Four Excellent Ideas on Education, but How Do We Make Them Happen?

The requirement for innovation in order to drive U.S. economic growth – and the tensions this creates – is something I believe is central to our political debates in ways that are not always well-articulated.

Grover J. Whitehurst has authored a Brookings piece on the requirement for innovation in the education sector, and the barriers to the needed reforms. In it, he makes four excellent recommendations:

1. Choose K–12 curriculum based on evidence of effectiveness.

2. Evaluate teachers in ways that meaningfully differentiate levels of performance.

3. Accredit online education providers so they can compete with traditional schools across district and state lines.

4. Provide the public with information that will allow comparison of the labor market outcomes and price of individual postsecondary degree and certificate programs.

Items 3 and 4 read like elements of a nearly libertarian manifesto. (Item 1 reads as motherhood and apple pie, unless you know the background, which is that Whitehurst, while Director of the Institute for Education Sciences inside the U.S. Department of Education, pushed hard and somewhat successfully for a sustainable commitment to rigorous program evaluation anchored by randomized experiments.)

Here is his opening paragraph on the barriers to reform:

Our present education system is structured in a way that discourages the innovation necessary for the United States to regain education leadership. K-12 education is delivered largely through a highly regulated public monopoly. Outputs such as high school graduation rates and student performance on standardized assessments are carefully measured and publicly available, but mechanisms that would allow these outputs to drive innovation and reform are missing or blocked. For example, many large urban districts and some states are now able to measure the effectiveness of individual teachers by assessing the annual academic growth of students in their classes. Huge differences in teacher effectiveness are evident, but collective bargaining agreements or state laws prevent most school district administrators from using that information in tenure or salary decisions.

It is striking how far thoughtful, mainstream liberal wonk opinion has moved on the question of educational reform. What’s unclear in the paper (though beyond its scope) is a political theory for how the interest groups who have a huge interest in preventing these reforms can be overcome. Whitehurst proposes some specific federal laws and guidelines, but doesn’t explain how to get a sufficient number of legislators to vote for these. It would be very difficult for Democrats to pass such laws, for obvious reasons.

When one side of the political divide loses even its own ideological belief in a specific position, and is defending it based purely on interest group power, this often creates an opportunity for real change. It seems to me that education reform is ripening as political issue for Republicans, if they are willing to seize it, in the way that welfare reform did 20 years ago. Like welfare reform, this would probably imply being willing to both engage on the policy detail, and to work with Democrats in order to create a bipartisan solution with staying power. It looks to me like there is lots of common ground to be found.