Education reform’s final chapter

The right approach means evidence-based strategies involving schools, students, parents, and communities working together.

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When Congress passed “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) education reform legislation in 2001, it relied on three principles: (1) more resources, (2) accountability, and (3) consequences. NCLB forced schools to rethink their expectations and strategies. It enabled reforms directed toward ensuring more effective teachers. It encouraged charter schools, which allowed for innovation and provided a valuable alternative to some urban students. As a result, students made crucial gains in reading and math, which were especially significant for high-needs populations.

But NCLB’s framework relied too heavily on the third principle of consequences – that competition, parent choice, and forced reorganization or closure of neighborhood schools would motivate educational institutions to perform more effectively. Aimed largely at “failing schools” and “ineffective teachers,” but without enough discussion of other contributing factors, NCLB’s remedies were insufficient to transform the broader educational system. As an example, more than 1,200 high schools, serving more than 1.1 million students, still fail to graduate one-third or more of their students each year, according to the Alliance for Excellent Education.

Education reform is on the front burner again, as Congress debates the Student Success Act and/or Every Child Achieves Act this year. But rather than revisit old debates, it’s time for a new approach – one that invests in evidence-based strategies that include schools, students, parents, and communities working together. For sustainable, institutional change in high poverty communities, policymakers must tackle education reform within this more comprehensive framework.

Here are the four ingredients to success:

  1. More effective teachers

Education reformers are right to focus primarily on what occurs inside the classroom, by developing appropriate assessments and scaling up classroom and teaching innovations. Charter models like KIPP also provide valuable lessons about the impacts of extra learning time, innovative technology, and teacher empowerment and supports.

Nonetheless, the least experienced teachers are still teaching in the schools that need the most experienced teachers, and turnover is too high. We cannot just will experienced teachers to teach in more challenging schools.

One promising option for recruiting and maintaining the best teachers is to provide them with the professionalism they deserve, as groups such as Third Way have proposed. School administrators should have discretion and resources to reward merit and provide opportunities for promotion and leadership, like professionals would be rewarded in any other field. Pension reform would also allow districts to pay teachers significantly more now – while they work – because they wouldn’t be stymied financially by the effects of shoring up retirement plans for decades into the future.

  1. Supports for individual students

Federal, state, and local remedies should be focused on efforts that help individual students to be ready for school, achieve success in K-12, stay in school, and prepare for college and career. Many programs now are underfunded, sporadic, and/or not coordinated effectively with the schools. Instead, a methodical approach would help each at-risk student along the continuum from pre-K to college.

To ensure school readiness, the most effective use of funding would include early investments for at-risk children ages zero-to-five, in quality child care, Head Start, preschool and/or pre-kindergarten programs. Early childhood education would deliver early enrichment, identification of special needs, and wrap-around services.

Once children start kindergarten, schools should utilize annual assessments to help individual students in need of remediation. Academic support and tutoring can allow students to catch up to grade level and reengage with regular classroom instruction. The most positive gains are found with tutor training, formal time commitments, structured sessions, careful monitoring, and close relationships between classroom instruction, curriculum and tutoring services. According to a recent Chicago study, intensive tutoring and mentoring had dramatic effects on students’ achievement.

Congress should also invest in mentoring, which research shows is effective in helping children succeed in school, become leaders in their communities, and to enter young adulthood with opportunities for ongoing education and career choices. As part of its Civic Marshall Plan to Build a Grad Nation, America’s Promise Alliance has a commonsense idea to provide “Success Coaches” and intensive wrap-around services for students at-risk of dropping out. Through its Whole School Whole Child approach, CityYear’s members provide individualized support to at-risk students.

Finally, quality after-school programs would provide inspiration, motivation, and enrichment. Harvard University’s Robert Putnam argues in Our Kids that extra-curricular programming “may be the silver bullet” to reducing the opportunity gap by providing students with skills such as collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking. It can also teach “grit” and other “soft skills” necessary for later success.

  1. Engaged and active parents

Strong parent-teacher relationships are indispensable to student success. According to National PTA and Flamboyan Foundation research, family engagement in a child’s education increases student achievement, improves attendance, and reduces dropout rates. Thus, it is essential that low-income parents build that capacity to engage effectively with their children’s schools and support their children’s learning.

Many effective models can effectively increase parent engagement, such as intensive home visiting services, in which trained professionals help families connect to necessary health care or community resources, monitor progress on developmental milestones, and help parents improve parenting skills. Other models include family literacy or Headstart’s family involvement component.

An effective school-age model identified by the NEA Priority School Campaign uses “academic parent-teacher teams” (APTT). Staff receive actionable, curricular-based training to develop genuine partnerships. Then, in three classroom meetings and one in-depth individual conference, teachers coach parents to become engaged, knowledgeable members of the academic team. Parents feel respected and included, and they are motivated to sustain the higher level of family engagement critical to their child’s development.

  1. High community expectations

Local government and community leaders play a critical role in school reform. The entire community must share and promote the high expectations of 21st Century learning, achievement, and graduation for its children. College, technical advancement, and/or career must be the new normal, as a path to full-time employment with liveable wages.

Neighborhood schools, for example, should become pivotal community institutions, not threatened with their closure. The U.S. Department of Education considers “Community Schools” as the predominant model for strategic alignment, joint accountability, and partnership between the schools and the community.

As part of these higher expectations, community leaders should emphasize the importance of high school graduation. GradNation Summits can help bring stakeholders together to fuel collaborative action. Organizations like Diplomas Now and Communities in Schools can work with community partners to identify at-risk students and provide interventions. The national goal of 90% graduation rate should be every community’s goal too.

Finally, community leaders should promote a culture where parenthood occurs only when young people are ready and, at minimum, after they’ve reached their educational goals. According to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, 30 percent of teen girls drop out of high school due to pregnancy or parenthood. Increasing the rates of “purposeful parenting” improves educational prospects and life chances, notes Brookings Institution’s Isabel Sawhill, author of Generation Unbound.

Fifty years after Congress first passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, we have a far better sense of what works to achieve true education reform. It’s time to put that knowledge to use with a comprehensive approach.

Pamela Kondé is the Director of Sosne Kondé Policy Solutions, PLLC, which offers outside-the-box policy analysis and problem solving, strategic planning, grassroots organizing, and advocacy. www.SKpolicy.com @SosKon_Policy

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