Editor’s note: Fordham President Michael J. Petrilli recently published a long-form article titled, “Where Education Reform Goes from Here.” Others have responded to that essay, and this post furthers that conversation.
In his recent post, Mike Petrilli gets a lot right. By asking, "Where does education reform go from here?" he poses a crucial question that's been on our minds for a while. Education reform, as we've come to know it, is at a critical juncture.
Originally founded by a bipartisan coalition on common ground of equity, accountability, choice, and autonomy, new fissures have emerged. Our increasingly polarized politics have highlighted and expanded divisions in what was always a collective of strange bedfellows.
While we agree that "this is no time to declare defeat or embrace defeatism," we find Mike's suggestions don’t go far enough. We call for more audacious ideas to fuel faster progress. And we call on courageous leaders to ignite and coalesce the next phase of the education reform movement, building on the hard lessons learned over the past two decades.
Naturally, we honor the path that's gotten us this far. Through increased transparency and accountability, we now have more information than ever about how schools are doing and where to focus energy. We now have piles of data adding depth to our knowledge of the massive inequities that persist along lines of race and class. And parents have more choice in schools than ever before.
These are all monumental wins, and any effort to provide all students equitable educational opportunities must always return to these central tenets. Our way forward takes reform’s foundational values of autonomy, accountability, equity, and choice as unassailable, while understanding that they won’t get us all the way home.
We must do more than simply stay the course, doing what we've done before. The plateauing of U.S. NAEP scores over the past decade—alongside political backlash from both sides—lays bare the challenges of education reform if we remain static or sit back to defend our current position.
Grounded in our shared experiences—that span the country and range from the classroom to state secretary of education to state board member—we see the need to expand the guiding principles of this movement. We need bolder, bigger ideas led by even braver leaders.
For starters, we propose the following:
Rebuild the coalition anew
Moving beyond big cities
The education reform tent has historically spanned both political aisles and included those willing to throw their lot in with this optimistic band of dreamers. Intent on providing more opportunity to low-income and minority students, school systems in metropolitan areas were the natural starting ground. This has proven to be smart yet limiting.
Our understandable focus on urban areas, where about 80 percent of all public school students reside, has narrowed the mission of our work and left would-be allies on the sidelines. Increasingly, there is need beyond urban centers.
From 1970 to 2015, the number of people living below the Federal poverty level has grown fastest in suburban areas. This is driven in large part by wealthier Americans moving into cities, and those with less moving into the suburbs. The shiny veneer of suburban districts doesn’t hold up well to scrutiny, where schools considered high performing often have alarming academic gaps when disaggregated by race and socioeconomic status.
Rural districts, too, have unaddressed needs. In a state like New Mexico with eighty-nine school districts—most of which have less than one thousand students—issues of poverty, access, and equity are just as prevalent as those found in Albuquerque or Santa Fe, if not more so. Of course, each locale has unique contours requiring responsive innovation; more on that below.
Families and educators in rural and suburban areas care as much about their students’ futures as those in New York City, though they receive far less attention. By looking beyond the boundaries of our largest cities, we can address this growing need, expand the foundation of knowledge we’re pulling from, and broaden our coalition along the way.
Building cross-sector bridges
Those of us in education love to talk about “college and career readiness.” Providing our children with the skills and knowledge to lead lives of their own choosing is one of the fundamental reasons for public education. Unfortunately, education reform has been remiss in building bridges to both the college and career pathways students travel onto.
The handoff between K–12 and higher education has long flummoxed leaders in both arenas. Colleges and universities have expressed frustration at students arriving in need of remediation and without the basic knowledge and critical thinking skills to be day-one ready.
Meanwhile, K–12 leaders continue to call for more twenty-first-century options for students (dual enrollment and two-year programs, anyone?) along with broader acceptance of Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate credits. The always-gray area between high school and college is smaller than ever. Higher education and K–12 leaders must come together to make aligned, substantive changes.
All the while, our business community pleads with both factions to respond to the rapidly evolving workforce and deliver them globally competitive graduates. Education consistently rejects entrepreneurial ideas because they are from the “private sector.” We must bridge this divide.
The “private sector” needs students who are truly prepared for the modern workforce. To achieve this, we need the private sector as a partner to inform innovation and provide feedback on the skills of graduates. This disconnect is felt on the campaign trail, too. This fall there are thirty-six gubernatorial elections, with at least sixteen new governors taking office in 2019. The number one education issue among all candidates? You guessed it: Career and technical education (CTE).
With all sides itching for substantive change, there’s no time like the present to get working. Let’s stop merely talking about college and career and redouble our efforts to make real progress.
The next generation
We also know that forming our new alliance will require another wave of bold ideas to inspire the next generation of reformers. Generation Z (those born starting in 1995 or so) is the largest generation in America, and is just beginning to enter the workforce. With Baby Boomers poised to retire in droves over the next ten years, particularly as educators, Gen Z will need to take up the mantle.
What will entice them into public education? They bring entirely new views into the landscape, ones often ill-fitted to current systems. Gen Zers prefer active, social learning contexts and seek hands-on and interactive environments. They naturally desire on-demand experiences and the ability to determine what and how they are learning. They are also much more focused on their careers earlier than prior generations.
One of us, Kira, is a member of the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE), and has great pride in Louisiana, especially New Orleans. Since Hurricane Katrina devastated it in 2005, people from all walks of life have worked to rebuild one of America's most vibrant cities. While the work is never done, seeing where it’s come from is nothing short of remarkable.
Also stunning is the reunification of schools under the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB). After nearly fifteen years of management by the Recovery School District (RSD), New Orleans schools are returning to the purview of its locally elected board. Progress made over this period is well documented, undeniable, and a model for other cities and states. Yet it has so much further to go. The city’s established a strong foundation and provided framing for its house. Now it is up to those of who will live in that house to build the rest.
