Why Public Schools Need Less Regulation

Local educators have creative ideas, but federal rules are binding them too tightly

Local educators have creative ideas, but federal rules are binding them too tightly

Picture the following scenario. You ask your friend to come up with a creative meal that will amaze your guests at a dinner party you are holding, but you impose some constraints. Your friend can only use the ingredients from a restrictive list and must follow the specific directions from a meal you cooked these same guests just weeks earlier.


are the odds that your friend makes something innovative? Not good. After all, you've practically defined the solution by specifying nearly all of its inputs before she can even consider what she might cook.

A far better way to generate an innovative solution is to define the outcome you need -- a five-course meal for eight -- and then allow your friend to figure out the best way to get there.

Focusing on inputs has a way of locking us into a set way of doing things and inhibiting our ability to innovate. On the other hand, focusing on outcomes encourages continuous improvement toward an overall set of goals.

Unfortunately, the latter isn't the way we manage our public school system today. Policymakers exert significant control over the inputs in public schools. Their theory seems to be that if we control the resources and processes in our schools, great things will happen.

As a result, school districts are heavily restricted in terms of how they can spend taxpayer dollars and how they cannot. There are district -- or even statewide -- textbook adoption processes that determine what content can and cannot enter a classroom. Principals often have limited authority to manage the school calendar or hirings in ways that would be advantageous for their school's populations.

Representative John Kline (R-MN) recently introduced an act that would change a piece of that. The State and Local Funding Flexibility Act would give states and districts much more flexibility in how they spend federal education dollars -- in effect, trusting local educators to make the best decisions for their students. But Kline's measure created a firestorm when he introduced it shortly after July 4. Opponents fired back that it would unravel much of what the Department of Education has accomplished over the last half century and undermine students' civil rights.

As always with proposals of this nature, the devil is in the details, but there is a strong logic to Kline's basic premise. Over the past couple of decades policymakers have begun focusing on student outcomes -- and taken to demanding accountability for them. But they haven't loosened their controlling grip on the inputs -- the resources and processes schools can use to deliver those outcomes.

No sane business would operate in this manner. What we do today in education is the equivalent of telling a manager that we are going to hold her accountable for a profit-and-loss statement, but that she has no power to change the current operations.

As it happens, there are a number of exciting new tools educators could be exploring if policymakers would grant them that flexibility. The Internet has brought about customization in all parts of our society, and its potential to customize learning in our schools is breathtaking.

We can already see this potential materializing. Students at Carpe Diem Collegiate High School and Middle School in Yuma, Arizona, use online learning to chart individual paths through their curriculum. Once they master a concept, they are allowed to progress and move on to the next level. This is good news not only for students but also for teachers, who no longer have to deliver one-size-fits-all lessons to students who learn at different paces and in different ways. Instead, teachers act as learning coaches by supplementing their students' learning and providing one-on-one help when a child is struggling.

But for online learning to succeed, we need to give the leaders on the ground the ability to make smart decisions. We need to let them match their local circumstances with the resources available to them to achieve great outcomes for each child.

Recently my colleagues and I finished a series of case studies examining the impact of online learning in schools to date. In a white paper that summarized our findings, " Moving from inputs to outputs to outcomes: The future of education policy," we concluded that we must do better. It seems that policies that create access to online learning -- as evidenced by its rapid growth in our public schools -- are outpacing policies that transform the system and focus on the learning outcomes. In one school district we profiled in the state of Washington, for example, policies dictated that teachers spent a significant amount of time simply documenting how many hours students spent learning. And that time that came at the expense of focusing on each student's actual learning.

Policymakers must take action to realize the promise.

First, focusing on outcomes is a positive trend -- it makes sense to pay providers not just for serving students but also for student performance. In one strong example of this, Florida has created a system where the Florida Virtual School, a statewide online school, receives the majority of its per-pupil funds only when a student successfully completes a course.

But along with this we must also eliminate the input-focused rules that dictate how school leaders accomplish these goals. We should also reward operators not just for students meeting absolute -- and often arbitrary -- targets, but for student growth. And we should allow students to demonstrate competency, or mastery, through assessments, portfolios, or other means anytime they finish a course or unit, not just at fixed times in a school year.

We also need to strike down policies that dictate student-to-teacher ratios, teacher-certification requirements, or rules governing seat time. We need to allow school operators significantly more freedom in how they allocate dollars. In other words, we must stop creating specific pockets of money for specific means. If school leaders determine that spending more on technology makes sense, that's great; but it's equally great if they look at their populations and determine that professional development for their teachers will help more. We need to give them that autonomy, so long as they are held accountable.

That we need innovation to better educate America's youth is hardly in doubt. But to get there, it's time to start following some basic rules of innovation.