The Failure of American Schools

Who better to lead an educational revolution than Joel Klein, the prosecutor who took on the software giant Microsoft? But in his eight years as chancellor of New York City’s school system, the nation’s largest, Klein learned a few painful lessons of his own—about feckless politicians, recalcitrant unions, mediocre teachers, and other enduring obstacles to school reform.

Several recent developments offer some hope. In the past year, 42 states, as well as the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands, have agreed to adopt a new set of highly demanding core standards in English and math to replace the current state-by-state standards. The Obama administration has also granted two consortia of states $330 million to design tests aligned with these new standards. As a result, we’ll have a more realistic sense of how our kids are performing, we’ll be able to compare kids in one jurisdiction with those in another, and, most important, we’ll know that kids who graduate from high school will actually be prepared for college.

But we still won’t get to where we need to go unless we’re prepared to do three difficult, but essential, things: rebuild our entire K–12 system on a platform of accountability; attract more top-flight recruits into teaching; and use technology very differently to improve instruction.

Surprisingly enough, the best case for greater accountability was made by Albert Shanker, four years before he died, in his capacity as the leader of the American Federation of Teachers. In a truly remarkable speech to the 1993 Pew Forum on Education Reform, which I’ve never seen quoted by any teachers-union official since, Shanker said:

The key is that unless there is accountability, we will never get the right system. As long as there are no consequences if kids or adults don’t perform, as long as the discussion is not about education and student outcomes, then we’re playing a game as to who has the power.

Two points are critical here. First, Shanker makes clear that accountability needs to be measured by “student outcomes,” which he goes on to explain must be based on progress on standardized tests. And second, he calls out the fundamental truth about the system: because it’s not anchored to outcomes, it ends up being about “who has the power,” which can then be used to serve other agendas—such as better pay, political support, or vendor contracts.

Accountability, in most industries or professions, usually takes two forms. First and foremost, markets impose accountability: if people don’t choose the goods or services you’re offering, you go out of business. Second, high-performing companies develop internal accountability requirements keyed to market-based demands.

Public education lacks both kinds of accountability. It is essentially a government-run monopoly. Whether a school does well or poorly, it will get the students it needs to stay in business, because most kids have no other choice. And that, in turn, creates no incentive for better performance, greater efficiency, or more innovation—all things as necessary in public education as they are in any other field.

A full-scale transition from a government-run monopoly to a competitive marketplace won’t happen quickly. But that is no reason not to begin introducing more competition. Many middle-class families have plenty of choice (even beyond private schools): they can move to another neighborhood, or are well-connected enough to navigate the system. Those families who are least powerful, however, usually get one choice: their neighborhood school. That has to change.

In the lower grades, we should make sure that every student has at least one alternative—and preferably several—to her neighborhood school. We implemented this strategy by opening more than 100 charter schools in high-poverty communities. Tellingly, almost 40,000 families chose these new schools, and another 40,000 are on waiting lists. The traditional schools, as well as their employees and the unions, are screaming bloody murder, something vividly depicted in The Lottery, a recent documentary that shows community agitators brought in by the union to oppose giving public-school space to the Harlem Success network. But this kind of push-back is actually a good sign: it means that the monopolists are beginning to feel the effects of competition.

At the middle- and high-school levels, where students are more mobile, we can also create community-based choice systems, or even citywide choice systems. In New York City, for example, high-school students now have citywide choice (with some geographic priority), and schools know they have to recruit—and compete for—students.

To support effective choice, moreover, we need to provide real funding equity: the money must be for the child, not the school. So if Juan goes to PS 11, which gets $20,000 as a result, then that same $20,000 must go to a KIPP charter school if Juan decides to go there. Similarly, capital funds, or space within a school building, must also follow the child—either to PS 11 or to KIPP—on equitable terms.

Unfortunately, the likelihood of rapidly expanding choices remains small. Witness, for example, those 40,000 families wait-listed for charter schools in New York City. By the time the City opens another 100 schools to meet that demand, at least another 40,000 families will likely be waiting. And now that the union and its allies have seen the smashing impact of the first 100 charter schools, they won’t make it any easier to open the next 100.

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Joel Klein, the former chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, oversees the News Corp venture Amplify, which creates digital products and services for teachers, students, and parents.

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