Education reform is possible

an economist, former assistant chancellor for research and planning at California Community Colleges, and owner of education consulting firm Computer-Aided Planning

Recently, Sacramento hosted education expert Diane Ravitch (sponsored by teachers unions), followed by Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst “listening tour” stop (sponsored by Mayor Kevin Johnson, her husband). These events are reminders that an important debate goes on about education, with some surprises.

While the Obama administration’s Secretary of Education Arne Duncan continues the unsuccessful Bush administration experiment to improve learning through high-stakes testing (“No Child Left Behind”) and by expanding unproven charter schools, public-school antagonists like Rhee attack teachers and their unions. Most recent state education policies seek to use student test scores to evaluate teachers, largely in an effort to secure some of Duncan’s $4.3 billion in federal “Race to the Top” funding. To his credit, California Gov. Jerry Brown resists this approach: He’d rather raise taxes for schools while simplifying and more equitably distributing those funds to the state’s less affluent school districts.

There are problems with all of these approaches, starting with the lack of student investment in testing (which doesn’t affect grades) and moving right through charter schools. A 2009 study by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University concluded that just one-fifth of charters provide better results than if students had enrolled in traditional public schools).

What’s really needed? First, since teachers are key to the solution, we must value, train and pay teachers enough to attract and keep good ones in the profession. Next, reform K-12 curriculum with more interdisciplinary problem-solving in teams using information-technology tools, just like in “real life.” Renew support of right-brained subjects like music, art and theater to stimulate student creativity, emotional intelligence and balance. Modify teacher tenure, but protect academic freedom and due process.

Eliminate the test emphasis; instead, measure learning by value added rather than by comparing student test results among schools with entirely different socioeconomics.

Reform and augment counseling by having colleges and employers frequent middle and high schools to advise students. The list of possible reforms goes on, requiring, as President Barack Obama has noted, both reform—of the right kind—and resources.

Are resources scarce? Sure, but investing in our children’s education provides great return—far more than, say, incarcerating nonviolent criminals or destroying other countries.