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No quick fixes for schools

The shotgun approach to school improvement gets a critical look in this excellent Education Week commentary by Indiana University's Jonathan Plucker and David Rutkowski.

"Most policymakers act as though all aspects of our education system are failing, and they continually propose reforms that will fix 'the problem' for all of our schools, and yet these reforms never stand a chance because their aim is too broad," they write.

"These interventions include charter schools, private school vouchers, alternative teacher certification, elimination of collective bargaining for teachers, and heightened accountability via huge increases in testing. These reforms may work some of the time for some students (the research is mixed), but this scattershot approach to reform is the metaphorical equivalent of trying to pound a square peg into a round hole—and a triangular one, too. Considering that the 'square peg' costs literally hundreds of billions of dollars, it is surprising that leaders in the political, educational, and business worlds have not more frequently wondered, 'Isn't there a better way?'"

Plucker and Rutkowski go on to suggest a better way: Acknowledge that U.S. schools work very well for some students and not at all for others. Use a laser focus in targeting improvements where they are needed. Set aside ideology and set realistic goals for reform strategies.

There's a primer for effective reforms available in the OECD's "Lessons from PISA for the United States" It's a comprehensive report examining education practices in the countries that perform well on the international assessment, including China, Finland and Japan. You won't find broad fixes but, instead, emphasis on teacher quality, equity and carefully targeted efforts addressing challenges unique to each nation.

Policymakers are quick to hold up other countries in criticizing U.S. schools, but they ignore the solutions those countries have found, instead embracing vouchers, charter schools, merit pay and other unproven approaches. As Plucker and Rutkowski point out, the school improvement they promise isn't likely to happen.

Karen Francisco, editorial page editor for The Journal Gazette, has been an Indiana journalist since 1981. She writes frequently about education for The Journal Gazette opinion pages and here, where she looks at the business, politics and science of learning as it relates to northeast Indiana, the state and the nation. She can be reached at 260-461-8206 or by e-mail at