Political Report Card

Authoritative research shows exactly how to fix public schools. What we need are leaders with the guts to put it into practice.
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Authoritative research shows exactly how to fix public schools. What we need are leaders with the guts to put it into practice.

Our country's founders had a particularly keen sense of education's importance. I'm not imagining thoughts to put into the founders' heads; I'm recalling Thomas Jefferson's actual words: "Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone. The people themselves are the only safe depositories ... to render even them safe, their minds must be improved to a certain degree. An amendment to our Constitution must here come in aid of public education." This, from an avid proponent of states' rights and the founder of the oldest political party in America.

His counterpart, John Adams, who founded the opposing political party, wrote: "Laws for the liberal education of youth ... are so extremely wise and useful that to a humane and generous mind, no expense for this purpose should be thought extravagant."

In July 1862, during the darkest days of the Civil War, President Lincoln supported and signed the Morrill Act, creating the land-grant college system. The stated intent was to assist members of the working classes to obtain a liberal, practical education. Every state in our union has at least one land-grant college — there are a total of 181 — and millions of students have been educated in them.

In 1944, in the midst of the Second World War, Congress supported and President Roosevelt signed the GI Bill of Rights, designed to provide opportunity for returning war veterans, especially in the area of education. More than 2 million students attended colleges and universities because of the GI Bill. It is estimated that more than 230,000 became teachers.

In 1946, Congress passed and President Truman signed the National School Lunch Act. That year a record number of draft-age men — young men whose formative years occurred during the Great Depression and who had serious physical limitations because of malnutrition — had been rejected as unfit for service. The new school lunch program was described in its enabling legislation "as a measure of national security."

Under President Eisenhower, the promotion of education and the protection of children continued to be treated as matters of national defense. After the Soviets launched Sputnik, Ike signed the National Defense Education Act to greatly increase the number of students who would become scientists, engineers and teachers.

Many of the policies our ancestors enacted in support of public education were based not on academic research but on common sense. Even so, and for the record, I want to say that as an educator, policymaker and public policy administrator, I consider educational research to be of great importance.

At the same time, I have to say that the decline of public education — across the country and in my state, California — is in fact not due to a lack of quality research on the improvement of public schools. We have reams of research that tells us exactly what we need to do to fix our ailing schools and prepare our children for life in a globalized 21st century. In my experience as superintendent of California public schools, the slide into educational mediocrity has been the direct result of a lack of courage, vision and heart in the people who set and fund educational policy.

We need educational research and researchers. We need leaders who will heed them even more.

Frankly, given the changes of the Information Age, I am flabbergasted by America's failure to focus on education with greater intensity. In California, where most of my professional experience lies, the failure is especially glaring.

The global economy has fundamentally changed the importance of education. Once upon a time, all you needed was a strong back and a willingness to work hard if you wanted to get ahead. But the idea that most of our students do not need to go to college or, at least, learn higher-order thinking skills is completely out of step with a world economy that's increasingly information based and technology dependent. Yet today, only one-third of California public school students graduate from high school ready and able to do college work. The others — mostly low-income and/or minority students — are tracked into courses that will not prepare them for the work required in the global economy.

I am not saying that all of our students can or need to attend four-year colleges and universities. Labor experts point out that 70 percent of jobs in the new economy do not require a college degree. But the rising demand for paralegals, radiological and medical records technicians, car mechanics, drafters, engineering technicians, computer programmers and the like makes it clear just how many of the new jobs in the new economy require a solid high school education, with some post-secondary training, perhaps at a community college or in the military.

Moreover, the vast majority of these new jobs are steeped in technology. The information age and globalization have not only raised the educational requirements for success in an individual's career, but they have also raised the educational requirements for successful nations. This is not so obvious in the short run but will become very apparent in the longer term.

If you have not read The World Is Flat by Thomas Friedman, you should. As he says, "Young Chinese, Indians and Poles are not racing to the bottom. They are racing us to the top. They do not want to work for us; they don't even want to be us. They want to dominate us — in the sense that they want to be creating the companies of the future that people all over the world will admire and clamor to work for."

Every four years, the United States takes part in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science study. What the study has found in high-performing countries, including the Netherlands and Singapore, is educational coherence. Singapore is one of the most fascinating examples of this coherence; in the last 25 years, it has fundamentally changed its education system and gone from the international achievement basement to the educational penthouse.

