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Live from Global Conference: Fixing K-12 education

I’m at the Milken Institute Global Conference in Los Angeles this week. On Monday, panelists discussed K-12 education in the U.S. and what reform is needed — just one of a host of panels directly or indirectly focused on education.

The U.S. education system is broken, leaves classrooms unable to compete against the rest of the world and has mismatched priorities for local, state and federal roles, said a former secretary of education and current federal, state and charter-school officials at Monday morning’s panel. The session had a feel of optimism for America’s ability to regain its edge, but only through tremendous effort coupled with drastic changes in policy, focus and operational practices.

Teachers and teaching quality were the focus, though no active teachers were on the panel, and there was general agreement that weeding out bad educators, training better ones and figuring out why excellent teachers get to be that way is the best way to improve student achievement. Notably, there was scant, if any, mention of input from teachers in these discussions.

Teacher quality

Where teachers were a priority, however, was in the need to find good ones and learn how to adjust training, recruiting and support systems to repeatedly generate quality. “We shy away from excellence” when it comes to identifying the best teachers, learning from them and paying or otherwise rewarding them, said Joanne Weiss, chief of staff for Education Secretary Arne Duncan. Those sentiments were repeatedly emphasized by asset manager and charter-school operator Tony Ressler, who advocated for flexibility throughout operations, particularly in hiring and pay-for-performance. There’s no shame, he said, in admitting that some teachers and principals aren’t up to the job.

How would this focus on excellence be accomplished? Perhaps because of the breadth of the 75-minute panel, there were a lack of specifics, particularly in how teacher-training colleges might be involved, how professional development would help or how this would be funded. What was noted was how the Department of Education has been recently focusing on areas beyond compliance in its grants and using federal power to encourage bottom-up reforms at the district level. Nevada schools Superintendent James Guthrie had praise for the Teacher Incentive Fund and was optimistic that measuring accountability would become easier: “The infrastructure is dropping into place to make that happen.”

Going against conventional wisdom

Panelists acknowledged that there is a tension between the roles of the federal government, states and local districts. The solutions proffered were less about about giving one sphere dominance and more about altering the dynamics between them. The federal government — criticized over the years and by this panel for its increasing role in the details of K-12 education — did receive praise, particularly from Guthrie, for its ability to initiate programs, to create incentives and drive innovation; Guthrie also noted the poor federal record in dictating instruction, emphasizing small class sizes and the problems, in hindsight, of No Child Left Behind.

The government also was lauded for raising standards and taking on the competitiveness-destroying practices of state self-reporting. Former Education Secretary Bill Bennett expressed his love of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which has a standard for proficiency that almost no state has matched. There was even a bit of bipartisanship, as Reagan-appointee Bennett noted tough but positive steps by Secretary Duncan, and lifelong Republican Guthrie said he was embracing the Common Core standards because they raise the bar beyond what his state and many others now require.

There were also expectations-defying statements that came in on topics that generally bring agreement. Most of the panelists spoke emphatically about how they felt that small class sizes had been overemphasized, and that the positive effect of small classes could be surpassed through other methods. Ressler operates 20 charter schools but says he “doesn’t care about great charter schools; I care about great schools.” Furthermore, he disagreed that business experience alone translates into building great schools, or that unions need to be driven out for schools to be successful. Here was an area of true disagreement, as Guthrie challenged Ressler on both points, saying he felt there had been decades of money wasted by business efforts that didn’t take business principles into account.

As the session closed, panelists reiterated that tough decisions and painful steps lay ahead if U.S. education is to advance. One area left as a teaser for a later session was K-12 technology. Weiss estimated that technology is providing about a 1% benefit — leaving a vast untapped terrain into 21st century education that no nation has conquered.

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