Editor's notebook:Progress Report

The United States has long been recognized for its entrepreneurial spirit and capacity for innovation. The key to our success has been the high skill level of our workers — the result has been a standard of living second to none. Education has played an important role in getting us to this point, and will play an even more important role in our future success.

In 1950, students completed an average of nine and one-quarter years. Students today are better-educated and more knowledgeable than generations past, but is that enough? The 1983 report by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, A Nation at Risk, was one of the first to recognize that our once-unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation was being overtaken by competitors throughout the world. Since that report,“globalization” has become an even more fiercely debated issue, as other countries are matching and surpassing our educational attainments.

In response, new education reform efforts took shape. Breaking Ranks: Changing an American Institution was published in 1996 by the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) in partnership with the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The recommendations were to provide a powerful and challenging vision of the 21st century high school, a template for examining high school policies and practices, and a blueprint for action to improve student achievement. More than 80 recommendations were made, including the following:

• priorities for renewal — curriculum, instructional strategies, the school

environment, technology, organization and time, assessment and accountability;

• a Web of Support — professional development, diversity, governance, resources;

• ties to higher education, relationships; and

• leadership — leadership attributes.

Breaking Ranks II was released in 2004, by the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) as an extension to their earlier report. This report focused its strategies in three key areas: collaborative leadership, professional learning communities, and the strategic use of data; personalizing the school environment; and curriculum, instruction, and assessment. In addition, proven strategies were shared. They question is, are these and other education reform strategies working?

According to the February 2007 report Leaders and Laggards: A State-by-State Report Card on Educational Effectiveness released by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the answer is NO.“Despite decades of reform efforts and many trillions of dollars in public investment, U.S. schools are not equipping our children with the skills and knowledge they and the nation so badly need.”

The U.S. Department of Education Budget Services estimated that total expenditures for K-12 and postsecondary education exceeded $909 billion for the 2004-05 school year. Current expenditures (excluding capital outlay and interest on school debt) in constant 2003-04 dollars increased by 41 percent from 1990-91 to 2002-03, and is expected to increase another 43 percent by the 2015-16 school year. Even with this steady increase in spending and initiatives for reform, student achievement has remained stagnant. We have moved into the knowledge age, but many schools are still caught in the industrial age and the factory mode of education.

The Chamber report examined educational effectiveness in terms of academic achievement, academic achievement of low-income and minority students, return on investment, truth in advertising about student proficiency, rigor of standards, postsecondary and workforce readiness, 21st century teaching force, flexibility in management and policy, and data quality.

In the category of academic achievement, Massachusetts topped the list. New York, California, Indiana, and Massachusetts had the most rigorous standards. New Jersey led the way in postsecondary and workforce readiness, and Arkansas ranking first in teaching force. Arizona and Colorado topped the list for flexibility in management and policy, promoting comprehensive charter school legislation, and enable virtual schooling. When it came to return on education investment, 10 states scored an “A” — Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Kansas, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Utah, Virginia, and Washington (Utah and North Carolina posting twice the rate of return on their education investments.)

Despite these individual successes, the overall grade for most states was unacceptable or mediocre at best. The report concluded that much of what ails schooling today is a lack of management savvy, information, and organizational discipline — skills that business leaders practice every day. It also stated that reform will need to be rigorous, will require a willingness to push both political and educational leaders to upend familiar arrangements and comfortable routines, and that business leaders can support educators’ efforts to reform curricula, teaching practices, and more by providing leadership and know-how in refashioning schools into accountable, flexible, high-achieving organizations.

Reform may be slow in coming, but it is possible!