be the right agenda for every school. Most important, it involves expanding the benefits of choice, ensuring that educators are accountable to families and taxpayers for more than reading and math scores, empowering the educators in schools and school systems, and constructively addressing widespread parental concerns. What follows is an agenda for accomplishing these goals.  

Expand the choice continuum.

Today’s school-choice programs are little short of a godsend for impoverished families stuck in awful city schools, but they generally have little to offer most middle-class families. After all, most parents are pretty happy with their child’s school and are not looking for a new one. This is not an argument against school choice; it’s an argument for augmenting it. The fact that parents generally like their schools doesn’t mean they like everything about their schools. Expanding the logic of choice can help them do better. Enabling home-schooled students to participate in school sports or electives or allowing families to opt into a math program that is more to their liking can go a long way toward solving practical frustrations.

Today’s school-choice programs are little short of a godsend for impoverished families stuck in awful city schools, but they generally have little to offer most middle-class families.

This lends itself to expanding online options, “course choice” programs, education savings accounts, and accommodations for home-schooled students. “Course choice” presumes that even families who like their children’s schools may prefer a different math program or language offering, and it allows them to use a portion of a child’s state aid to access specialized providers. The combination of course choice and online learning can be an especially powerful tool in rural areas because it expands the subject matters, including foreign languages, available to students. Educational savings accounts are similar to health savings accounts: The state contributes a portion of per-pupil funding to an individual account, enabling families to use that portion on the educational expenses they think wisest, for example on tutoring or saving for college.

Have dollars follow students.

Weighted student funding (or “backpack” funding) makes sure that dollars follow students to their schools. This would put an end to funding systems that are the product of bureaucratic convenience and ensure instead that the dollars intended to educate each student will follow him to his school of choice. Funding can be adjusted for student need, yielding a system where all schools — charter or district — are funded equitably.

The benefits would be threefold. First, weighted funding would give educators much more flexibility to spend money as they see fit by doing away with longstanding bureaucratic formulas about staffing schools. Second, it would make educational costs transparent and make it relatively simple to compare cost-adjusted performance across schools. Third, it would create a clean set of healthy market incentives that reward schools for attracting students and families. Meanwhile, schools that lose students would be automatically prodded to change.

Promote accountability for costs, as well as test scores.

NCLB’s one compelling legacy was pushing states to adopt reporting systems that made it simple to compare basic measures of school performance. Providing this information helps equip parents, voters, and taxpayers to set priorities and make decisions. The problem is that these systems, in addition to focusing almost wholly on reading and math scores, ignore the cost of producing those results. In any well-run public or private enterprise, talk about performance involves both costs and results. In schooling, inattention to costs overstates the performance of expensive high-performers and dings cost-effective schools that are delivering good results with tight budgets.

As they revamp their accountability systems in light of ESSA, states should pay more attention to linking operational costs to outcomes. It is difficult to make informed decisions about schools or programs without good information on the spending required to achieve a given result. Schools and districts should be expected to report per-pupil spending (something made much easier when dollars follow the child), both with and without capital costs. This would permit parents and voters to compare cost-adjusted performance and enable observers to calculate various “return on investment” metrics.

Require accountability for more than reading and math.

The new law requires states to report reading and math scores and to design accountability systems that incorporate these results. Unlike NCLB, however, ESSA gives states more leeway to devise more robust systems. States therefore have an opportunity to broaden NCLB’s myopic focus on reading and math and on getting low-performing students to proficiency. New accountability systems could reflect the progress of all students and provide a more robust dashboard of performance metrics. Such changes have the potential to address parental concerns, rebalance the curriculum, and make the reported data more useful. Subjects of particular interest involve STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) and foreign languages. Parents and taxpayers should care about two big things: how many kids are being prepared and how well.

Well-designed systems will hew to three simple principles. They will focus on whether low-performing students are moving to proficiency in key skills, but also on whether all students are making progress. They will give families measures of school performance that extend beyond reading and math: telling them how students are doing in science and career and vocational education, for example, and what percentage of high-schoolers are successfully completing Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate coursework. And they will give school systems the opportunity to collect data that they can use to guide improvement in areas such as parental engagement and special education, secure in the knowledge that the data will not be used to label school performance and trigger federal sanctions.

Overhaul teacher evaluation and pay, but avoid one-size-fits-all rules.

