Is Effective Education Reform Even Possible? The Answer is “Yes.”
Education Reform. Every time a legislature meets in this country, education reform is a topic of discussion. It’s easy to see why. Our schools, especially when you consider the amount of money we spend, don’t do a very good job. It’s really not that hard to casually look around the internet and find that the U.S. ranks in the top five of all nations, year after year, in average per-student spending in public education. Unfortunately, that does not translate into results. Many nations that spend a fraction of what we do outperform us in international academic comparisons. China’s students outperform ours by four grade levels. Oklahoma’s performance is below the national average.
Anybody who knows one or more active public school teachers also knows that most of them work hard. Yes, they get longer holidays than most, and there are those relatively few who do the minimum, but there are the many who are conscientious. The problem is, they are swimming upstream in an institutional system that automatically flows to the lowest common denominator and frustrates efforts at attaining excellence.
Teachers and students (and their parents) actually work outside of education’s iron triangle – a triumvirate of organizations, companies, politicians, and professionals whose personal interests are interlocked to perpetuate the public education system as it is, regardless of how it performs. One side of the triangle consists of lobbyists, including unions and the people who work for various education-related associations, who know and understand the current system and want to preserve it in order to preserve their own worth. Another side of the triangle consists of education’s bureaucracy, especially state agencies and school district central office administrators, who stand between policy makers and teachers, and can frustrate reform efforts before they get started. And then there is the side with elected officials – school board members and legislators – whose political fortunes are often tied to the other sides. Teachers, students, and parents are generally too busy to have a real voice and serve only to camouflage the selfish motives of those who are part of the triangle.
The iron triangle is why reforms delving into the minute details of teaching, testing, curriculum content, spending, and personnel have not worked. And this is why the only reforms that have a chance of working are those that at least weaken the iron triangle. This is the intent of seven reforms, listed below, that are recommended and more fully explained in 1889 Institute’s new publication, Education Reforms to Make a Difference, first in a two or three part series of publications recommending institutional reforms for education.
Allow for Teacher Charters – trust teachers by allowing them to independently establish charter schools on the strength of their experience and ability to assemble the financial support necessary to do so; a new concept.
Move School Board Elections to November – end obscure, shifting election dates so voters without a financial stake in the system will show up.
Make Moving into Teaching Seamless – remove logistical obstacles to obtaining the training necessary to enter the classroom where doing so means changing careers.
Provide State-funded Teacher Professional Liability Insurance – teachers who just want liability protection should not have to pay extra dues to radicalized organizations to get it.
Promote the Conversion School Option – inform school board members of the option to convert schools to the rough equivalent of a charter school where schools are failing; allow the State Board of Education to sponsor conversions of certain failing schools.
Reform the State’s Funding Formula – remove perverse incentives in the funding formula and require auditable contact-hour funding for students needing extra help.
Stop Requiring Superintendent Education Certification – they’re business administrators, so emphasis should be on hiring people with business administration skills.
Each of these changes would contribute to creating the kind of positive disruption of the education system that can lead to the softening of the ossified, tempered, and hide-bound education iron triangle. If we keep attempting the old reforms, depending on the goodwill of members of the iron triangle to violate their own selfish interests, those reforms will continue to shatter against a solid barrier of entrenched interests whose main interest in education is how they can profit from the system.