Shooting Bottle Rockets at the Moon: Overcoming the Legacy of Incremental Education Reform

Brown Center on Education Policy | Brookings InstitutionThomas Kane, of the Harvard School of Education and writing for the Brookings Institution, has recently penned an important article describing an aggressive plan for helping American students catch up with their international peers over the next 10 years. Kane produces calculations that reveal that incremental reforms are unlikely to be aggressive enough to allow American students to catch up. He instead proposes a combination of four reforms that, together, are likely strong enough in effect size to provide real solutions, not empty promises, to improving American education:

  1. Making better personnel decisions at tenure time
  2. Providing feedback to allow teachers to improve their practice
  3. Integrating more rigorous standards and assessments
  4. Offering a more personalized learning environment

On the first, while recognizing that methods of evaluating teacher success based on value-added measures comes with its own set of problems, Kane also believes that using data to “not retain” the lowest performing teachers is essential to progress.

Second, citing evidence from an interesting study in Cincinnati schools, Kane urges an increased effort to provide feedback to teachers based on classroom observations.

Third, Kane references the successes of Massachusetts and Washington D.C. at sustaining improved student achievement. He argues that their success sets them apart from other states because they have sustained success through use of effective testing.

Overall, these three reforms, Kane argues, should be pursued because their efficacy can be clearly proven through vetted data. The fourth one, he admits, is more tenuous, but he still believes shows a good chance for success.

On the fourth, Kane cites efforts in Houston to implement certain tactics employed by charter schools, such as new school leadership, selective retention of teaching staff based on prior evaluations (including value-added), providing better feedback to teachers, a longer school day and year, intensive tutoring, and data-driven instruction in public schools. What Kane calls “a more personalized learning environment” is in many ways another way to talk about bringing effective practices from charter schools into public schools.

According to Kane, a combination of these four reforms will provide documentable progress in the next ten years that will allow the US to reach the upper echelon of global student achievement.

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