How can we keep K–12 reform on track?

April 30, 2014

In a bold, new era of education reform marked by deeper assessment, a surge of charter schools and comprehensive approaches to attracting and retaining top talent to drive instructional change, is America on the path to produce lasting results and close achievement gaps?

We’ve made progress, but there’s a long road ahead, according to panelists on “K–12 Education Reform: Forward or Faltering?”

“Student achievement is moving forward, but not quickly enough,” said Lowell Milken, chairman and founder of the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching (NIET). “The reason is because hundreds of reforms that have been created haven’t focused on the most important factor: teacher quality. The only way we can change things is pay (effective) teachers more and give teachers leadership roles.”

Patricia Levesque, CEO of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, cited teacher quality as one of the ways fellow panelist – Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman – helped lead his state to the largest growth in history on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (the “Nation’s Report Card”).

Recruiting and retaining high-caliber talent in schools – and creating ways to continually measure it – is all the more important in implementing the Common Core State Standards. The intersection of the standards and adult accountability is “where the rubber meets the road,” Huffman said. Tennessee partnered with NIET on its statewide teacher evaluation system, based on a clear set of best practices for instructional improvement.

While Tennessee is among a number of states that have become hotbeds of innovation, the reforms aren’t getting to scale fast enough.

What’s more, high-need areas – including those with large amounts of minority students – are “getting less of everything,” said Russlynn Ali, chair of the Emerson Education Fund and former assistant secretary of civil rights at the U.S. Department of Education. “We can be proud of exponential student achievement gains, but achievement gaps are not closing as fast as we want,” she said. “We can’t transform institutions without closing the achievement gap.”

Bruce Reed, president of The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, sees some promising developments in charter schools, which he points out have doubled their population in the last decade. Shutting down ineffective charters and keeping the “phenomenally good” ones should be a priority, he said. Now that the “accountability genie is out of the box, it’s hard to deny results.”