Rx for Education: What Works and What Doesn’t

Published May 1, 1999

Two months before President Clinton’s State of the Union address urged lawmakers “to support what works, and to stop supporting what does not work” in education, a group of education leaders and scholars had tackled that very topic during a three-day invitational meeting at the Wingspread Conference Center in Racine, Wisconsin.

Parental choice and best practices emerged from the Wingspread deliberations as the two most promising approaches to improving the performance of urban school systems, where a continuing achievement crisis is fortifying calls for bolder action on education reform.

“There was a consensual sense of urgency for advancing the current momentum to achieve reform success,” said Margaret C. Wang and Herbert J. Walberg, who summarized the papers presented at the November conference in the February 1999 issue of The CEIC Review, a publication of the National Center on Education in the Inner Cities. Wang is director of the Center, a unit of the Center for Research in Human Development and Education at Temple University in Philadelphia. Walberg is research professor of education and psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

The Wingspread conference, called “Education in Cities: What Works and What Doesn’t,” assembled a group of education leaders and scholars known for their differing views, together with parents, teacher union leaders, principals, superintendents, and state and federal officials. The aim was to examine the latest research findings on school reform, to showcase school systems and programs that are effective in achieving student success, and to discuss practical next steps for school systems to improve student success.

“Federal, state, and local policies might be usefully combined into what seems to work from the two reform strategies to make provisions for parental choice and resulting competition among providers to foster best practices,” argue Wang and Walberg.

For example, states and local school districts could establish clear achievement standards, and then permit schools meeting those standards to remain free of operational regulation. Schools not meeting the standards or making acceptable progress towards them would have best practices imposed on them. Continued failure to improve could result in reconstitution of the school with new leaders and staff, or it could result in closure, with students given scholarships to attend other public and private schools in the area.

Best Practices

Based on experiences in several cities, a number of “best practices” show promise for increasing student achievement. A core set of best practices would include the following:

  • basing planning on research;
  • aligning curriculum, teaching, and testing to goals;
  • using information systems to monitor progress;
  • decentralizing authority for operations to the school level;
  • holding schools accountable for meeting standards; and
  • providing alternatives in cases of failure.

Parental Choice

Parental choice reforms, as framed by Wang and Walberg, involve charter schools, privately funded scholarships, and publicly funded scholarships.

Charter schools are privately managed public schools, funded by tax dollars, accountable to a public body, and relatively free of state regulations, local school board rules, and teacher unions. With each state having its own unique charter school law–a dozen states still do not permit such schools–there is a great deal of variation in charter schools across the country.

Privately funded scholarship programs, which now exist in about 30 cities, enable children from poor families to attend private or religious schools instead of the public school to which they are assigned. Publicly funded scholarships programs are far fewer in number, existing only in limited areas of two states–Maine and Vermont–and for strictly limited numbers of students in only two cities–Milwaukee and Cleveland.

“Contrary to common beliefs, the private schools to which scholarship students go are more racially integrated than public schools,” note Wang and Walberg. Moreover, they add, “the presence of choice schools appears to increase the effectiveness, cost efficiency, and responsiveness of nearby public schools.”

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News.

For more information …

The summary report and recommendations from the November 9-11, 1998, conference held at the Wingspread Conference Center in Racine Wisconsin__Education in Cities: What Works and What Doesn’t__was published in the February 1999 issue of The CEIC Review. The Review is available through Information Services, Center for Research in Human Development and Education, Temple University, 1301 Cecil B. Moore Avenue, Philadelphia, PA 19122-6091.