The importance of coherence throughout public education cannot be overemphasized. In high-performing countries, there are clear, high standards on what will be taught, matching and fair assessments of student performance, curriculum frameworks that are aligned to the standards, and instructional materials that fit those frameworks. These countries also provide teacher training and professional development aimed at supporting this coherence and emphasize leadership that is responsible for results but also holds teachers in great respect.

High-performing countries generally have a higher set of standards for secondary education than what exists in America, and they provide career and technical education for non-college-bound youth. And of course, high-performing countries understand that the steepest learning curve is before age 5, and, therefore, they have preschool for all.

If we decide to adapt the educational ways of high-performing countries to American culture, there is good news: We have powerful research to point our way. I refer to Diane Ravitch and her book National Standards in American Education, first published in 1995. Her ideas influenced George Herbert Walker Bush's call for national standards, Bill Clinton's call for national standards and my call for state standards. In the book, Ravitch, now at the Brookings Institution but formerly the assistant secretary for the Office of Educational Research in the first Bush administration, called for national standards in science, math, history, geography, civics, the arts and foreign languages for all students in the nation. And although we never got national standards, we did get a law — No Child Left Behind — that requires every state to establish standards. But most states, including California, have only adopted content standards; the more important performance standards are still to be adopted.

We simply must commit ourselves to both content and performance standards for public school students. In the new version of her book, Ravitch writes, "I continue to believe that the idea of national standards has remarkable validity no matter what the politicians say today. ... National standards — not federal standards managed by the federal government — are a necessity in an advanced society operating in a highly independent, competitive global economy."

And when we test student performance against those standards, we need to stop relying on multiple-choice exams — which do not effectively measure it — and start measuring the ability to write, analyze, think critically, work in groups and use technology, as the highest-performing nations routinely do.

In some key academic areas, America's public schools not only fail to be high performing; they have fallen down completely. Science is a prime example. Some of you may recall the shock wave sent up by the Soviet Union's launch of Sputnik in 1957. Because America had lost the race to orbit a satellite, policymakers here fretted about science education, and Congress passed the National Defense Education Act. Today, we hear speeches about science education and its importance, but support in real terms has declined in the last several decades, according to the National Science Foundation in a report released in January. And when most states developed their educational standards to comply with the No Child Left Behind law, they actually de-emphasized science because NCLB puts its greatest emphasis on math and reading.

We have reams of evidence showing that science education is important to the country's security and economic future. But in California, the state Board of Education made a serious effort in 2002 to limit a student's hands-on experimentation to 25 percent or less of the time spent on a science lesson. Some wanted to establish a policy that students should be told what to expect in experimentation — before they do the experiment! Leading corporate CEOs and the chancellors of all 10 University of California campuses had to wade in to prevent that wrongheaded policy from being perpetrated.

In too many states, high school science labs are antiquated. Few middle or elementary schools are equipped with science laboratories at all. (That is one of the reasons I have been an ardent advocate of school gardens. Gardens are science labs and a terrific place to make science, social science, language, math and the arts come alive.)

The National Science Foundation predicts that there will be a more-than-40-percent increase in the number of science and engineering jobs in the U.S. in the next decade. That we need to provide up-to-date laboratories and technology in our schools should be as obvious as the need for rural electrification was to President Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s.

Still, California and most of the other states lag in providing labs and technological infrastructure to schools. A 2001 study found that $322 billion would be needed to make all schools safe, well constructed and up-to-date technologically, and hearings this year by the House Committee on Education and Labor showed that the shortfall is, if anything, larger now.

The passive ability to decode a sentence is insufficient in the new economy. In his book Jefferson's Children, Bard College President Leon Botstein says it well: "The truth is that writing is a process that generates thought ... revision is a crucial skill that needs to be taught." But the fact is that our incoherent attempts to set educational standards have actually worked against teaching students to write well. An example from California shows why.

When I became superintendent of public instruction in 1995, California had no statewide assessment system for its public schools. The tests previously used had both been dumped. I asked for statewide tests but made the case that they needed to be robust and aligned to statewide standards that set out what students were to learn. And I advocated for assessments that did not rely too heavily on multiple-choice exams. Life is not a multiple-choice test, after all.

