Opinion: Education reform a complex challenge

January 2, 2014


Every few weeks, we read stories about the failure of our schools and colleges. They point to our poor international rankings, low tests scores and graduation rates, high tuition and the problems businesses have in finding skilled employees. 

The stories are accurate: In a world where education is critical to personal, professional and civic success, too few of our students are receiving the education they need and deserve. 

The stories also reflect public opinion: According to a recent poll by the Pew Research Group, two-thirds of the public say that our education system needs to be completely rebuilt or that it requires major changes. 

Unfortunately, many of these stories fall short in two important respects. 

One, they fail to mention many schools and colleges are doing great work — run by great educators producing great students. A case in point: Our colleges and universities are the envy of the rest of the world. In 2012, more than 800,000 foreign students were registered in our higher education institutions, a 7 percent increase over 2011. Why is it important to point to examples of this kind?  Because it shows that we have the models upon which to base real school reform.

Two, they too seldom delve into the complexity of the problems or the kinds of commitment required to remedy the situation. And without these added components, we fall into the blame game: Our schools’ problems would be solved if only teachers or students or parents or school administrators would try harder, be smarter or be less selfish. 

So let’s broaden the conversation.  Let’s spend a few minutes describing parts of the educational landscape.

• The sheer size of the system makes movement a daunting process. In K-12, we have 132,000 schools, 55 million students and 3.2 million teachers. In higher education, we have 7,000 colleges and universities, 29 million students, and 1.7 million instructional staff.

• The decision-making process is byzantine, seemingly created to create barriers to change. In most countries, policy is made by a central authority. Here, school policies are made by a wide array of actors, all with their own ideas and agendas: federal, state and local governments; public and private schools/universities; unions; think tanks and foundations; book publishers and test makers; and student and parent groups.  

• There is a lack of certainty about what we want our students to know and how to teach them, particularly in today’s constantly changing world. Reasonable people disagree about such issues as the balance among subject areas and best teaching methods. To further complicate the matter, changes in political and educational leadership make for constantly shifting aims and targets.

• Schools do not stand apart from the rest of society. The problems of the whole are problems of the parts. For example, issues of poverty, immigration, language and discipline all play significant roles in the dailylives of our schools.

These hurdles are important to acknowledge, not as excuses for lack of progress, but because they point to important directions for real — long lasting and widespread — school reform.  More specifically, they highlight three principles, all of which are currently missing from our education debates.

One, the nation needs a reform plan developed and supported by a broad coalition of practicing educators and others. Two, the nation needs to develop and emphasize long-term rather than short-term success. Three, the nation needs to dedicate the resources to make the plan a reality.

Unfortunately, much of our current discussion about school reform is reminiscent of Chicken Little: people running around saying that “the sky is falling.”

It is New Year’s, a time for resolutions. Let’s hope that in 2014 and beyond, we resolve to reform our schools and give all out students the education they need and deserve.

— Gene A. Budig is past president/chancellor of three major state universities, including Kansas University, and of Major League Baseball’s American League. Alan Heaps is a former vice president of the College Board in New York City.


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