Dickinson College Homepage Dickinson Magazine This issue of the Dickinson Magazine was mailed on Monday, April 4, 2005
From This Issue
Volume 82 • Number 4
Spring 2005

RX for Education
Accountability and freedom to choose are key ingredients for an effective remedy
By Jeanne Abate Allen ’82
Prescriptions from the pharmacy usually mean something needs to be fixed, cured, corrected or balanced. The term “RX” suggests something’s off enough to warrant a dosage. Medicine is most often a good thing, a way to improve, to get better. It’s not always a cure but often a course correction.

Pundits often disagree—does education need a cure, or just some Vitamin B? Some people who work in school administration become defensive when prescriptions are proposed—and enacted—that structurally alter how schools operate. For many in the education establishment, the patient is not sick; he or she just needs more attention, some new clothes and a pay raise.

Would that it were that easy! For decades, the patient got just that. More resources were poured in to fix a widening achievement gap, thereby stagnating achievement. The history of enormous effort and energy put in to correcting the system is well documented.

The reality is the patient was diagnosed late in the process with serious maladies that feel-good prescriptions could not cure. Because of modern medicine, a miraculous recovery is under way, owing to four simple concepts that are hallmarks of any great enterprise:

1) Measurable standards enabling teachers, parents and others to know what children should know and be able to do at every level, from history to math. Such knowledge breeds success, because one cannot learn what cannot be measured. States once required courses to measure success, which tells nothing about achievement.

2) Restoration of true control—to parents, teachers and principals—who, in deciding how and where students are educated and resources spent, have greater success than when decisions are made far from communities by officials who don’t know your child and bureaucracies that can’t understand her.
Small schools are now succeeding where large high-school communities were once impervious. Charter-school choice has created a public-school revolution that unites parents with teachers in delivering personalized, effective learning environments that better fit kids.

3) Teacher-quality programs restore dignity to teachers who have long been discouraged by requirements having little to do with good teaching. States with teacher-advancement programs, such as Arizona and Florida, ensure that teachers are paid for work done well, increased responsibility and experience, rather than just uniform pay scales and tenure—relics of a bygone era. Pay is only one factor. Teachers also need real authority over work to develop new ways to teach and to help lead schools. Today, new graduates are moving into poor communities to teach, encouraged by the promise of affecting directly students they will teach.

4) Accountability for results—a demand for quality—is no longer eschewed as it was. As a college graduate I entered the Department of Education and learned that one did not discuss quality when evaluating programs, since the feds were not legally permitted to make such determinations. Some 20 years later I watched with excitement as senators like Ted Kennedy debated and argued about quality—what it is, how it’s measured and its relationship to spending. The result was No Child Left Behind (NCLB), an act that has transformed how school districts operate, because they are, for the first time, liable for whether or not students succeed as a condition of being able to be free to do as they please.

Yes, some have problems with these prescriptions. We hear that NCLB made teachers teach only to the test. This comment ignores the reality that, to succeed, children need to meet standards and to know the result. Good teachers always teach content. Accountability does not make teachers robots—it provides a roadmap against which one may judge if students are succeeding or if they need a course correction.

The most powerful foundation of all reform—which has sparked major improvements—is freedom. Freedom to choose is the fundamental tenet of our nation’s founding, as Dickinson scholars taught me. Freedom to pursue life, liberty and happiness are uniquely American.

The slow, steady implementation of programs in the last decade that fostered more choice has sparked the development of standards and the strengthening of public education; brought recognition that teacher recruitment and retention needed a qualitative edge not just a monetary one; that there are children in all communities, but some in particular, who had little opportunity to learn because there was no accountability for results. New, quality schooling options have demonstrated that the most needy child can learn when he has a quality school that is focused on results, not rules and paperwork. Today about 8 million children are exercising some form of choice, and learning is improving. This is a direct result of new pressures, new incentives and new accountability.

Thanks to substantive, comprehensive reform, the doctor is in.

Jeanne Abate Allen ’82 is the founder and president of the Center for Education Reform, a nonprofit group that advocates school-choice programs, teacher initiatives and instructional programs and other reforms that adhere to high standards, accountability and freedom. Allen is interviewed regularly by the national media as an authority on education reform. The mother of four school-aged children earned a B.A. in political science from Dickinson and pursued graduate studies at Catholic University.


Dickinson College, PO Box 1773, Carlisle, PA 17013, 717-243-5121