The Obama administration’s unprecedented role in dictating teacher-evaluation rules to states has resulted in a push to craft statewide systems that micromanage how every school system evaluates every public-school teacher. Problems have unsurprisingly ensued. After all, good personnel practices tend to reflect organizational culture and realities. Few would imagine it a good idea for state officials to try to tell all health-care providers or state contractors how to evaluate their employees. Moreover, state officials are designing evaluation systems that they will not be responsible for implementing. This separation means that good intentions and technocratic enthusiasm tend to prevail over sound judgment.

It would be easy to do better. First, the federal government should get out of the teacher-evaluation business. Second, mandated statewide systems should be reserved for schools that have shown themselves to be unreliable actors. Third, schools that are doing at least an adequate job should be given substantial leeway to design evaluation systems that work for them. Fourth, charter schools should be exempted from all statewide mandates governing teacher evaluation and pay. Outdated factory-model personnel practices and routines in schools must be replaced, but not with new prescriptive micromanagement. School systems should be allowed to design their own solutions — and then held accountable for the results.

Free schools from overgrown employee contracts.

Wisconsin governor Scott Walker claimed a signal victory when his legislature enacted Act 10 in 2011, dramatically narrowing the scope of collective bargaining in Wisconsin. Among other things, the law stipulated that teachers could negotiate wages and wage-related benefits, but not work rules, school start times, and so on. This reform was a powerful corrective to contracts that have often stretched to scores or even hundreds of pages, intruding into every facet of school life. Act 10 also rebalanced retirement and health contributions, so that teacher benefits were less out-of-whack with the norms for private-sector employees. The state’s Legislative Fiscal Bureau projected that the pension provision alone would save schools more than half a billion dollars in its first two years, freeing up money for classrooms and instruction.

Walker’s approach delivered an ambitious reset and did not merely try to patch the short-term problem. Instead of countless piecemeal conflicts, districts got a desperately needed clean slate in one fell swoop. This kind of reset is made doubly important by the “evergreen” clauses found in one-third of the nation’s big-district teacher contracts. These provisions require that contract conditions remain in force — even after the contract expires — until both parties agree to a change. The Walker model rips off the Band-Aid, delivers much-needed flexibility, and saves dollars, whereas most deals yield only a fraction of the flexibility — while extracting a heavy price in terms of salaries or benefits.  

Deregulate and attack bureaucratic creep.

Washington does not run schools — it only writes rules for schools, and those rules often do more to stymie educators than to help them. School systems are too complex and too removed from Washington’s grip for federal decisions to play out as intended. Well-intentioned federal policies often do more to fuel paper-pushing, compliance, and burdensome reporting requirements than to help students. Similarly, creeping bureaucratization and regulation (fueled by state officials and charter-school authorizers) can also stymie charter schooling. In many states, charter schools are compelled to use the same measurements to evaluate their teachers, enroll students, and discipline students as traditional public schools use. These regulations risk turning charter schooling into a new version of the very system it is trying to replace.

When legacy decisions leave private-sector enterprises ill equipped to compete, they’re given a chance to reinvent themselves through bankruptcy. Unfortunately, most state “takeovers” leave contracts, vendor agreements, and regulatory requirements intact while changing the leadership of a school or system. State “bankruptcy” practices are needed to change the strictures under which schools operate.

ESSA should mean a rollback of federal impositions on states. The Obama Department of Education has been working avidly to trump the statutory language through federal guidelines and rule-making. Conservatives would do well to follow the lead of U.S. Senate education committee chair Lamar Alexander, who has sought to aggressively check and review the U.S. Department of Education’s efforts. The language of the new law should help reformers push back against federal dictates on school spending and compliance.

Permit for-profit providers to compete on their merits.

Liberal reformers have made their hostility to for-profit school operators and education providers a point of pride. When pushing to lift caps on the number of charter schools or to make other policy changes, they have frequently agreed to prohibitions on for-profit operators as the requisite pound of flesh. While for-profit charter schools or tutoring firms can make easy targets, the bias against for-profits entails real costs. The result is an embrace of appealing but limited nonprofit boutiques. For-profits have incentives that public entities and nonprofits lack. This can have unattractive consequences, but it also means that for-profit providers are frequently the best hope for the rapid expansion of successful ventures and for transforming the cost assumptions of schooling. Policymakers should allow for-profit providers to compete on an equal footing with nonprofit and public providers, and then ensure that they are held to the same expectations in terms of financial transparency, performance reporting, and accountability. 

Champion due diligence of the Common Core.

