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A $100 Billion Question: How Best to Fix the Schools?

By Jay Mathews
Monday, May 11, 2009

If you had $100 billion to fix our schools, what would you do? A surprisingly smart list of suggestions for the education portion of the federal stimulus money is circulating in the education policy world. A group of experts claims authorship. I don't believe committees are capable of good ideas, so I doubt the alleged origins of the list. But let's put that aside for a moment and see what they've got.

Better yet, why not come up with our own ideas? My column seeking cheap ways to improve education yielded interesting results. By contrast, think of what we could do if we had enough money to buy the contract of every great quarterback: guarantee the Redskins a Super Bowl victory. Many expensive school-fixing schemes proved just as insane and just as useless. But Barack Obama is president, and we are supposed to be hopeful.

You can Google the report, "Smart Options: Investing the Recovery Funds for Student Success," sponsored by the Eli and Edythe Broad and Bill and Melinda Gates foundations, and judge for yourself whether 37 people wrote it. The group included Ted Mitchell and Jonathan Schorr of the NewSchools Venture Fund and John E. Deasy and Lynn Olson of the Gates Foundation.

I have graded each proposal. Their goal is to get the biggest change by January 2012. I think they are dreaming. The federal stimulus is designed to save jobs, not raise student achievement. But some (not all) of the ideas are so good some states might (repeat, might) be tempted to try them.

1. Develop common American standards (my grade, C-minus): A bad start. I am not against academic content standards. We taxpayers pay teacher salaries and need to know our kids are learning useful stuff. By 2012, the committee wants "fewer, clearer, higher, evidence-based, college- and career-ready standards adopted by at least 40 states representing the majority of the nation's students." They argue that foreign countries with good standards make us look like we need to repeat a grade. But getting 40 states to buy into this will require many, many meetings. That 2012 deadline is a joke. And I have yet to hear a great teacher tell me her class really rocked because of clearer, evidence-based state standards.

2. Provide data and information that educators, policymakers and parents can use (A-minus): Parents often tell me we have too much testing and too much data. My reply to them: Move to Bali. This is the world we live in. The young teachers I know, their laptops flipped open at every meeting, don't want to fly blind. They want to see who is progressing, where, and trade ideas with other teachers. Schools and states would be able track each child's progress. Six states have all 10 elements of the gold standard, the Data Quality Campaign. The extra money would help put at least eight elements in 47 states by 2012.

3. Conduct meaningful teacher evaluations (C-plus): Maybe this was a committee project after all. The sticky residue of group blob is all over this idea. We need good teacher evaluations, but it is one of the most difficult reforms. Unions have to be involved, but the proposal barely mentions them. The committee wants every state and school district by 2012 to have a system that provides "differentiated supports and rewards to teachers based on their performance, with at least 50 percent of teacher ratings based on how much teachers contribute to students' academic progress over time." After that, they will figure out how to restore newspaper profits and keep my cubicle neat and clean.

4. Turn around low-performing schools (A-plus): They suggest closing the poorest-performing 5 percent of schools in every state and replacing them with schools that have "higher expectations for students and the operational and staffing flexibility to effectively meet students' needs." Some public schools, regular and charter, are already doing that. With the financial boost, a 5 percent target is feasible and meaningful. Under the No Child Left Behind law, the bottom 5 percent usually rearrange curriculum, get a new principal or call in more experts -- in other words, practically nothing.

5. Help struggling students (A-plus): This is the most practical and direct of the five suggestions, and it doesn't eat up $100 billion in one gulp. Students at least two years behind in reading, writing and math would be given a longer school day and year and would be assigned to teachers of proven effectiveness. That is how the best schools have raised achievement. If we can't do it for everyone, we can at least start with those who need it most.

Go to my blog (http://washingtonpost.com/class-struggle) to rank these ideas and five more I added. Put your proposals on the comments page, or e-mail me at mathewsj@washpost.com. I will follow up on your best ideas.

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