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Unlocking the Future

Opportunity America

February 22, 2023

Editor’s Note: The following chapters are AEI scholars’ contributions to a report from Opportunity America’s working group on K-12 education.

The toll of the pandemic years is becoming clearer every day: devastating learning loss among the nation’s K-12 students. Parents are angry, voting for change and telling pollsters they want more control over their children’s schools. But on education, as on so many issues, there is no political consensus—no agreement about what needs to be done and no effective left-right coalition in place to drive reform.

A new collection of essays by leading education thinkers, Unlocking the Future: Toward a New Reform Agenda for K-12 Education, suggests some potential planks for a new approach. The authors are researchers, advocates and practitioners from across the political spectrum. But they agree as one on the need for change—bold, dramatic, far-reaching change to produce schools that work for the nation’s children.

Chapters from AEI Scholars

Ian Rowe | Distance to 100: An Alternative to Racial Achievement Gaps

Policymakers and practitioners can do only so much to solve any problem without a clear, unbiased view of the underlying causes. Educators today have failed to improve student achievement largely because we use an inadequate conceptual framework to understand poor academic performance.

The prevailing national lens for interpreting student progress or lack of it is the achievement gap. Student performance levels are typically disaggregated by racial and economic categories, and then disparities are identified within those categories—black versus white, rich versus poor, etc.

Read Rowe’s Chapter

John P. Bailey | Rethinking Accountability

America’s current approach to accountability in education was a reaction to troubling academic performance, particularly among underserved children. Policy-makers and practitioners on the left and right came together to establish clear academic expectations for students, assess student progress toward achieving those standards and use the resulting performance data to identify struggling schools and provide needed interventions. Two decades later, accountability has not produced the expected improvements or transformative changes that were promised, and support is diminishing.

A reimagined approach can retain the best of what exists, including high-quality assessments and high academic expectations aligned with those of colleges and employers. But instead of a top-down, sanctions-driven approach, education should leverage the value-based payment systems that have been at the center of recent health care reform to create financial incentives for attaining quality indicators and outcomes.

Read Bailey’s Chapter

Pondiscio/Schurz | “The Army We Have”: Asking Teachers to Do Fewer Things Better

When Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was visiting US troops headed to Iraq in 2004, a soldier asked why his unit had to weld scrap metal from trash heaps onto old Humvees to strengthen them against attacks. Rumsfeld memorably responded, “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.”

Teaching isn’t combat, though education is often discussed using military metaphors. Teachers are often said to be “on the front lines” or “in the trenches.” But there’s a lesson in Rumsfeld’s simple truth that can and should be applied to education: you go to school with the teachers you have, not the teachers you might wish you had.

Read Pondiscio/Schurz’s Chapter