The Common Core imbroglio is consuming much of the energy in K-12 policy today. State leaders sympathetic to those seeking “higher” standards and more common expectations are also confronted with legitimate concerns about slippery slopes toward federal control, a lack of vetting, and hidden agendas. Advocates and opponents will continue to argue over the issue, as they should. Policymakers need to make sure these debates are properly informed and that parents and teachers are not simply presented with new standards as a fait accompli.

The Common Core standards imply changes more substantial and more debatable than proponents sometimes allow. A key element of the Common Core has been the quiet embrace of a set of “instructional shifts” that are intended to change how reading and math are taught across the U.S. These shifts include teaching less fiction, emphasizing the kind of “close” reading favored in postmodern literary criticism, making heavy use of drawings to teach math concepts, and so on. These shifts would benefit from more expansive public scrutiny. Governors, legislators, and state school-board members should push for answers to hard, practical questions to make the entire enterprise more transparent. Are the new tests well-designed? Are schools compromising history or science instruction? Can parents be confident that “close reading” and “conceptual math” are good for students (and that the tests are not strong-arming charter schools that emphasize other approaches)? This kind of scrutiny can ensure that states are equipped to make informed decisions regarding the Common Core as they decide how to proceed.

Protect privacy and also research.

In recent years many parents have grown increasingly concerned that public officials are collecting reams of personal data about students. Others fear that private vendors have access to personal information. Student privacy laws need to be updated. They were penned for an era when student records resided in manila folders in the principal’s office; they need to be brought into the 21st century, when student data are stored in the cloud. There is also a need for firm safeguards on the use and dissemination of student data, and for stronger student protections from state and federal surveys — dreamed up by agenda-driven lawyers and academics — which ask elementary-school students about their gender identification and other controversial topics. Experience suggests that these student results are as likely to be used for political purposes as for serious research.

#related#It is also true, however, that we have entered a promising era of educational research. Well-trained scholars are employing careful methodologies to answer important questions about school choice, teacher quality, learning methods, and more. It would be self-defeating to put into place protections that inhibit serious research. Research has the potential to help schools better meet the needs of children with learning disabilities, improve reading instruction, teach math and science concepts more effectively, and much else.

Medical protocols provide a useful model for balancing family concerns and the promise of science. In medicine, we have evolved standards that have facilitated remarkable advances while providing substantial safeguards for patient privacy. Education’s FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) was crafted to deal with abuse of administrative records in an earlier era, not with facilitating rigorous quasi-experimentation or the vagaries of anonymized longitudinal studies that can help illuminate school and teacher effects. It is wholly possible to adopt stronger safeguards against intrusive surveys and for the security of individual data, while looking to the National Institutes of Health for review and approval mechanisms that permit credible researchers to gain approval for socially beneficial research.


A Conservative Agenda for K–12 Reform

Given the size of the existing U.S. investment in K–12 schooling, the key to addressing the problems facing our education system while building on its strengths is mostly not a matter of more funding. Rather, it involves reforms that will loosen the grip of bureaucracy, create more room for great schools to emerge and flourish, and make it easy for a broad range of families to see that their children get the schooling they need. In fact, the total price tag for the entire agenda above should be approximately zero. An agenda like this one is practical and achievable because it focuses on addressing the concerns of a broad range of Americans, including suburban families as well as those trapped in poverty. An education platform that includes all American children will make not only for good policy, but broad appeal.



Q: If we expand school choice, won’t all the other stuff take care of itself?

A: Choice is a necessary but insufficient element of K–12 reform. This should not be news to anyone familiar with market dynamics. Whether the topic is telecommunications, health care, or transportation, reformers have long known that unkinking the supply side and ensuring the predicates of healthy market competition matters as much as letting consumers choose from a range of options. Indeed, the U.S. higher education system is an example of how a publicly funded and regulated system can offer choice without many of the broader benefits (like innovation and cost containment) that healthy markets provide.

Q: Doesn’t school choice hurt traditional district schools by draining money and stealing the highest-performing students?

Almost uniformly, researchers find that school choice does not have a negative impact on the performance of nearby district schools.

A: No. Almost uniformly, researchers find that school choice does not have a negative impact on the performance of nearby district schools. Rather, they find that it either has little effect on traditional district schools or that it seems to spur modest improvement. Changing funding practices as suggested above might increase the impact of school choice on traditional schools — causing them to lose money but by the same token prodding them to take more forceful actions to attract families, improve instruction, and control costs. How this would play out in practice remains to be seen, though a half-century of research into market competition suggests that increased competitive pressures usually lead to increasing quality and falling prices.

