Opening “Windows of Opportunity” in Education
By Thad Nodine, Senior Fellow, Education Insights Center

A new cohort of California Education Policy Fellows met recently at Asilomar for three days of conversations about challenges facing education. The 20 Fellows are professionals in California whose positions collectively span K-12 schools and postsecondary education; state government and educational practice; and research, business, and nonprofit organizations.

Kent McGuire, program director of education at The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, set the stage for the weekend by sharing one of the most cogent analyses I’ve heard about the national K-12 education policy landscape. He described four theories around which advocacy groups coalesce, each of which is rooted in perceptions of the current status of K-12 education and directed toward a particular set of solutions.

McGuire called this framework “a competition of ideas over education policy”—that is, a way to consider and discuss different approaches to education. He described the four groupings as fluid and not mutually exclusive. I can’t claim to have captured every nuance, but the thinking is as follows:

1. The education system isn’t all that bad, but it’s underfunded and it does a poor job of distributing resources. Our performance results don’t compare well internationally because of the challenges facing our schools, particularly those outside of education, including poverty, health, and safety. Some state funding formulas are based on student need, but these tools are blunt at best and most haven’t changed much over the past generation.

Potential solutions: Increase funding and distribute resources better to address student learning needs, particularly equity issues. A new majority of voters that is more diverse might favor shifting resources toward these priorities.

2. The system has enough money, but we don’t hold it accountable. Many adults trained in education are not trained in making change. Administrators don’t have information and data tools at their disposal. They don’t know which teachers are most effective, nor do they have the ability to make the changes that are needed. Our schools need to focus on student proficiency in core subjects.

Potential solutions: Use standardized tests to identify student needs and school deficiencies. Take over failing schools. Employ data dashboards to identify challenges and focus energy. Use value-added teacher assessments. Let ineffective teachers go and bring in leaders from outside who can make change.

3. The system has the wrong goals for learning and hasn’t taken advantage of what we know about how students learn. The issue is not about money or accountability, but rather our standards have been too low, with an insufficient focus on equity. A compliance mentality does not foster innovation. The school day is a legacy of the industrial age, with seat time, not mastery of content, as the key goal. We do a poor job of making learning relevant and we do not integrate career skills with academic instruction.

Potential solutions: Adopt rigorous standards aligned with better assessments that address multiple forms of knowledge. Use personalized learning tools. Increase professional development and responsibility for teachers and administrators. Improve school climate through trust and collaboration within and across systems. Develop mentoring relationships and opportunities for high school students to prepare for college and careers in new ways, such as through work-based learning and dual enrollment.

4. The system is broken and can’t be fixed on its own. The needs of adults in schools are crowding out those of children. The least prepared teachers are in the most challenging schools. Parents are stuck in their neighborhood schools without redress. Local district boards are politicized and make irrational decisions; the districts and schools are bureaucratic and incapable of substantial change.

Potential solutions: Increase competition and parent choice through public and private charters and other schooling options. Provide tuition tax credits for students who attend private schools.

Fellows discussed with McGuire ways to engage across these types of groupings, the roles of philanthropy in each one, the extent to which any of them address teaching and learning, and the importance of creating a narrative in building coalitions for change.

Fellows also heard from two other experts in education policy change at the gathering: Michael Kirst, president of the California State Board of Education (SBE), and Martha Kanter, executive director of the College Promise Campaign and former U.S. Under Secretary of Education. I don’t have the space here to do justice to their insights, and so I’ll touch on only a few points.

Kirst drew from his two stints on the SBE (he was also president during Jerry Brown’s first terms as governor) to discuss the realities of education reform at the state level, saying that “windows of opportunity” for making major changes in state education policy open very rarely, for short periods of time, and only when all of these conditions are met:

1. A big idea and a big vision for change are mature and ready to go.

2. Education groups and political groups can be unified around the idea and vision.

3. State revenues are increasing, to support implementation and other costs.

Kirst said that he’s been fortunate to head the SBE when these conditions have been met, and that California has, in turn, adopted major reforms (for example, new state standards, state assessments, and local control funding and accountability). He advised Fellows to flesh out their big ideas, so that when the policy window opens, they are ready to go. He also advised them to keep at it. Their best years, he said, are ahead. (He observed that he hit his stride in his 70s!)

Martha Kanter described the interplay between federal and state education policy, including the unintended consequences of well-meaning legislation—such as the extent to which Congress has not adjusted the poverty rate to meet inflation, and making federal Pell grant aid for the 45% of undergraduates from low-income families cover fewer and fewer college costs since the 1960s. Another example was federal legislation that allows low-performing for-profit schools to account for up to 90% of their revenues from federal student loans and Pell grants. She also shared her favorite assessment system for measuring community college excellence, used for awarding the Aspen Prize: outcomes that measure completion, learning, equity, and labor market performance.

Over the next eight months, Fellows will continue to amass insights from education policy luminaries, and each other, that they can put into action when the next “window of opportunity” opens.

The California EPFP program seeks to develop a new generation of skilled, informed education leaders in the state. The program is administered by the Education Insights Center and the Center for California Studies at Sacramento State.

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