Then-Gov. Pete Wilson initially advocated nationally developed tests unaligned to state standards. Later, we added standards-aligned tests, but they are mostly of the multiple-choice variety. Now, the curriculum is increasingly what I call "drill and kill" —a program that aims to increase scores on the multiple-choice tests. It's a curriculum that's boring to students and often to educators.

But don't just take my word for that. Here's what Linda Darling Hammond, a Stanford scholar, recently wrote: "A body of research has shown that as more stakes become attached to such tests, teachers feel pressured to teach a multiple-choice curriculum that does not produce skills as they are used in the real world. Fully 85 percent of teachers said they feel the tests encourage them to teach in ways that are counterproductive."

The testing requirements of the No Child Left Behind law have actually encouraged less instruction in science and writing. While reading and math must be assessed every year between third and eighth grade, that is not the case for other subjects, including science and social science. Science and social science are tested in only two grades between kindergarten and the eighth grade, and, as a consequence, there are a shocking number of schools teaching science and social science only in those two grades. I found this especially prevalent in low-performing schools. Because writing is only assessed in fourth, seventh and 11th grades in California, many schools are de-emphasizing writing in other grades. As they say in the private sector, what gets measured is what gets done, or, in this case, taught.

The fact is we have too much of the wrong kind of testing and not enough of the right kind. It would help re-emphasize science, social science and writing if students in advanced-placement math and English classes — who are already taking rigorous, end-of-course tests — were exempt from taking the high school exit exam. It would help more if school leaders realized that the small extra cost of administering standardized tests that are not of the multiple-choice variety is well worth it, in terms of improving education and the classroom experience, both for students and for teachers.

In a remarkably short period of time — about 25 years — Singapore reinvented its educational system, becoming the highest-achieving nation on Earth by some educational measures. I think that an educational sea change can happen here in American schools but only with great leadership. Of course, leadership in a culture of change is not something that is innately understood by all educators. So we must have a curriculum that supports the education of educators to lead the educational transformation that is required.

Yes, school principals need to understand management, but to a far greater degree they must learn to become leaders.
In the highest-performing states and countries, teachers feel valued and there is low teacher turnover. Yet America is losing a third of its teachers every five years. Instead of recruiting more and more teachers, we should take steps to retain the teachers we have. One key to retention is the recruitment of real instructional leaders to be the principals of our schools. And those leaders must receive a new kind of leadership training.

As state superintendent of public instruction, I visited more than 500 schools in every county of the state of California and a number outside of my state. I never went to a great school that did not have a great principal. (I never went to a great district that did not have a great superintendent, either.)

The challenges confronting principals and school leaders include:

• Lack of adequate financial resources
• Low expectations for students
• Limited faculty capacity
• Lack of authority to get the job done
• Lack of time to be an instructional leader

To begin to address those challenges, the U.S. needs a strategy for developing the kind of coherence that is found in high-performing countries. Coherence does not mean that the state or school district micromanages school operations. It means school districts must recruit more principals who have not just the responsibility for student achievement but the authority to improve it.

The research on Edmonton, Canada, gives ample evidence that authority can be pushed to the school level, and achievement will rise when that happens. In 1974, Mike Strembitsky, then Edmonton's superintendent, undertook a major restructuring of decision making and budgeting, beginning with seven schools. After an initial pilot program, he took the project districtwide. Schools ran their own budgets for salaries, staff development, supplies (including library books), equipment repair and minor maintenance. The school principal had the primary authority for site-based budgeting and decision making.

Strembitsky's successors have continued this policy using what is known as a weighted student formula by which each student receives a funding allocation — weighted according to his or her specific needs — that follows the student all the way to the school. This form of decentralization of funding and authority appears to contribute to efficiency and improved student performance.

For children to succeed at school, we need to pay attention not just to their academic achievement but also to their social and emotional development. Because of embarrassingly pathetic data systems, we lack exact numbers, but some prisons estimate the numbers of inmates with foster care backgrounds run as high as 70 percent. How shortsighted to save hundreds or thousands of dollars by cutting school counselors and psychologists and to spend millions of dollars later on incarceration, unemployment and welfare.

