Curated Content from 25 Years of Writing

K-12 Education Performance Improvement

The United States continues to face the challenge of reducing the high levels of private and public sector debt we have accumulated in recent years. We have a limited number of options: we can attempt to inflate away the debt, default on our obligations to repay it, impose extended austerity to reduce it, or grow our way out of it. Clearly, the latter is most people’s first choice. But how can we increase the rate at which our national and state economies grow?

In the short term, many initiatives have been proposed to accomplish this, such as improving public infrastructure, reducing regulatory burdens, and increasing support for research and entrepreneurs. In the medium-term, however, the potential growth impact of just one initiative dwarfs all others: improving the performance of our public schools (see, for example,
The High Cost of Low Educational Performance, published by the OECD).

Around the United States today, many public school districts, find their traditional business model under rapidly increasing pressure from multiple directions, including rising pension costs, changing student and taxpayer demographics, the rapid accumulation of publicly available data on comparable education system performance, the need to implement the Common Core’s tougher standards and new curriculum, the arrival of new competitors (such as charter schools and online courses), and an explosion of new technologies and possibilities for applying them to education. It cannot be easy to be a school system CEO/Superintendent or teachers union leader today, particularly if your district has enjoyed a strong measure of success in the past, which makes it extra-hard to recognize what is happening around you.

That substantial change will be needed in our public schools' approach to education in the years ahead is undeniable; the pressures on the current business model will not stop intensifying. The encouraging news is that there is a growing body of research that can guide on the journey we must take (see, for example,
Achieving More for Less in U.S. Education with a Value-Based Approach, just published by The Boston Consulting Group). The less encouraging news is the extent to which the debate over how best to reform our schools to help produce the productivity growth we need is currently dominated by ideology and partisanship. In my experience, and that of many other citizens, a pragmatic approach to problems tends to produce better solutions than rigid adherence to an ideology, whatever it may be. Indeed, a pragmatic approach to problems has long been seen as one of the core strengths of the American character and nation. One hopes that this will again be the case when it comes to reforming our public schools.

Whether the current administrative and union leadership of our public schools are up to the challenge they face is uncertain, as is true of every organizational turnaround and reinvention. The hopeful news is that I know that substantial change, using an evidence-based, cooperative approach is possible in public schools. I have seen this approach work very effectively in Alberta, Canada, where we used to live. That province now routinely scores at the top of the global PISA achievement test rankings (see for how U.S. district scores compare to global PISA scores). In the case of Alberta, the business community took a leading role in pushing for, and helping to achieve substantial change in the education system's business model and dramatic improvements in the results it achieves (by leveraging their own experience of business model reinvention and disciplined experimentation and adaptation). I think that achieving similar results in the United States will require the American business community to play the same catalytic role. Few and far between are the organizations that have successfully reinvented themselves without outside help.

Coming from a family of teachers, I appreciate the critical role great teachers play in our public schools. Time and again, they have shown that “demography is not destiny” – at their best, adaptable public schools can, significantly if not completely, offset the adverse effects of some students’ less than ideal" socio-economic starting points. But this isn’t news – this has always been the promise of public school education and its critical role in the American Dream.

On the other hand, I've also seen their frustration, and that of my fellow parents, when a teachers union makes it next to impossible to remove a poorly performing teacher, or resists using quantitative approaches to performance measurement, and the launch of performance based pay. After spending the past twenty years in the private sector fighting, and often winning, ever intensifying battles with global competition, most parents simply cannot understand, and will not tolerate, the slow speed at which education reform is moving today.

Fortunately, the increasing pressures that make the current business model unsustainable will undoubtedly speed up the transformation process in the years ahead. For all these reasons, I have spent the last decade involved in and studying the critical issue of how to reform out public schools, to help them collaboratively and substantially reinvent their business model and in so doing, dramatically improve their effectiveness, efficiency and adaptability. For example, I've written about
Why I'm Optimistic About Public Education, Why We Need to Support Gifted Education, and how publicly available data can be used by parents to evaluate various dimensions of a school district's performance, as well as to compare the performance of schools within a district. Here is another example of how publicly available data can be used to catalyze a change program in a public school system. I've also written a capacity building guide for educators covering the critical issues of organizational diagnosis and change leadership.

My writing on gifted education includes
the linkage between K-12 gifted education and economic growth (and the relationship between success with gifted and at risk students), how to respond to an assertion that a district over identifies gifted students, accelerated learning options for high school students, and the complex interactions in gifted education between the magnet school and cluster grouping model of school organization, and the acceleration versus differentiation instructional models.

I'm convinced that the radical increase in the availability of performance data that parents can analyze will only accelerate change in our schools, just as it has forced our health care system to move much faster towards evidence-based medicine, improving quality, and increased efficiency. To speed up that process in public education, I've prepared
a guide for Colorado parents on how to access and use state, district, and school CSAP and Growth performance data. I've also analyzed why Alberta, at least in the past, seemed to perform much better at teaching math than Colorado (the good news is that Colorado has really caught up in the past few years). Again, the increased availability of data, along with the global private sector experience of many parents, is making international comparisons and best-practice transfer much easier than it was even five years ago. All good news when it comes to reforming our public schools, and boosting our rate of productivity and GDP growth.