Don't stifle the schools of tomorrow

Article Highlights

  • Education delivery is rapidly changing. Can policymakers keep up to ensure high quality teaching and learning? #TQ2pt0

    Tweet This

  • Our current policies are built on yesterday's definition of schooling. Times are changing, and so must policies. #TQ2pt0

    Tweet This

  • At a time when students are lagging behind their international peers, we cannot risk stifling innovation. #TQ2pt0

    Tweet This

For all of the doom and gloom surrounding the American education system, it is an exciting time to be involved in schooling.

Yes, it is true that on international assessments, American students have been found to lag behind their peers around the world. On the most recent iteration of the Trends in International Math and Science Study exam, U.S. eight graders scored just above the international average in math, placing them in the same pack as Hungary and Slovenia, well below Asian nations like South Korea and Japan.

It is also true that reports show an intellectual gulf between where students are when graduating from high school and where they need to be for college. ACT, for example, reported that only 25 percent of students that took its exam hit college readiness benchmarks in all four subjects.

But at the same time, all across the country numerous organizations are rethinking how to deliver instruction and redefining what it means to be a "school" and a "teacher."

Carpe Diem Public Charter Schools pair in-person and online instruction in an environment that looks unlike any school you've ever seen. Students at Carpe Diem spend a large part of their day in a kind of cubicle farm, progressing through customized educational programs on computers. Teachers circulate through the room, tracking student progress and periodically corralling small groups into classrooms that ring the large "learning center" to reinforce topics for students that are struggling or to personalize discussions of subjects like Literature.

The results are staggering. In 2012, the flagship campus in Yuma, Arizona saw 83 percent of its sixth graders, 91 percent of its seventh graders, 80 percent of its eighth graders and 91 percent of its 10th graders rated as proficient on the Arizona state accountability exams in reading, besting state averages of 80 percent, 84 percent, 72 percent and 80 percent respectively. It saw a 91 percent graduation rate for its class of 2012, besting the state average of 78 percent. What is more impressive is that the school did this at a cost of $6,500 per student, less than the Arizona average of $7,600.

As research organization Public Impact points out, even with several years of the most strident of today's teacher policies – aggressively hiring and retaining the best teachers and firing the worst – only 40 percent of classrooms across America would have a high-quality teacher in the front of the room (according to their estimates, only 25 percent or so have one now). Scaling up successful schools is a huge problem. But, through leveraging technology and innovative staffing, schools like Carpe Diem point to a workaround.

The problem? In recent years, lawmakers across the country have been establishing teacher evaluation programs that might constrain the growth of these innovative models. In 2011, Arizona established the Arizona Framework for Measuring Educator Effectiveness that requires between 33 and 50 percent of a teacher's evaluation to be driven by quantitative data on student academic progress and 50 to 67 percent by evaluation of teaching performance on established rubrics based on national standards and approved by the state board of education. This mirrors the teacher evaluation programs that states all across the country have enacted in order to receive No Child Left Behind waivers from the U.S. Department of Education.

If observation tools for teacher performance or quantitative measures of academic growth are not sensitive to schools that "unbundle" the act of instruction and split it amongst teachers and technology, schools could struggle to comply with the law. These laws are written with a traditional school model – 25-30 students in an age-graded classroom progressing through a state-sanctioned scope and sequence of material in a nine month school year – in mind.

Is there an established rubric to measure teacher performance in a hybrid environment? If there is, I haven't seen one. How does a student's value-added test score get split between what the computer taught the student and what the teacher did? Should it? If an overeager state bureaucrat believes that these schools are out of compliance, it could lead to serious problems.

This is not to say that teacher evaluation programs are a bad idea. A mountain of research finds that teacher quality is important, that there is variation amongst teacher quality, and that meaningful evaluation can improve teacher practice. It is to say that when the federal government, state leaders, and district administrators are designing these programs, they need to look around the bend and make sure that the polices of today don't stifle the schools of tomorrow.

Michael McShane, a former inner city high school teacher, is a research fellow in education policy at the American Enterprise Institute and the co-author of "President Obama and Education Reform: The Personal and the Political."


Also Visit
AEIdeas Blog The American Magazine
About the Author


Michael Q.
  • Michael Q. McShane is a research fellow in education policy studies at AEI. He is the coeditor, with Frederick Hess, of "Common Core Meets Education Reform" (Teachers College Press, 2013). He is also the coauthor of "President Obama and Education Reform: The Personal and the Political" (Palgrave MacMillan, 2012). His analyses have been published widely in technical journals and reports including Education Finance and Policy. He has contributed to more popular publications such as Education Next, The Huffington Post, National Review, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He began his career as an inner-city high school teacher in Montgomery, Alabama.

    Follow Mike McShane on Twitter.

  • Phone: 202-862-5838

What's new on AEI

image The money in banking: Comparing salaries of bank and bank regulatory employees
image What Obama should say about China in Japan
image A key to college success: Involved dads
image China takes the fight to space
AEI on Facebook
Events Calendar
  • 21
  • 22
  • 23
  • 24
  • 25
Wednesday, April 23, 2014 | 12:00 p.m. – 1:30 p.m.
Graduation day: How dads’ involvement impacts higher education success

Join a diverse group of panelists — including sociologists, education experts, and students — for a discussion of how public policy and culture can help families lay a firmer foundation for their children’s educational success, and of how the effects of paternal involvement vary by socioeconomic background.

Event Registration is Closed
Thursday, April 24, 2014 | 12:00 p.m. – 1:30 p.m.
Getting it right: A better strategy to defeat al Qaeda

This event will coincide with the release of a new report by AEI’s Mary Habeck, which analyzes why current national security policy is failing to stop the advancement of al Qaeda and its affiliates and what the US can do to develop a successful strategy to defeat this enemy.

Friday, April 25, 2014 | 9:15 a.m. – 1:15 p.m.
Obamacare’s rocky start and uncertain future

During this event, experts with many different views on the ACA will offer their predictions for the future.   

No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.