Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has made clear that she is no fan of the federal government. She has, in fact, said that “government sucks” and is advancing efforts to give power back to states and localities when it comes to education.

Who, then, on the local level should be leading on education reform issues? In this post, Paul Reville, former Massachusetts secretary of education under former governor Deval Patrick, and now a professor of practice of educational policy and administration at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, explains why he thinks it is time for the country’s mayors to step up.

Reville is the founding director of the school’s Education Redesign Lab, which has this as its mission:

In order to overcome widespread inequity in child development and education supports, opportunities, and outcomes, we must dramatically redesign, align, and integrate our systems of child development and education. If we personalize supports, services, and opportunities starting in early childhood, tailor instruction to meet each child’s needs, braid health and social services with schools, and provide access for all to high-quality expanded learning and enrichment opportunities, then we will ensure that all children — and all means all — have a much fairer chance of succeeding in education and in life.

By Paul Reville

Municipal elections are taking place across the country, and over half of the United States’ largest cities have mayoral seats up for grabs. Whether cities have new administrations coming in, or incumbents remaining at their post for another term, now is the time to take a closer look at the role mayors play in education reform, and in jump-starting a stalled movement.

In the past quarter of a century, so many education leaders believed that school reforms, such as standards, accountability and choice, would lead the way to equity despite a society characterized by growing inequality and diminishing social mobility. The results of these vigorous, expensive school reforms are, at best, modest. While arguably necessary, they were clearly insufficient to achieving the goal of preparing all children to be successful — inside and outside of the classroom.

It turns out that a factory model school system which absorbs only 20 percent of children’s waking hours in the K-12 grades is just not up to the demands of the 21st century for all children to be prepared to do high-skill, high knowledge jobs.

Consequently, the education sector today is increasingly isolated, ignored in national and state policy talk, riven by internecine conflict over issues like charter schools and Common Core, and abandoned by historical allies like the business community and governors. The reform movement is stuck and lacks any compelling, widely supported vision of where to go next in improving our nation’s education system.

These words from Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution highlight how to reignite the American education system:

“Power is shifting globally. With national governments challenged, cities in the United States and beyond have assumed increased responsibility for addressing many of our biggest policy challenges.”

Katz believes cities have a unique ability to galvanize action inside and outside of government at the grass roots level.  In the absence of federal or state leadership on education, “new localism” is the most promising path forward.

A “one-size-fits-all” system of education doesn’t work any better than a “one-treatment-fits-all” medical system would work. The current U.S. system of education was designed more than a century ago to suit different times and meet different needs. Preparing all of our children — if we’re serious about “all” — for success in work and citizenship will require a much more robust system featuring stronger interventions in the lives of disadvantaged children. If our goal is, as it should be for moral and economic reasons, to have the disadvantaged be competitive with their affluent peers then we will have to address the differences in social capital which are so instrumental to access to opportunities for developing human capital.

Reformers will need to work with families to devise systems of child development and education to meet every child where they are in early life and give them what they need to be successful, so that they can complete their K-12 journey ready for success in college and careers. Cities need more family and community-based services: supports and opportunities to address the most basic needs like food and shelter, and more complex provisions such as access to opportunities for out of school learning and enrichment. This system overhaul will require customization, a personalized system of supports and opportunities that mimics the massive social capital enjoyed by children of affluent families.

Mayors, new-and-old, are best positioned to build these new systems and become the face of this growing “new localism” in education and human capital development.  Cities  such as Oakland, Louisville, and Providence, and leaders such as Mayor Libby Schaaf, Mayor Greg Fischer, and Mayor Jorge Elorza, are working with a Harvard initiative, By All Means, and community leaders to craft an interconnected web of supports and opportunities in service of a new social compact between communities and families. In Salem, Mass., for example every K-8 student has an individualized success plan which plots needs and responses to get each child to success.

This new localism also features community-centered efforts like StriveTogether, Communities in Schools, the Promise Neighborhoods and Say Yes to Education, which are experienced, collective impact organizations. This collective impact work is often led by mayors, their children’s cabinets, school leaders, various community organizations, and branches of local and regional government who come together to build cradle-to-career pathways designed to assure that all of our children have access to the supports and opportunities necessary to prepare them for success in college and careers.

At no time in U.S. history, has the importance of high quality education, the development of human capital, been greater for the prosperity of individuals and society. We can continue to sidestep the rancor infecting the world of education or simply keep doing more of what we’ve been doing in school reform, or we can commit to grappling with the hard facts of inequality and collectively designing systems that compensate for the realities of growing inequity in children’s access to opportunities to learn.

To get to a better place, we’ll have to envision not only stronger, more effective, personalized schools, but also systems of support and opportunity that enable all children, every day, to come to school genuinely ready to learn. To build these systems will require courageous local leadership. The good news is that leadership is already emerging.