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“NEITHER REST NOR TRANQUILITY”: Former Senior Advisor to British Prime Minster Says School Reform in the United States is at a “Critical Juncture;” Decisions Today Will Impact America’s Capacity to Succeed in the Future

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“Both future economic success and the wide aspirations at the heart of the very idea of America depend on vastly improving the outcomes of public education.”

School reform in the United States is at a critical juncture and, over the next year or so, it will be necessary to choose between two broad options: a retreat to the comfortable, introverted, input-focused, evidence-light approach that characterized education reform in the last three decades of the twentieth century; or an advance to the demanding, outward-looking, results-focused, evidence-informed approach toward which some progress has recently been made. That is the argument laid out in “Neither Rest Nor Tranquility: Education and the American Dream in the 21st Century,” by Sir Michael Barber, who leads McKinsey and Company’s Global Education in Practice and served as a senior advisor to British Prime Minister Tony Blair from 1997 through 2005.2

“Both future economic success and the wide aspirations at the heart of the very idea of America depend on vastly improving the outcomes of public education,” he writes. “The great threat to the country’s future is that for a range of reasons it might fail to rise to this challenge.”

Before looking to the future, Sir Michael looks back to the 1950s, a time when the American high school “reached its zenith—at least for white kids.” Up until that time—and even beyond—he argues that the United States had a “huge comparative advantage over all other countries in the provision of universal, general education.” He credits this advantage to the existence of universally available high school education and the growing availability of college. “Because good schooling brings long-run benefits, America’s educational leadership over the rest of the world brought substantial relative gains in economic growth right through to the end of the 20th century,” he writes.

But, Sir Michael argues, over the last quarter of the twentieth century, the United States lost that advantage as educational attainment—in both high school and beyond—stagnated while countries that had previously trailed the United States began to catch up. “This relative slide in the educational performance of the United States has had, and will continue to have, economic consequences,” he writes, adding that the nation’s “relative weakness in education puts at risk long-term growth rates.”

Addressing critics who suggest that the recent failings of American students on international tests does not matter given the nation’s strong economic growth over the last two decades, Sir Michael notes that the “time lag in the relationship between schooling and economic growth is long,” adding, “This is a dangerously complacent line to take.”

Sir Michael also comments on what he sees as a “worrying lack of anxiety” among Americans about the state of public education. “It seems that the public is resigned to the state of its public schools rather than satisfied or delighted with them,” he writes. “There is little recognition that unless public education significantly improves in the near future, there is a disaster in the making. Education systems don’t fail with the suddenness of a natural disaster but the consequences can be just as devastating.”

If the American public, in general, does not seem overly worried about its public schools, Sir Michael takes heart in the fact that there is a “growing recognition” among the nation’s leaders at all levels that public education needs fixing. He credits the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) and the clear data it provides for helping to reveal the extent of the problem. “The diagnosis is becoming clearer and, while this doesn’t automatically lead to the cure, it is a major step forward,” he writes.

Additionally, because of the work of pioneering schools, cities, nonprofits, and foundations, Sir Michael believes that “never before has there been so much insight into how to bring about successful change, nor such substantial capacity to deliver it.” However, the challenge remains as to whether political and educational leaders can seize this insight and capacity and bring irreversible progress.

Turning to the future, Sir Michael looks at NCLB and offers recommendations on how it could be refined, adding, “The question is not ‘Should it be reversed or abandoned?’ but ‘How can it be refined and followed through?’”

One suggestion he offers deals with ensuring the quality of better assessments. “The power of NCLB depends crucially on the quality of the assessments used,” he writes. “Where poor tests are used, the information they provide will be misleading with potentially dire consequences for the students themselves when they leave school and enter the real world.” He suggests asking the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) to create a rigorous test to be given free to states.

Sir Michael also stresses the importance of ensuring highly effective teachers and principals, especially the schools facing the toughest challenges. He notes that the world’s best education systems are recruiting teachers who have both the right personal qualities and come from the top third of college graduate distribution, compared to the bottom third in the United States. He acknowledges that providing every child with a highly effective teacher will require a “root-and-branch” reform of the traditional bureaucratic system of recruiting and training teachers and a rethinking of the way the nation pays and rewards them.

Other recommendations that Sir Michael offers are integrating growth models with a continuing focus on absolute outcomes, ensuring policy is implemented consistently and effectively, helping districts and states develop the capacity to act decisively in response to data, and improving the distribution of public school funding.

He also calls for “common or national—as distinct from federal” standards and says that the emerging bipartisan alliance in favor of such standards indicates a growing recognition that the United States needs its standards to be fewer, clearer, and higher. “Across the world, standards in mathematics, science, and English will inevitably be set by global benchmarks in a globalized economy,” he writes. “Quite simply, to succeed, countries will need world-class standards; algebra and geometry don’t change at the Rio Grande or the 49th parallel.” Sir Michael argues that whether the United States can rise to the challenge of educational transformation that will shape its capacity to succeed in the coming decades but will also impact the rest of the world. “Counting on America’s success in this endeavor are not just children and families across this great country, not just the future of the American economy, not just the idea of the American Dream, but all of us around the world,” he writes.

The complete essay is available at http://www.wested.org/online_pubs/pp-09-02.pdf.

2) Sir Michael Barber’s essay, published by WestEd, was adapted from a keynote presentation that he presented at Aspen Institute’s National Education Summit on September 15, 2008.

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