Fixing Education: The Solutions

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The consensus is clear: America's school bureaucracy rots the quality of public education. Here's how we can move forward and reform the system. 

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Bureaucracy is crushing America's schools. That's the inescapable conclusion of virtually every essay from America the Fixable's April education series -- by experts from the right and left, by union leader Randi Weingarten and charter school innovator David Feinberg. Mere reform won't work. The existing legal structure needs to be dismantled. Polling shows that's what the American people want as well.

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Inspired by the bold views of the essays from the series, and also by readers' comments, I've come up with a proposed presidential platform for overhauling America's public schools. It calls for a radical change in approach, replacing bureaucracy with individual responsibility and accountability.

REFORM PLATFORM FOR PUBLIC SCHOOLS

America's children hold the key to our future. To compete in global markets, and to lead our society, they need to be knowledgeable, innovative, and true to basic values of honesty, hard work, and community. America's public schools must represent a commitment to provide quality education and to inculcate these values in America's youth.

A core element of all successful schools is the human spirit that energizes daily interactions. In many public schools, this spirit is suffocated by dense bureaucracy. These bureaucratic requirements were imposed in well-meaning reforms, but the cumulative effect is to repress the human inspiration essential to success.

It is time for a basic overhaul. The goal is to pull back legal and bureaucratic constraints so that educators can focus on their mission. They must be free to be spontaneous and innovative, as well as to present themselves as role models for our youth.

Overhaul should include the following reforms:

  1. No Child Left Behind should refocus on transparency of student achievement by uniform standards that require a common test across all states and evaluate the progress of individual students, not just schools. This data can inform educators, families, and the community, and provide the tools to track the development of each students.This data can inform both educators and the community. Punitive sanctions that drive educators to "teach to the test" have proved counterproductive and should be discarded.

  2. There should be mutual disarmament of bureaucratic requirements by both school administrators and unions. Detailed rules should be replaced by general goals and principles. Disputes should be resolved informally by a school-based committee, not formal legal proceedings.

  3. Accountability should be a core value in schools, as it is in life. Teachers need a new deal, giving them more freedom with more accountability. Tenure should be redefined as financial safety nets and non-legal checks and balances against capricious management decisions -- for example, one check that could be put into place would be a school-based committee to review disputes such as reassignment or dismissal.

  4. School budgets and programs must be adaptable, and must allow administrators to balance the needs of all students. No students should have first call on school resources.

  5. Teachers and principals must have the authority to maintain order and build a culture of respect. Due process should be available for long-term suspensions or expulsion, but should not corrode daily disciplinary authority.

America's schools need to concentrate again on core values, not compliance with accumulated bureaucracy. The litmus test is whether educators are free act their best judgment. Not all will succeed, of course, but many will. Unleashing human spirit is the key to success in our schools.

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Philip K. Howard is a lawyer, author and chair of Common Good. He is the author, most recently, of Life Without Lawyers: Restoring Responsibility in America, and wrote the introduction to Al Gore's Common Sense Government. More

Philip K. Howard is the author of Life Without Lawyers(Norton 2009), as well as the best-seller The Death of Common Sense(Random House, 1995) and The Collapse of the Common Good(Ballantine, 2002), and he is a periodic contributor to the op-ed pages of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post. He advises leaders of both parties on legal and regulatory reform issues, and wrote the introduction to Vice President Al Gore's book Common Sense Government. A practicing lawyer, Howard is a partner in the law firm Covington & Burling LLP. In 2002, Howard founded Common Good (www.commongood.org), organized to restore common sense to American public life. The Advisory Board of Common Good is composed of leaders from a broad cross-section of American political thought including, among others, former Senators Howard Baker, Bill Bradley, George McGovern, and Alan Simpson. Howard is a civic leader in New York and is Chair-Emeritus of the Municipal Art Society, a leading civic group that spearheaded initiatives to preserve Grand Central Terminal.
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