Leaders in New Orleans are up to the challenge and provide the most optimism. They are the change we’re looking for. And as we look at Generation Z (the most racially diverse generation ever), we see faces and experiences that mirror the communities we serve. That’s where the most truly innovative practices will originate: from those who were most recently in classrooms as students and know first-hand where we continue to come up short.
On all these fronts, Gen Z is pointing to where education should be headed. In many ways, the education systems of the future are already here, in the minds and expectations of our newest, biggest generation. Let’s entice Gen Z into the tent and provide meaningful opportunities to realize their vision.
Exercise discipline and humility
We’re in the midst of a pendulum swing in education reform, with many second-guessing the policies and progress of the last twenty years. This is dangerous. We should learn from our mistakes and evolve, but this mustn’t mean we lose momentum.
Rather, we should capitalize on the strong foundation we’ve built and forge ahead. This means actively listening to those we seek to serve, genuinely responding to their needs, and having the humility to admit we don’t always have the answers.
From No Child Left Behind to the Every Student Succeeds Act, large-scale policy implementations have been our primary mechanisms for change. Often, we’ve relied on top-down solutions that leave teachers and parents scratching their heads. We might call it trickle down education reform. High-level policy change certainly has an important role in improving outcomes, but it alone won’t get us to the finish line.
As two leaders familiar with the intricacies of education reforms implemented from the highest levels, we have deep appreciation of the need for driving change through game-changing policies. This means we also know that the complexity and opacity of this approach has sown distrust and underpinned what has become a predictable backlash.
The reality is that many of our boldest ideas have yet to be imagined or get the attention they deserve. And for all the talk about community-centered solutions, rarely does education policy start at the grassroots and work upward. That must change. We must be nuanced and recognize policymaking and real-time implementation are both-and, not either-or.
While one of us, Hanna, was New Mexico’s Education Secretary, the state made bold, foundational changes rapidly: new standards, school accountability, increased graduation expectations, a first-ever teacher evaluation program, school choice paired with heightened accountability, and much more. Implementation was not perfect, and she initially failed to bring teachers and parents into the conversation.
After a lot of hard learned lessons, the education department focused on building relationships and establishing trust with a core of educators and families. These voices now shape policy statewide, leading to demonstrable progress for students. While it would’ve been great to learn those lessons faster, great things are happening for thousands more students today than when the reforms began. Carrying these lessons forward is vital for future generations.
The next era of education reform must do a much better job of connecting top-down approaches with those that are bottom-up. Both offer indispensable assets to each other. As the well-known African proverb goes, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” We must go fast and far simultaneously.
The history of social movements tells us that progress isn't linear and that the amalgamation of advocates ebbs and flows over time. Recapturing the momentum that's delivered us to this point means winning the battle of ideas.
Bigger bolder ideas: Responsive innovation
What are the boldest ideas to spur the next phase of our movement? Mike mentions ideas such as reimagining high school and better supporting teachers with high-quality curricula and supports. We must personalize learning even more. Students can already order shoes online and take Uber to class. Why aren't they doing the same in school every day?
These are important strategies to pursue, backed by research and hard-won experience. While they are necessary, they are also insufficient to carry us through the long haul ahead.
Like any sector that hasn't seen significant change in 150 years, U.S. education is ripe for reinvention. No entity can remain successful, much less viable, without significant course corrections. As H.G. Wells quipped, "Adapt or perish, now as ever, is nature's inexorable imperative."
However, we mustn’t simply innovate for the sake of innovation—particularly in education, where the stakes are so high. We innovate to solve specific problems and are mindful of all stakeholders impacted. We must design, prototype, test, iterate, and repeat. And once new programs are proven effective, how do we scale them as rapidly and sensibly as possible? We mustn’t let the fear of our failures (of which there are and will be many) hold us back.
Public education is overdue for profound innovation. We need a recommitment to high-quality services, a reimagining of the roles we all play as educators and advocates, and the fortitude to persevere through our own blunders as we usher in the next era of education reform.
“Pathway 2 Tomorrow”
These principles are in large part the impetus behind the recently launched Pathway 2 Tomorrow (P2T). P2T was launched recognizing that we need to build on our foundation, but also learn from our mistakes. We need to steward our current coalitions, but simultaneously recognize that the tent must be broadened.
We must be more inclusive based on geographic and demographic needs and recognize that every generation brings something the previous did not. We must support policy solutions from innovative and thoughtful thinkers that are responsive to the needs of states and local communities—and in turn sustainably impact the types of communities in which the ideas emerged.
With an intentional focus on inclusivity and hearing from voices not always heard, P2T champions the bold ideas the next phase in education critically needs. Promising solutions can bolster and inspire the options of local coalitions as they develop strategic policy priorities responsive to the unique needs of their local region. Moving forward means acknowledging that the people, organizations, and ideas that got us here won't be the exact same as those to drive us forward.
So, together, let’s get to work and stay in the fight for the long haul. The uphill struggle to fundamentally reshape our country’s education systems requires compassion, intelligence, discipline, patience, humility, and—perhaps above all else—perseverance. Mike gets that and much more right. It is true indeed that "we have a long way to go until we have a K–12 system worthy of our great nation."
To chart a new course forward requires bolder action and bigger ideas than those that got us here. Transforming the tough lessons we’ve learned over the past twenty years into broadened guiding principles permits us to recapture some of the magic gone from the movement. The road ahead is long and the challenges complex, but our destination is clearer than ever. Our kids, our communities, and our country are counting on us. We have no time to waste.
The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.