Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Not so fast...

Our friend leading out at the Fordham Institute spoke to a cohort of educational entrepreneurs at Rice University last week, exhorting them to imagine an entirely different public education system. Chester Finn compared the current structure to the weak and short sighted Articles of Confederation. Much like the nation’s first federal documents, schools not only fall short of the infrastructure changes that are needed to make them work efficiently and effectively, but recent reforms are unlikely to make those fundamental changes.

After nearly forty years of “reform”, reformers themselves are exhausted, he argues, and their projects are splitting the system itself. Simple amendments may not work. We need a new constitution, an entirely new framework with which to think about and construct our schools.

Checker encouraged these entrepreneurs to use their imagination, statesmanship, courage, and adaptation not to reform schools, but to reinvent them. We are working in a system that’s collapsing he said. There is disagreement regarding governance and within governance. Even some of the reforms are crumbling upon themselves – for example accountability leading to a stifling curriculum and school choice not necessarily improving the choices for families at all.

Many might agree with the call for overhaul, something new. But not so fast...if the next generation of school leaders can bring to the table the elements Finn suggested, it may be wise to add one more thing to the list: research and knowledge.

The most recent analysis of higher education trends in Crossing the Finish Line adds that from the last quarter of the twentieth century through the present, graduation rates are flat. The number of students graduating from institutions of higher education is not increasing, even with incredible financial incentives o f the college graduate wage premium.

Bowen, Chingos, and McPherson point out that “the failure of educational attainment to continue to increase steadily is the result of problems at all stages of education, starting with pre-school and then moving through primary and secondary levels of education and on into college.” And, indeed, these reforms, beginning with President Johnson’s “War on Poverty” and the 1965 signing of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), are hardly changing the system through the grade levels. The legislation’s intent to provide federally funding to help low income students, and even the resulting education programs, such as Title I and bilingual education, are doing little to influence graduation rates.

Knowledge from research has the potential to weed out programs that don’t work, and focus funding, staff, and innovation on developing most effective early childhood curriculum for healthy kids and families to ensure American does not continue pushing students through high school, accepting them into college, and wondering why they do not graduate. Knowledge from research maximizes the reforms that Johnson began over fifty years ago, offers solutions to the real problems underlying stagnant graduation rates, and addresses Finn’s concern for incremental change that is destroying the system it intended to better.

Whether or not you agree with Checker’s ideas presented at Rice, the evident lacuna in his remarks is the lack of reference to research and development in the entrepreneurial process. While other sectors pour money into R&D efforts, resulting in innovation and focused planning, the education field does not. Education research and development must be an integral part of this reinvention or we are destined to repeat history and age old mistakes.

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