Four Key Lessons from the Nation at Risk

By April 26, 2008Education and Training

Marking the 25th anniversary of the Nation At Risk report on the failings of U.S. education, long-time analyst and reformer Chester Finn identifies four key lessons that should be more broadly applied. From today’s Wall Street Journal:

First, don’t expect Uncle Sam to manage the reform process. Not only does Washington lack the capacity to revamp thousands of schools and create alternatives for millions of kids, but viewing education reform as a federal obligation lets others off the hook. Yet some things are best done nationally – notably creating uniform standards and tests in place of today’s patchwork of uneven expectations and noncomparable assessments. These we have foolishly resisted.

Second, retain civilian control but push for more continuity. Governors and mayors remain indispensable leaders on the ground – but the instant they leave office, the system tries to revert. The adult interests that rule it – teacher unions, yes, but also colleges of education, textbook publishers and more – look after themselves and fend off change. If three consecutive governors or mayors hew to the same agenda, those reforms are more apt to endure.

Third, don’t bother seeking one grand innovation. Education reform is not about silver bullets. But huge gains can be made by schools that are free to run (and staff) themselves, attended by choice, expected to meet high standards, and accountable for their results.

Consider the more than 50 schools in the acclaimed Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) network. We don’t have nearly enough today, but we’re likelier to grow more of them outside the traditional system than by trying to alter the system itself.

Finally, content matters. Getting the structures, rules and incentives right is only half the battle. The other half is sound curriculum and effective instruction. If we can’t place enough expert educators in our classrooms, we can use technology to amplify the best of them across the state or nation. Kids no longer need to sit in school to be well educated.

Apropos Lesson No. 3, NAM President John Engler often makes the point that we know what works, but in isolation. Program X does a great job in a Kentucky school system, Initiative Y achieved results in Arizona, and Reform Z works wonders in Washington. We need to bring these efforts together.

Finn appears on this week’s “America’s Business with Mike Hambrick“, the NAM’s national radio program.

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