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Why school reform is urgent

By Kathleen McCartney, Special to CNN
  • As new school year starts, debate rages about reforming America's schools
  • Kathleen McCartney: Students are far behind other nations in educational performance
  • McCartney says Race to the Top program is prompting movement toward better schools
  • States, school districts, education schools need to be part of reform effort, she says

Editor's note: Kathleen McCartney is the dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Cambridge, Massachusetts (CNN) -- Across the country, parents have been busy preparing their children for the return to school. They have been buying new backpacks, new school supplies and new clothes.

Their goal is not to stimulate the economy; rather, they are providing incentives to jittery children who are about to trade the halcyon days of summer for homework. Change is hard -- and new sneakers ease the blow.

Education policy is changing, too. Last week, the Department of Education announced the second round of winners of its Race to the Top competition. Nine states and the District of Columbia received $3.4 billion thanks to funds included in the stimulus package.

The winning states are making dramatic changes in how they do business -- adopting common standards and assessments, building data systems that measure student growth and success, retaining effective teachers and principals, and turning around their lowest performing schools.

Critics are already on the attack. They argue that the federal government is micromanaging districts, that states have been force-fed national standards, that the competition is too dependent on union support, that the selection of states was based on politics, and that $3.4 billion is not meaningful, given that education is a $650 billion enterprise nationwide. And yet, 40 states and the District of Columbia applied to Race to the Top in round one, and 35 states and the district applied in round two.

I guess Race to the Top worked as well as new sneakers as an incentive for change.

Opponents also say that Race to the Top is funding unproven policies, like encouraging the growth of charter schools and linking teacher evaluation to student performance. It's a fair point; however, the sad truth is that the knowledge base in education is abysmal.

In contrast with medical research, we haven't invested in education research, so we don't know nearly enough about what works. Failing children can't wait for needed research. Education Secretary Arne Duncan is right to make some best guesses about best practices. The critics don't seem to realize that they are standing in the way of innovation.

The education sector isn't used to competition; it's used to complacency. So, to jump-start reform, the Department of Education has also asked organizations to compete for a share of its Investing in Innovation Fund.

The fund is modest -- $650 million -- designed to accelerate the growth of programs with demonstrated evidence of their effectiveness. Seventeen hundred institutions applied, and the 49 highest-rated applicants must now secure a 20 percent private sector match.

This is a new strategy for the Education Department -- it is willing to change, too. Soon, nonprofits such as Teach For America, districts such as Denver, Colorado, and higher education institutions such as Ohio State and Harvard universities will receive resources to bring good ideas to scale. We need more programs such as this to foster creative thinking in the education sector.

Most policies have unintended consequences, as is the case here. For example, in Burlington, Vermont, a well-regarded principal was fired because her school appeared to be a failure, based on fifth-grade test scores; however, a serious examination would have revealed that 37 of 39 fifth-graders in her school were either refugees or special-ed children.

Firing this principal was wrong, of course. Yet we can't use examples such as this as evidence of policy failure. Instead, as we implement new policies, we need to get smarter about how we evaluate performance at the level of state, district, school and child.

We must resist resistance to change. The status quo in education provides reason enough. Consider three stunning statistics. First, 53 percent of U.S. children in our 50 largest cities graduate from high school. According to research by McKinsey & Co., underperforming students, many of whom are poor, have lower earnings, poorer health and higher rates of incarceration. This costs us money -- the economic equivalent of a permanent national recession year after year, according to McKinsey.

Second, black and Latino students are roughly two to three years behind their white peers on standardized tests. For this reason, education is a social justice issue. Education is the gateway to success -- there is no other. Education cannot be the root of inequity and thereby inequality.

Third, the U.S. no longer has the best public education system in the world -- not even close. Our children performed 25th and 21st in math and science, respectively, on the Program in International Student Assessment, well behind countries such as Finland and Singapore.

Andreas Schleicher, a principal investigator of the Program in International Student Assessment study, has written, "Success will go to those individuals and countries which are swift to adapt, slow to complain, and open to change." We can listen to Schleicher or suffer the consequences. Global competitiveness, scientific discoveries and the very future of our democracy are all at stake.

Race to the Top and the Innovation Fund are not the answer in and of themselves, but they are important next steps in education reform. Already there are early signs of success. For example, both have incentivized school districts and union leaders to work together to improve teacher evaluation systems, a precondition for meaningful classroom innovation.

It is also clear that these policies will turn states and districts into learning laboratories. Then researchers can evaluate the impact of innovation on student achievement. To contribute to this work, schools of education have to make fundamental changes in our approach to research.

Duncan has challenged education schools "to move out of the Ivory Tower and into the schoolhouse." I agree. We need to conduct research that is rigorous and relevant to the pressing problems in education -- not research for scholars that lies fallow in journals.

Education researchers, practitioners and policymakers don't need new sneakers to race to the top -- we only need the courage to change.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Kathleen McCartney.