Time to upgrade from the Walkman in education

2002 was a year heralding big change.  The first iPods — with a price tag of $400 and holding 1,000 songs — filled store shelves and the Sony Walkman cassette player fled the scene.  The high school class of 2015 started kindergarten.  And President Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act, passed by Congress with broad bipartisan support the year before.

Here we are thirteen years later.  Today we can choose an iPod with a touch screen, pay as little as $49 for a slimmed down version, or go with an iPhone, now in its sixth generation, with more computing power than Apollo 11.  Yet, our schools are still failing our students: one in five members of the class of 2015 has dropped out of high school, just two in five will go on to college, and our global competitiveness will pay the price.   While No Child Left Behind made some important strides in tasking schools with tackling long-ignored achievement gaps, the law mandated prescriptive solutions, which prevented schools from implementing better ways to meet student needs. 

{mosads}This fall, the class of 2028 will start kindergarten.  Last week the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee unanimously passed the Every Child Achieves Act, the long overdue overhaul of the Early and Secondary Education Act, which hasn’t been reauthorized since NCLB passed in 2001. And this actually could be the year that Congress finally passes legislation, with bipartisan support, to update our most important education law.  While this new promise of change is too late for the class of 2015, it could be great news for the class of 2028 – but only if Congress passes a bill this time that fully enables schools to innovate on a broad scale as new and better approaches are invented and tested, as they inevitably will be. 

Over the last thirteen years, a myriad of education innovations have proven successful in classrooms across the country. Programs like Turnaround for Children, founded after the 9/11 tragedy in 2001, which partners with struggling public schools to bring into each classroom the critical supports that both students and teachers need. Turnaround has reduced suspensions, behavior problems, and absenteeism by double digits in the schools where it works.  Or Diplomas Now, founded in 2007, which helps its school partners look at early warning indicators for school dropouts and provides students with “near peer” role models and tutors — City Year AmeriCorps members who serve full-time to help students stay on track.  Diplomas Now has reduced absenteeism, suspensions, and course failure in math and English by more than 50 percent in its partner schools.  Or New Classrooms, founded in 2009, which brings technology into the classroom to personalize learning for each student, raising academic achievement.  

Unfortunately, programs like these, and dozens of other innovative evidence-based interventions working in high-poverty schools, are serving only a fraction of the students who need them.  The dysfunction in Washington means that federal education programs are updated so rarely that nearly a generation can pass through our schools before meaningful change occurs.  This dysfunction also means that Congress resists granting discretion to the executive branch agencies that administer programs.  As a result, major pieces of legislation, through which literally billions of taxpayer dollars flow, are in a time warp. 

But it doesn’t have to be that way.  Here is our challenge to Congress:  Pass the Elementary and Secondary Act reauthorization legislation and send it to the President to sign.  But make sure that it has the flexibility both to reward what currently works and enable future effective innovations that emerge in the next decade to take hold, at scale. 

Keep funding innovative education programs, like the Investing in Innovation Fund, the rare federal program that links funding levels to evidence of effectiveness and directly supports the proven programs of the nonprofit organizations that are leading the transformation of public schools across the country.

Encourage school districts that receive funds to engage external partners that offer effective, evidence-based programs.   Working alone, most schools do not have the capacity to provide students, teachers, and parents the effective supports and critical resources they need.  High quality external partners can bring a fresh perspective and complementary supports to deliver results for learners.  

Experiment with Pay for Success strategies, as you did in the recent Workforce Innovation Opportunity Act, that pay providers when outcomes are achieved.   Pay for Success strategies can foster innovation, grow programs with the most promise of successful student outcomes, and reward those that achieve it.  Schools and their partners often struggle to grow successful programs, and Pay for Success can expand funding for high-quality programs that actually deliver results, which means more impact for students.

Move away from an educational model designed for last century and toward one that works for every student.  The Senate’s Every Child Achieves Act allows states to work with school districts to develop and pilot assessment systems that allow students to learn at their own pace.  Go even further, and incentivize the development of personalized learning environments and technologies that support them.

We can rest assured that the pace of technological change will continue fast and furious over the next decade.  Companies will continue to innovate, giving us more product features for less money.  However, the market forces that so effectively drive and reward innovation in technology (and punish failure), have no counterpart in the public education system. That’s why Government has such a critical role to play incentivizing innovation and rewarding successful results.  We can realize meaningful change in our schools  – producing better outcomes at lower cost – and Congress can hasten that progress by passing a  law that allows effective innovations to scale.

Let’s do better for the class of 2028 than we did for the class of 2015 by meeting that challenge.

Smolover is executive director of America Forward and managing partner of New Profit. Sagawa is senior policy adviser for America Forward.


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