As we educate them, we have to pay more attention to the health and nutrition of our children. A 12.5-cent subsidy for the school lunch — the amount paid in California — is a disgrace. We know as a certainty that our children are suffering one of the highest rates of obesity in history. We know from researchers like Dr. Dennis Styne, a pediatric endocrinologist at the University of California, Davis, that our children suffer medically from being overweight. We have also seen links between student health and academic performance. Why don't we do more to insure the health of our children? After all, we know so much more than Truman knew when he signed the National School Lunch Act.

Today in America, most low-wage workers never move into the middle class. According to a study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the economies of France, Italy, Britain, Germany, Denmark, Finland and Sweden provide more mobility for low-wage workers than the U.S. Our best hope for improving social mobility — and strengthening the democratic values mobility engenders — is to improve the education of all of our children.

Which brings me to the subject of universal preschool.

I was disappointed that the effort for universal preschool came up short the first time it was placed on the statewide ballot in California. Since the defeat of the initiative, I have asked some leaders why the effort was defeated. While many say they support universal preschool, they did not like the way it was to be funded (that is, with a tax on high-income Californians).

I am able to accept that reasoning. But if you believe, as I do, that preschool is vital to our nation, then we must find a way to fund it. Almost every nation that is a significant economic competitor to the U.S. has universal preschool. We have storerooms of research supporting the value of preschool. If you doubt me, take a look at From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development, produced by the National Research Council Institute of Medicine. Check out The Scientistin the Crib for a more joyous research-based study. The research is powerful and virtually all in the direction of supporting early education.

When I visited French preschools as a guest of the French-American Foundation, I asked about research. The French educators and politicians with whom I spoke said they had not relied on research; they had just done it.

Now we have the research, and we need to do it, too.

The late media theorist and cultural critic Neil Postman wrote, "Children are the message we send to a time we will never see." Our ill-schooled forbears seemed to understand this. They were generous and visionary with their messages to the future.

In our time, jobs can easily be shipped overseas where highly educated residents of Singapore, Ireland, China, the Philippines and India do high-quality work for a fraction of the wage paid in America. In 2004, Intel sponsored its worldwide International Science and Engineering Fair. About 40 countries participated. About 65,000 American kids took part. In China, 6 million students competed.

As Tom Friedman says, "The sky is not falling today, but it might be in 15 or 20 years if we don't change our ways, and all signs are that we are not changing, especially in our public schools. Although California and American colleges and universities remain the best in the world, nowadays a majority of graduate students in the sciences are foreign students." For the record, he wrote the preceding sentences a few years ago now, and we have not moved closer to meeting the challenge that Friedman laid down. Our students must acquire higher skills, or they will become a permanent underclass in the global economy and a message to the future that we, their parents, failed them.

We have decades of research from the finest public and private colleges and the most prestigious research institutes in the world showing us exactly what we need to do to fix our public schools. Yet some public officials propose tax cuts in lieu of preschools and support rebuilding Iraqi public schools when many American schools are in shambles. They cut support for teachers in classrooms while complaining about how many police we need on the streets.

And they pretend there is no connection.

Making that connection is not rocket science. It is simple common sense. Educate them, or you will eventually have to incarcerate them. Love them, or they will not love our nation and its values.

The founders of this country and great leaders for more than 200 years knew that we must be about "securing these blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity." When thinking about our posterity, it seems to me that instituting universal preschool should be as obvious a national goal as saving Yosemite or digging the Panama Canal or going to the moon. Some believe it to be more important than any single policy our country could embark upon at this moment. The California Master Plan — a strategic plan, completed in 2002, that lays out what California should do to improve education from pre-kindergarten to college — called for universal preschool, among many other excellent suggestions, all supported by educators, business leaders and policymakers. Millions of dollars were spent on the study.

It sits, gathering dust.

So research is important, but if we are to save American schools, what we have to rediscover is the collective vision and heart that created universal education in the first place and supported and expanded it in America through the middle of the 20th century. We have to remember that public education is a matter of national security and that the defense of America relies more heavily on the education of our children than on the building of any weapons system. The educational defense of this country is now — and has always been — an agreement we make with ourselves to protect a time we won't see by populating it with well-educated citizens who dream of a better life for themselves. And, most of all, for their children.

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