|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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.