Dr. Gary Houchens, a member of Kentucky’s State Board of Education and Associate Professor of Educational Administration, Leadership, & Research at Western Kentucky University, wrote a two-part series about what education accountability can and can’t accomplish.
In part 2 he makes a point that I’ve been making for quite some time. When it comes to improving education whether we are talking student achievement outcomes or school improvement there are not silver bullets.
Some educators believe very strongly that the achievement gap is a function of poor school funding overall and inequities of funding across districts. I’m skeptical, because per pupil education spending has skyrocketed over the last four decades (only recently leveling off and declining since the 2008 recession), while achievement has remained stubbornly stagnant and achievement gaps have actually worsened a bit.
I must concede that, during that same time period, the entire mission of education changed. In the 1970’s we did not expect schools to educate every child to proficiency, and the economy continued to have a place for low-skilled workers. Now we face the unprecedented challenge of educating every child to high levels, and the economy has no place for the ones we fail. We might very well need more resources to meet our new mission, but I don’t believe for a second that if the state legislature handed educators billions more dollars that we’d know precisely how to use those funds to rapidly accelerate student learning.
Which is not to say we have no ideas; we just lack a consensus on which of those ideas are most appropriate for closing the achievement gap, and no single strategy has promise for rapidly boosting and sustaining high levels of student achievement by itself. I have to admit this applies to some of my own favorite strategies for education improvement, including school choice, redesigning curriculum, and creating mastery-based learning systems that are more responsive to individual student needs.
Because there are no silver bullet strategies, we should not invest in top-down, one-size-fits-all types of education reform. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis called states “laboratories of democracy,” I think we can apply that to local school districts as well. Innovation occurs as districts and states discover what works best for their students.
That can only happen if the federal government and even state departments of education get out of the way.