Forget Reform, We Need Transformational Innovation

Published April 29, 2011

Efforts to reform K-12 schooling in America are as old as schooling itself.

Benjamin Franklin, among others, criticized the public schools of his time, called Latin schools, for focusing on preparing a small elite for lives in religious and academic institutions rather than teaching practical skills to the larger public. The country’s first private schools, including the Philadelphia Academy founded in 1751 by Franklin, grew out of that reform effort.

Some 250 years later, we are still debating reform. Policies that were seen as bold reforms by past generations–compulsory attendance laws, a common curriculum, restricting public funding to only government schools, geographic assignment of students to neighborhood schools, and giving teachers tenure–are still with us today, but they now are widely viewed as obstacles to better schooling. Their unintended consequences have more than cancelled out their beneficial effects.

Efforts to “reform the reforms” are often met with fierce resistance by interest groups. Earlier this year, public school teachers and their allies led a riot in Madison, Wisconsin, physically occupying government buildings and threatening elected officials. The reforms sought by the newly elected Republican governor and majorities in the state’s house and senate were important, but hardly major compared to other proposals backed by leading experts.

Transformation Needed

Seven Transformational Innovations
for K-12 Schooling

1. Transformational budgeting, a series of practices, such as “remove class-size mandates” and “create a rigorous teacher-evaluation system,” that have been proven to improve results while reducing costs.

2. School choice, allowing parents to choose which schools their children attend. Parents who choose become more engaged in their children’s learning, and schools that compete become more efficient.

3. Tiger mothering, encouraging parents to academically enrich the 92 percent of time that students spend outside school in their first 18 years of life.

4. Differentiated pacing, whereby students advance according to the knowledge they have acquired as demonstrated by progressively more difficult tests rather than “seat time.”

5. Superior teachers have been known to have a greater impact on student learning than class size or many other inputs. Schools should focus on recruiting fewer but better teachers.

6. Performance-based pay is used to encourage and reward high achievement in other professions, yet most public schools persist in paying all teachers according to a “single-salary schedule” or “position-automatic system.”

7. Online teaching and testing can dramatically accelerate learning for many students by providing instant feedback and content closely tailored to a student’s demonstrated competence, while freeing teachers of the drudgery of administering and grading tests.

Source: Herbert J. Walberg, Transformational Innovations in K-12 Education (The Heartland Institute, 2011)

It has occurred to some of the more enlightened scholars in the field that what is needed is not more reform, but transformation. Such transformations, as Prof. Herbert Walberg explains in the booklet that accompanies this issue of School Reform News, “increase learning effectiveness without increasing costs, reduce costs without diminishing effectiveness, or best of all, increase effectiveness while simultaneously reducing costs.”

Walberg is one of the nation’s most distinguished education scholars. He is emeritus university scholar and professor of education and psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, a distinguished visiting fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, and the author or editor of more than 55 books.

Walberg’s booklet, “Transformational Innovations in K-12 Education,” is a revised version of an essay produced for the Center on Innovation & Improvement, part of the Academic Development Institute, a nonprofit organization based in Lincoln, Illinois. That essay and the current booklet summarize Walberg’s latest book, Improving Student Learning: Action Principles for Families, Schools, Districts, and States.

Walberg describes seven transformational innovations, listed in the box on this page, and explains how they are able to go beyond the rigid confines of traditional reform efforts.

Transformational Leaders

Walberg also briefly profiles two “transformational leaders”: Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of schools in Washington, DC, and Joel Klein, former chancellor of the New York City Department of Education. Both recognized that the “reforms” of previous generations had become obstacles to improving public school systems. Both faced enormous resistance to their efforts, leading to Rhee’s forced resignation.

A well-designed school system, Walberg observes, “doesn’t require exceptional leaders to get the job done: Such school systems are correctly designed to produce stellar results even when staffed with average people.”

What are the prospects for genuine transformational innovation? Walberg is optimistic. In the conclusion to his booklet, he writes, “A slow economy, enormous government debts, and mounting evidence of low academic productivity have come together to create an opportunity to transform America’s public K-12 schools. This essay has shown there is no shortage of ideas on how this can be done.”

Joseph Bast ([email protected]) is president of The Heartland Institute and publisher of School Reform News.