Vail Daily column: Competing reform agendas
January 14, 2014
Welcome to a new weekly column that I will be writing in an effort to help the community better understand its public school system. I hope we will develop a healthy and positive dialog, so please send me topics, questions and feedback. This first article starts with sorting through the abundance of competing reform agendas and how we are embarking on becoming world-class by benchmarking ourselves against the best in the world.
There is no shortage of opinions about how we might improve the quality of the American education system. From the left and right, and all points in between on the political spectrum, well-intentioned policies and strategies emerge, all with the purpose of dramatically improving the performance of our schools.
While the variety of ideas is quite broad, the usual suspects can be grouped into three buckets: market-based reforms, accountability-based reforms and a slew of “silver bullet” approaches.
Market-based reforms: Market-based reforms stem from the idea that if we increase competition and choice in education, then the pressure of competition would cause the system to perform at a higher level. Rather than viewing education as a public good that everyone benefits from, this approach sees education as a commodity to be shopped for, bought and sold. Part of the growth in the charter school movement can be linked to the market-based reform agenda.
Accountability-based reforms: The accountability-based reforms are based on creating systems that measure outcomes, then punishes or rewards schools and educators based on results. The growth in the number of student tests and teacher evaluation legislation are strongly driven by the accountability-based approach.
Silver bullet reforms: With these, it is advanced that if schools just did “this one” specific thing, then performance would improve. From the left, we get silver bullets like the relentless pursuit of lower and lower class sizes, eliminating all forms of testing and a return to the craftsman-mentality of teaching, where every teacher is on their own individual island in their classroom. From the right, we get silver bullets like eliminating or disenfranchising teachers’ unions, hyper-focusing on the basics of reading and math at the expense of other learning experiences, and broad grade-retention mandates if kids don’t pass a certain test.
There have been improvements in schools that have come about through choice and competition. And, there is a need for collective and individual accountability in every organization. Further, each silver bullet approach has its merits when employed in a measured and reasoned manner.
The problem with these leading reform ideas is that none of the best school systems in the world have relied on these as drivers for greatness. In fact, we see the best school systems putting their efforts into very different strategies than what we see in the United States and in Colorado.
The world’s best performing school systems focus on improving the quality of instruction by being very selective about the person they allow to teach, and by treating education as a high status, important profession. They hold high standards for every student, insisting on quality outcomes for all. And, they customize learning for students so that every child is provided what they need to succeed.
High performing systems are deeply committed to equity. This means taking steps to make sure that the poorest child has the same shot at a quality education as the wealthiest child.
We see efforts to build up and support schools as opposed to efforts to disrupt, discredit or dismantle public education.
We see efforts aimed at recognizing and honoring the teaching profession, instead of large-scale systems designed to blame and shame schools.
And, we see a thoughtful and interconnected set of strategies designed to improve the quality of instruction and to mitigate the damaging effects that growing up in poverty has on the opportunity to learn, instead of a disconnected set of silver bullets.
At Eagle County Schools, we are looking to high performing systems, asking questions about what they do and then thinking about how we can put those practices to work for our students. We live in a world-class community and believe the kids in Eagle County deserve a world-class education. Future articles will cover the specific strategies we’ll use and answer questions you submit. Our school district is great because of community involvement, so we thank you for all that you do in support of our noble mission.
Jason E. Glass is the superintendent of Eagle County Schools.