Experts: No quick fix for failing schools

Published June 1, 1999

To turn around low-performing schools, policymakers and educators must “create educational safe-havens for the children who are being victimized by dysfunctional schools. The plight of these children is tantamount to a national emergency and requires the same bold and timely actions that this nation takes when dealing with major emergencies.”

This is one of the recommendations that emerged from a 1998 meeting organized by the Pew Forum on Standards-Based Reform, where two dozen leading policymakers, researchers, and practitioners analyzed different strategies for improving persistently failing schools. Ronald A. Wolk, former publisher and editor of Education Week, presented his appraisal and conclusions from the meeting last November in Education Week.

“The United States simply would not tolerate medical malpractice even approaching the educational malpractice so evident in America’s worst schools,” said Wolk, who asked: “What is best for the children?”

“Is it fair to consign children to dysfunctional schools while an inept, bureaucratic, government system tries to muster the skill and the will to reinvent itself?” he continued, noting that some reformers have concluded that the best strategy for addressing persistently failing schools is to help children escape from them by providing other choices.

According to Wolk, this market-based approach faces “formidable obstacles,” such as teacher union opposition, a shortage of private school seats, a shortage of competent teachers, and the possible academic failure of some private schools. But after rejecting the idea of a market-based rescue strategy, Wolk painted a bleak vision of the future.

“It should be clear to state and local officials that there is no strategy for dealing with low-performing schools that will do the job quickly or cheaply,” he concluded. “Nor is there any real promise in interventions that are primarily designed to raise scores on standardized tests to some minimally acceptable level.”