The 3 Main Obstacles in the Way of Education Reform

Previous attempts have only piled more money on the heap of a broken system. We need transformative changes, not additive ones.



Last year, Adam Gray was named the Massachusetts Teacher of the Year. Despite the honor, Gray, who is in his twenties, was dismissed from his South Boston high school shortly thereafter because of rules that make seniority more important than performance when deciding layoffs. He now teaches at the prestigious Boston Latin.

Not surprisingly, follies like this are commonly cited as examples of how archaic practices persist in education. Yet focusing on these absurd examples to score some easy points -- as is typical in the education debate -- obscures the larger, far more serious systemic problems that underlie them.

To me there are three big culprits in American education policy that are crippling the ability of our schools to respond to today's challenges. They are:

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We buy reform.You wouldn't know it from his critics, but prior to the 2009 economic stimulus bill, the biggest increase in federal education spending came from George W. Bush, during his first term. Both President Bush and President Clinton, who also substantially increased spending, "bought" a lot of education reform during their terms. But what exactly does that mean?

"Buying reform" is the time-honored practice of sugarcoating tough reforms with money. Of course, horse trading is routine practice in politics, and education policy is not exempt -- New York State legislators once gave themselves a pay raise in order to increase the cap on charters -- but more than that, "buying reform" means throwing enough money at a problem so that opponents can't credibly argue against the reforms that come with it. Through his Goals 2000 program, Clinton (in whose administration I served) tied a big infusion of federal dollars to his medicine on standards. Bush lashed his tough accountability requirements to a record spending increase on the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

The problem is that in general the new funding -- and often the new requirements that come with it -- are layered on top of what's already there. Hard decisions are taken off the table because the political math is about addition. In other words, more money means policy changes tend to be additive and not transformative. Zero-based budgets, meaningful fiscal and performance audits, and other tools to address duplicative spending are still rare in education. The result is the current Byzantine system of programs and rules that characterize education policy -- the 82 separate federal programs to improve teacher quality recently documented by the Government Accountability Office -- and a continuing lack of strategic ability to make hard decisions at any level of education policymaking.

Schools lack for an adequate way to measure teacher performance.  "Last In, First Out" (LIFO) layoff policies make no sense for organizations that are supposed to focus on performance and outcomes and that should be focused foremost on the quality of the instruction students are receiving. Yet despite their prevalence in states and school districts nationwide, these policies had mostly gone unnoticed and unused in education, because mass teacher layoffs were so rare. But now that state and local budget constraints have made teacher layoffs a real issue, there is a concerted push from both within and outside the education establishment to allow schools to consider factors such as -- gasp -- job performance in deciding who stays or goes. The problem is that, for the most part, agreed-upon, high-quality tools to differentiate teacher performance don't exist. Without the need to thin the ranks -- or, until recently, a general focus on teacher accountability -- there was little pressure to develop them. And so LIFO policies fill the void.

It's clear we need better evaluation tools -- for when future layoff decisions need to be made, for sure, but also to determine generally which teachers are getting the job done. That said, it's still an open question as to whether a real emphasis on accountability for results can be sustained politically over time.

Education policy is by its nature political, conservative, and change-averse. American education -- especially public education -- is a highly regulated and political industry. When speaking of problems in American education, teachers' unions are often tagged as the main villains. But the problem is actually a much broader one, in which -- to oversimplify just slightly -- what's in the interest of the adults on all sides of the bargaining table and various debates in state capitols often takes precedence over what's in the interest of the kids. That's because, as a rule, various adults have interest groups and advocates to look out for them while, until recently, there were hardly any groups advocating on behalf of the clients of public schools -- students and parents.

Layer on top the fundamentally conservative nature of education -- our churches are the only other institution that basically look and operate the same way they did a century ago -- and it's not surprising that education policy change tends to come in punctuated bursts.

So while the crazy anecdotes and examples are amusing, the bigger issue is that we've created an environment in which our schools can't really respond to the demands for improved student performance, or think creatively about productivity-enhancing reforms. In other words, at the very time we need our schools to become more effective and more agile for the job we need them to do tomorrow they are still saddled with yesterday's constraints. That's no laughing matter.