Milken Institute
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A collective force to keep American students competitive
By: Milken Institute
April 30, 2012
While education can be one of the most polarizing topics at the local, state and national levels, Monday's Global Conference session on keeping U.S. students competitive spoke to cooperation and shared priorities. (Full video is available here.)

Milken Family Foundation Senior Vice President Dr. Jane Foley moderated the panel discussion, representing state, federal and business perspectives. All agreed that the nation is falling fall short of reaching proficient levels to succeed in a global economy. We need to spend "smarter" - not more - quipped former U.S. Education Secretary Bill Bennett, to put the necessary reforms in place.

In fact, newly minted Nevada Superintendent of Public Instruction James Guthrie, a Republican, said that the U.S. Department of Education has done a "terrific" job promoting good charter schools and carrying out other initiatives. He pointed to the department's implementation of the Education Sciences Reform Act of 2002 (which established the Institute of Education Sciences [IES] to provide a rigorous evidence base for education practice and policy) and its work in sustaining the Teacher Incentive Fund, a federal initiative that offers funding to develop a system for paying teachers for performance and other strong supports.

What we need to continue to work on, according to Guthrie, is raising student achievement, closing the achievement gap and finding solutions to our "lack of productivity" - a reference to paying more and more, yet staying stagnant.

"How can we disrupt the status quo?" asked Joanne Weiss, chief of staff to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. "Use competitive funds in new ways."

As an example, Weiss cited Race to the Top, an initiative she directs at the federal level to support states as they implement comprehensive education reform. Through Race to the Top, "states have looked at their roles in education" and what they need to do to improve.

Beyond assessing their own efforts, states and districts are encouraged by the U.S. Department of Education to share practices. In addition to the work at IES, "we're leading the communities of our grantees to publish reports" of findings from which others can learn, said Weiss. "We manage our grantees based on compliance, but also support their success." The bottom line, according to Weiss, is "how can we make grantees accountable and provide the infrastructure to support them?"

Panelists shared the consensus that teacher quality is an important part of the structure for improvement at the school level.

"Brains are everything," said Guthrie, who praised the Milken Family Foundation's work with TAP: The System for Teacher and Student Advancement and the efforts the business community has undertaken with charter schools.

Tony Ressler, founding partner of Ares Management and founder and co-chairman of the Los Angeles-based Alliance for College-Ready Public Schools, called for more flexibility at the school level to pay teachers for "extraordinary performance. We need to make teaching and administration an exciting profession."

Part of modernizing teaching is making sure that educators have the technology skills to meet the challenges of the 21st century. "Information is now a commodity," said Weiss. "Education will look very different in the future. We need to shape that future."

Bennett is working with Project Lead the Way, which provides a stimulating approach to Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education that connects skills to the real world.

With all these efforts, the "defining principle," said Foley, "is that people make the difference. When you build a talented teacher force, results follow."

- Jana Rausch Coffey, Milken Family Foundation