Also, it’s generally not the highest-performing students who take advantage of school choice, because the parents of successful students are generally happy. Rather, the families who take advantage of school choice are moving for a reason — often to get a struggling or disadvantaged student into a school where he’ll have a better chance to be successful.

Q: Should the state testing requirements of No Child Left Behind be scrapped?

A: No. NCLB really did three things. First, it required that states administer tests every year in grades 3–8 in reading and math; once in high school in reading and math; and once in elementary, middle, and high school for science. Second, it required states to use these results in a particular way to determine whether schools were performing acceptably. Third, it required states to impose a menu of federal penalties on schools that were not performing acceptably. The combined effects made a lot of schools test-obsessed.

But the real problem was with the second and third steps, not the first. The new education law, ESSA, dramatically scales back Washington’s ability to tell states how to gauge acceptable performance and eliminates Washington’s prescriptions for low-performing schools. It’s good and useful for parents, voters, and policymakers to have regular and comparable information on how students are doing. So keeping the tests while sharply pruning the rest of NCLB’s accountability framework was a sensible move. It would have been better if Congress had gotten Washington entirely out of the business of labeling some schools failures, but ESSA has undone much of what was wrong with NCLB’s testing regime.

Q: Aren’t reform-minded Democrats on the same page as conservatives? Haven’t they done an admirable job of fighting the unions?

A: Not really. It’s best to think of Democratic reformers and the teacher unions as caught in a passive-aggressive marriage. The reformers are constantly frustrated by the unions, but they’re unwilling to embrace bold measures that would simply reset expectations. Thus, Democratic reformers have attacked efforts like Scott Walker’s Act 10 to narrow the scope of collective bargaining and rejected vouchers, which would allow private schools to serve more students. Unwilling to accept deregulatory measures, Democratic reformers have pursued prescriptive federal and state policies on everything from school turnaround strategies to teacher evaluation. Their anti-union animus has therefore frequently manifested as a call for new bureaucracies and new regulations on teachers.

Q: Aren’t the unions really the problem?

Democrats’ anti-union animus has frequently manifested as a call for new bureaucracies and new regulations on teachers.

A: Union contracts and practices have been and continue to be part of the problem when it comes to K–12 schooling. But consider the case of General Motors. No thoughtful observer thought it useful to blame all of GM’s troubles on the United Auto Workers. The UAW came in for its share of blame, but so did management and the protectionist tendencies of pandering pols. In education, unions are part of the problem, but there has been a tendency to treat them as the source of all ills — scapegoating unions (and their members) while failing to sufficiently address problems with management, bureaucracy, and policy.

Polling Data

School choice and testing:

63 percent of Americans, 55 percent of public-school parents, 73 percent of Republicans, and 55 percent of Democrats favor the “idea of charter schools” (PDK/Gallup 2014, p. 19, table 18b).

These numbers increase to 70 percent, 62 percent, 76 percent, and 62 percent, respectively, for respondents given the following prompt: “As you may know, charter schools operate under a charter or contract that frees them from many of the state regulations imposed on public schools and permits them to operate independently” (PDK/Gallup 2014, p. 19, table 18a).

60 percent of Americans and 59 percent of parents “completely” or “somewhat” support “a tax credit for individual and corporate donations that pay for scholarships to help low-income parents send their children to private schools” (Education Next 2014).

50 percent of Americans and 56 percent of parents favor a proposal that would “give families with children in public schools a wider choice, by allowing them to enroll their children in private schools instead, with government helping to pay the tuition” (Education Next 2014).

38 percent of Americans and 31 percent of parents favor using student performance on standardized tests to evaluate teachers (PDK/Gallup 2014, pt.2, p. 50).

45 percent of Americans, 31 percent of public school parents, and 46 percent of Republicans said that standardized tests are “helpful” to teachers, while 54 percent of Americans, 68 percent of public-school parents, and 52 percent of Republicans said they were not (PDK/Gallup 2014, p. 15, table 7).

Local control of education:

56 percent of Americans, 60 percent of public school parents, and 68 percent of Republicans polled said that local school boards “should have the greatest influence in deciding what is taught in the public schools here” (PDK/Gallup 2014, p. 18, table 17).

60 percent of Americans, 62 percent of public school parents, and 76 percent of Republicans oppose having the teachers in their “community use the Common Core State Standards” to guide what they teach (PDK/Gallup 2014, p. 12, table 3).

— Frederick M. Hess is the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. This essay is reprinted from K–12 Reform, by Frederick M. Hess, reprinted with permission from the Conservative Reform Network.


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