Education debate: moving beyond politics

Both presidential candidates have said that too many public schools in America are failing. We agree. There is not only an educational, but a moral imperative to take immediate action.

George W. Bush and Al Gore have proposed three broad remedies to fix failing schools.

Mr. Bush has called for vouchers that would enable parents of children in poorly performing schools to attend private or religious schools, paid for with public funds. Mr. Gore advocates shutting down (or reconstituting) failing schools, and reopening them with new principals, new teachers, additional resources, and new school-improvement plans. In addition, both Bush and Gore support variants of public-school choice, especially charter schools: publicly funded, but privately operated schools that are subject to varying degrees of public oversight.

Unfortunately, our national conversation about these plans is rooted more in ideology than fact. Liberals decry vouchers as undermining public education, and conservatives hail them as the solution to public-school failure. But research has shown each of these remedies has its own strengths and weaknesses. None is a magic bullet for dealing with failing schools.

With regard to vouchers, there is evidence of small gains in math achievement for minority children, and strong evidence of high parental satisfaction with these programs. On the other hand, overall achievement gains have been uniformly small and, in areas such as reading, results have been mixed. In addition, there are consistent findings that vouchers fail to attract the most disadvantaged applicants, and instead appeal to the most involved parents.

The second policy option, reconstituting schools, has been tried most notably in Chicago's high schools. Research has found that reconstitution encourages greater effort among teachers, who put in more hours on the job and participate in more professional development. On the negative side, teachers in reconstituted schools did not change their classroom practices, and achievement levels remained low. In addition, there was an inadequate supply of qualified teachers to restaff the schools.

Charter schools have proven to be a popular policy option with bipartisan support. Unfortunately, the jury is still out on whether charter schools improve student achievement.

We do know that provisions for accountability in each state's enabling legislation have a profound effect on the number and character of charter schools. Consequently, these schools differ dramatically in terms of quality.

Anecdotal evidence shows substantial variation in the levels of achievement, degrees of segregation, and the extent to which charter schools cream off the most able students from public schools.

Beyond the lack of evidence that these remedies will solve the problem of failing schools, the trouble with each and all of them is that they focus on changing governance and structure, rather than on improving teaching and learning in schools. Changing governance and structure are often necessary first steps in school reform, but they are not sufficient for ensuring quality education.

For 30 years, research has shown what makes an effective school where teaching and learning take place: high expectations and standards for all students, curricula that mirror the standards, appropriate methods of standards-based assessment, strong principals, a safe and orderly environment, a high degree of parental involvement, teachers who are well prepared in content and pedagogy, ongoing professional development for all teachers, and accountability throughout the school. These characteristics can be found in the best schools, be they public, private, religious, charter, or reconstituted. Unfortunately there is no guarantee that any of the three remedies offered by Bush or Gore will bring such schools into being.

Creating schools that exhibit these characteristics will not be accomplished by focusing on structural reforms alone, and it won't be accomplished at all if we continue to have a divisive, ideological debate in which remedies are dismissed out of hand, or accepted with little or no evidence. There is only one way to improve failing schools. And that is to ensure that any reform maintains a focus on the classroom and the characteristics of effective schools.

We need to act now. This means putting all options on the table, moving beyond ideological divides, conducting extensive experiments with each of the reforms proposed by the major presidential candidates, and subjecting each remedy to rigorous evaluation.

A key question of this evaluation must be, what is the relationship between these proposed structural changes, classroom practice, and instructional outcomes? More immediately, we urge the presidential candidates to develop policies and programs based on the 30 years of existing research about what works in education to create effective schools that are worthy of America's children.

This piece was written by the following education-school deans: Aimee Dorr, University of California, Los Angeles; Gene Garcia, University of California, Berkeley; Jerry Murphy, Harvard University; Penelope Peterson, Northwestern University; Charles Read, University of Wisconsin; and Karen Wixson, University of Michigan; and also by Deborah Stipek, education professor at UCLA; Arthur Levine, president of Teachers College, Columbia University; and Jeff Mirel, director of educational studies, Emory University.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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