Fixing our Education System with Jeanne Allen

Bill WaltonCulture, Education, Entrepreneurship, Policy, Politics

I’ve suspected this for some time, but after talking to Jeanne Allen on “Common Ground with Bill Walton,” I’m more convinced than ever that school districts are among the top impediments to improving American education.

Sure, they are handy when it comes to getting volume discounts on paper towels for the restrooms and gas for buses. But as Allen, who runs the Center for Education Reform, explained, students are checking out of education because, unlike nearly everything else in their lives, it is not personalized toward them.

The entire world has changed profoundly in the last century. But education looks a lot like it did 90 or 100 years ago – with a teacher standing in front of a classroom teaching students who are grouped by age and geography and not by their individual learning abilities.

School districts are the keepers – perhaps even the enforcers – of the status quo. I found this out years ago when I helped start a program in Chicago called Success Lab, which helped students from the city’s poorest areas dramatically improve their reading ability and thus academic achievement.

We were flourishing until we got up to 15 schools served. Then, it began to occur to the school district that a private contractor – not a district employee – was making money by improving education in the district. Suddenly, we were not helping kids who never had engaged with school before; we were interlopers who had to go.

Charter schools presented an exciting opportunity to go outside the accepted prescription and try for more. But by the time the education bureaucrats were finished with them, they had to use approved textbooks, teachers with approved certifications and traditional classrooms as school districts have understood them. If you use the same books, draw from the same pool of teachers and deploy the same models of instruction, how are you different from traditional public schools? Where is the innovation, the experimentation?

The problem is serious. About 30 percent-40 percent of America’s students are proficient at their grade level. Among some groups, such as African-Americans and Hispanics, those percentages drop to the teens. As a result, only 54 percent of students finish college in four years, and 75 percent of colleges have remedial education.

Meanwhile, we’ve had a 75 percent increase in student enrollment over the last 20 years, but we’ve had a 705 percent increase in administrators. Less than half the funds we allocate to education make it to the classroom.

To truly revolutionize education, Allen says, let school districts go back to their roots in the late 1800s and early 1900s – that of a manager. And let innovators innovate.

Forget state charter school laws or laws that permit vouchers and school choice. Instead, pass an opportunity law that gives people the freedom to start charter schools, public or private schools, learning labs or tutoring centers.

Let the money flow not to the school districts, which manifestly do not innovate, but to the schools themselves, which do. Let parents pick which schools their children will attend. The good schools will prosper; the bad will disappear.

Also, put the focus on outputs – whether students are learning – rather than inputs, such as teacher certification. Donald Graham, former publisher of the Washington Post and a history major at Harvard, tried to volunteer to teach history in DC schools. But he was turned down because he was not certified. That’s a problem with the qualifications.

It’s not hard to get agreement on what needs to be changed. What’s hard is getting a school district to do it. Perhaps one answer is to do away with the school district.

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