At conferences and online, there have been conversations of late about what it means any more to be an “education reformer.” Let me take a stab at it, circa early 2019, and encourage other advocates to respond.

What all Americans believe

Let me start by noting that, despite the acrimony surrounding education and everything else right now, there are some universal aspirations that everyone shares—citizens and politicians across the ideological spectrum; education groups that promote “reform” and those that oppose it; parents, teachers, and everyone with a stake in our future. Namely:

  • Every child deserves a good school, and it’s unfair that not everyone gets to attend one.
  • A strong education system is key if the American dream, and a healthy democracy, is going to be enjoyed by future generations.
  • Educators deserve our appreciation and greater status than many enjoy now.
  • Not everyone needs to go to college, though some sort of postsecondary training—on top of a first-rate K–12 education—is almost always necessary to support a family in today’s (and tomorrow’s) economy.

What “reformers” believe

Where we part ways with some of the status quo organizations is around the following principles:

  • Good schools deliver strong results for students—and all schools should be held to account for their results. Once upon a time, a “good school” was defined by the state of its facility, the credentials of its teachers, the resources in its library, or the condition of its playing fields. More recently, there’s been a push to define school quality with indicators that go far beyond academics, to look at school climate, the teaching of social and emotional skills, and more. And yes, as a rich country, we should ensure that nobody attends a school with a shabby building or unqualified teachers or libraries without books. It’s also essential that schools have a well-rounded curriculum and develop the “whole child.” But while all that is necessary, it’s insufficient. America today has too many schools that are safe and inviting places with caring adults and plenty of resources, but where students don’t learn very much over the course of the year. Those cannot be considered good schools, and their failure to meet their foremost educational mission must be made clear to parents and the community and addressed by public authorities.
  • Our schools as a whole could be delivering much stronger results for all their students, but especially for disadvantaged children. Ultimately, we want our schools to help young people prepare for success in some form of postsecondary education or training, for active participation in our democracy, and for a family-sustaining career. We reformers look at America’s student outcomes and see both the need and the possibility for dramatically better performance. We find it unacceptable that only about one-third of students reach proficient levels in reading and math, graduate high school ready for college, or attain a four-year degree; only about half of young people will attain any sort of postsecondary credential. And it’s shameful that for African American and Hispanic students these numbers are dramatically lower. We need to be careful to avoid utopianism—we will never reach universal proficiency or postsecondary completion—but we see from leading states and other developed nations that, even given the challenges many kids face at home, we could and should be getting much better results than these.
  • One size does not fit all, so we should embrace a pluralistic school system. While good schools have many things in common, we should allow them to vary from one another, too, and empower parents and educators to gravitate to the institutions that align with their preferences and values. That’s especially important for older students, who need various avenues to college and career success, including traditional college prep and high-quality career and technical education. Just as architecture has many traditions and styles, so too does schooling, and we should embrace all of them, as long as they are educationally sound.

The how

In brief, we envision a pluralistic system of schools in America that produces much better outcomes for students. Based on research evidence, and hard-earned experience, we see the following state policy levers as essential for achieving this vision:

Standards, assessments, and accountability

  • Academic standards that aim for readiness in college, career, and citizenship. These standards—in English language arts and math, but also science, history, civics, and other academic subjects—set the foundation for appropriately challenging curriculum and instruction. They also identify the key knowledge and skills that students need to be on track for success after high school—and make it possible to determine if and when students are falling behind.
  • Regular, high-quality, aligned assessments. Such assessments generate essential information for parents and the public about student and school performance and progress. The best assessments encourage the kind of teaching we would want for all students— inspiring, engaging, and cognitively challenging—i.e., they are tests worth preparing students to do well on.
  • School ratings focused primarily—but not exclusively—on academic progress and outcomes. Such ratings provide transparency, for the public and parents alike, and helpful pressure on our schools to keep their focus on improvement. The clearer the labels the better. Broadening these systems to include valid and reliable measures beyond test scores is certainly appropriate, but at their heart these systems should answer the question of whether schools are helping their students make progress toward success in the real world.
  • Strategies for intervening in, and/or replacing, chronically low-performing schools. This is the “accountability” part of the “accountability movement,” and it’s by far the toughest. While the national results from efforts like the School Improvement Grants program have disappointed, a few states and local communities can point to turnaround efforts that have worked. Some reformers would prefer to double-down on such strategies, while others are comfortable moving more immediately, and aggressively, to replacing low performing institutions with new schools, including new charter schools. But we all agree that direct state or local action is necessary when schools fail to improve year after year.

