Newly released studies by the U.S. Education Department indicate that state and federal administrators recent efforts to improve the performance of public schools nationwide appear to be a step in the right direction, but they still have a long way to go.
In 2009, the federal education department under President Obama took a stark turn away from the assessment-based policies of the Bush Administration’s No Child Left Behind Act of 2003, which was heavily criticized for exacerbating problems in underperforming school districts throughout the U.S., incentivizing them to lower their own performance standards and teach students to pass standardized tests rather than improving the overall quality of their education.
Rather than continue to nationalize educational assessments like his predecessor, Obama’s Education Department introduced the Race to the Top initiative, which offered grant funding for Common Core Standard programs to state governments that could develop quality reform efforts for schools in their own states. So far at least 10 states have received a total of $4.35 billion in funding from programs they’ve developed themselves.
Now in its fourth year, the Race to the Top initiative is touting successes in states like Delaware, Ohio, Hawaii, and New York, as well as Washington D.C., which all adopted a number of core standards set by the initiative back in 2009. Chief among these successes is the rise in the national high school graduation rate to 75 percent, a 40 year high according to Education Week. Despite these successes, it’s too soon to know whether or not Race to the Top’s efforts will have lasting effects.
Reform advocates often look inward for lessons on how to improve education in America, but maybe they could learn a lesson or two from examining other successful organizations, not just successful schools.
Take the National Football League for instance, the nation’s most successful professional sports organization. In the NFL, the teams with the worst records at the end of each season get the earliest picks in the first round of the following NFL draft, while the teams with the best records pick the latest. That means the worst teams get the pick of the litter from the newest crop of young talent coming into the league. When it comes to public education, however, it’s often the other way around, as many of the best educators coming out opt to teach in charter schools, private schools, and wealthier public school districts, which all pay more than public schools in poorer communities. Ironically, this has as much to do with teachers unions, which partner with local school districts to set pay at a certain competitive rate, regardless of incoming teachers’ skill levels compared to their peers or their performance after being hired. This is an often cited disincentive for some teachers to do their best since they will be paid the same regardless.
In the NFL, the league’s player’s salary cap – a limit on how much teams can pay their players – prevents more successful franchise, like the Cowboys, Steelers, and Patriots for example – from having a competitive advantage when it comes to resources over their less successful counterparts. This ensures a level playing field for all franchises. The opposite rationale applies to public schools, as the best schools get far more money to work with than the worst. The best schools tend to be those in more affluent, predominately white localities with higher tax revenues for their school districts, as well as charter schools, or private schools financed by tuition costs paid by more affluent families. Inner city schools on the other hand, with primarily black and Latino demographics, have to rely on relatively meager funding from local tax payers, which results in an uneven playing field when they compete with schools in wealthier districts.
But the inescapable truth about school reform is that much like in football, success in the classroom has more to do with the culture of the team and organization than any other factor. In the NFL, the best teams promote a culture of winning that permeates among players, coaches, and management alike. The same is true in successful schools, where parents and teachers, and administrators work together, not against one another, to promote the success of the young minds they seek to shape and mold.
Perhaps the greatest example of this is the Harlem Children Zone (HCZ), a charter school program based in the historic uptown Manhattan neighborhood of New York City. More than 98 percent of HCZ students graduated from the program’s Promise Academy I high school in the 2012-2013 school year and all its seniors have enrolled in college. HCZ ranks in the 99th percentile of public schools in the U.S. and it’s been recognized as one of the greatest school reform efforts in America, with President Obama calling on the expansion of the program to major urban centers throughout the U.S. This success occurs in one of the most historically-challenged neighborhoods in one of the most troubled school districts in the nation.
But the program’s success stems not only from greater resources, which it does have, but also from promoting a culture of excellence. HCZ offers community cultural reform programs such as baby college, a course for expecting and new parents, which teaches behaviors like reading and playing specialized games to foster educational success in their child early on.
The most successful franchise in the NFL are the ones where the culture in the locker room has been changed, either by the players themselves, by the coaches, by management, or a combination of the three. The same must take place in the school districts. Parents and teachers must see each other as assets and teammates, not enemies to blame when students underperform. Administrators must promote excellence through their empathy, passion, and love for educating children, not just through rigid quantitative measures like standardized testing. And leaders at the highest levels of state and federal governments must promote cultural change, not just politically motivated demands for accountability. This is the path to true education reform in America.