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Education Reform
Situation Analysis
Issues and Challenges
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In 1983, A Nation at Risk was published, beginning a national discussion focused on the need for improvement in this country's public schools. A very broad range of reforms has been attempted at the state and local levels. Most local civic organizations, regardless of their primary missions, have created some subgroup to provide support to their public school systems. Reform of public schools is a defining civic issue for our generation of business leaders.

During this period of experimentation, meaningful progress has been spotty. A need exists to create conditions that foster high performance and long-term progress, rather than short-term and "symbolic reform." Educational policy is moving from an orientation toward inputs and resource allocation to system performance and the need for high academic standards for all students, but we are not there yet.

Models for reform fall into two broad categories: those that operate within the existing governance structure of public education, and those that envision a new model of public school. Examples of the former include "standards-based systemic reform" (standards and assessments, accountability, and the alignment of different parts of the educational system), teacher professional development, whole-school designs, decentralization, and site-based management. Charter schools, contracting, and vouchers go beyond traditional forms of school governance. As an indication of the spread of reform, during the past decade, 49 states have set or are setting assessments aligned with standards.

The jury is still out on the success of these efforts. On the one hand, these years of intense activity have yet to yield significant improvement in overall academic achievement. Yet since 1970, the achievement gap between minority and majority students has closed considerably, and there are signs that test scores are improving in a number of big city school districts where student performance has traditionally been low. While most would agree that standards-based systemic reform has affected the language of policy more than actual classroom practice, there are signs of change. Nevertheless, reform has not proven powerful enough on its own to achieve fundamental change in the most difficult problem areas. It has not yet made performance the primary measure of success in public education, though it has refocused attention on outcomes rather than inputs.

Education debates are not just about the quality of education, but cover the roles of government and the private sector and parents; about the ends of education; and about what motivates and disciplines adults to work productively on behalf of children. These debates take place in 15,000 local school districts (governed by 90,000 board members) and in 80,000 schools (employing 3 million teachers and instructors). They touch all 50 states, our Congress, the President, and a wide range of interest groups that also require a voice in our democratic society.

(The above and the Issues and Challenges page that follows, although edited by us, are both based on an internal unpublished document prepared in 1999 by Janet Hansen for the Educational Policy Subcommittee of the Committee for Economic Development ("CED") and are used "with permission." Ian Arnof, one of our Partners, is a Trustee of CED.)

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