Educator quality

  • High standards for entry into the teaching profession, combined with flexible pathways by which to enter. We need teachers and principals who themselves are well-educated, who understand the research evidence on effective practice, and can demonstrate an ability to help students make progress over the course of the school year. We are skeptical about traditional certification requirements, which are only loosely related to real quality and effectiveness, but we also reject the view that anybody can be a great teacher, regardless of their training.
  • Feedback mechanisms to help teachers improve. While there’s debate among education reformers about the wisdom or usefulness of teacher evaluation systems linked to student test scores, everyone wants teachers to receive regular feedback on their practice so that they might improve their craft. States continue to have a role to play in disseminating evaluation and feedback tools that are the foundation of such a system. And we believe that if teachers are to receive tenure, states should demand evidence of their effectiveness beforehand.
  • Compensation systems that recruit and retain strong teachers. In many states, teacher salaries and benefits are local issues, but where states play a role, the design of salary schedules, retirement offerings, and other benefits should be geared toward recruiting and retaining the most talented, most effective teachers possible. That generally means “front loading” teacher compensation much more than we do today—investing more resources in higher salaries in the early years of teachers’ careers, rather than delaying most of the payoff until teachers have spent decades in the classroom.

High-quality charter schools

  • State charter laws that enable high-quality, autonomous charter schools to flourish. In line with the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools’s model law, such policies allow for strong, independent authorizers to start and oversee schools; require the most onerous regulations governing public schools to be waived; and set up a system of oversight that provides incentives for authorizers to take action when performance is weak.
  • Equitable funding. Strong oversight via effective authorizing is half of the equation leading to charter quality; the other half is fair funding. Yet in too many states, charter schools continue to operate with a significant deficit—getting about eighty cents on the dollar as similar district schools, on average, with some gaps even larger. States have taken a variety of approaches to level the playing field, from overhauling state funding formulas to tackling the challenge of charter facilities financing. But allowing this inequality to continue, especially for charter schools serving poor children and children of color, is untenable.

High school reform

  • A high school diploma that means something. Standards aren’t just important for schools; they are important for students, too. And we should expect students to demonstrate at least basic levels of academic readiness before allowing them to graduate from high school.
  • Post-secondary education that starts in high school. States should embrace efforts to encourage and enable students to earn college credit before graduation, via Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, and high-quality early-college and dual-enrollment programs.
  • Career and technical education is about post-secondary education, too. Every state needs high-quality CTE programs that put students on a path toward high-quality credentials, including one-year and two-year technical degrees.

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On top of these policies, reformers see much promise in efforts to improve educational practice. That includes initiatives to identify high-quality and standards-aligned instructional materials, and to support teachers with their implementation in the classroom; changes to encourage schools to “personalize” learning, at the least so that students can move through curricula at their own pace; and improvements to grading practices to provide more honesty and transparency around student performance.

And yes, there are plenty of areas where we reformers disagree. The most prominent have to do with what, beyond academics, schools should teach. Some of us (mostly on the right) are more comfortable talking about character, morality, and patriotism; others (mostly on the left) gravitate toward social and emotional learning, social justice, and creative expression. This plays out most visibly in the difficult debate over school discipline, which pits strongly held conservative and progressive values against one another. It also comes into play in the arena of parental choice: Should private and religious schools be part of the publicly-funded mix or not? We also disagree about funding: Are current levels adequate? And should we allow affluent communities to out-spend their peers, even if that makes our funding system less equitable?

Yet as the long list of policy reforms above indicates, reformers across the political and ideological spectrum still have a lot of common cause. In states where this policy set is robust, we must continue to defend it. In states where the policy foundation is shakier, we must work to make it stronger. Because, as everyone agrees, all kids deserve good schools. It’s not fair that so many don’t have access to one, and America will be a better country when they do.

Mike Petrilli is president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, executive editor of Education Next, and a Distinguished Senior Fellow for Education Commission of the States. An award-winning writer, he…

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