A Portfolio Approach to Public Schools
Are you ready for the revolution?
By Paul T. Hill
Despite nearly two decades of reform initiatives, we still do not know how to provide effective schools for millions of poor and minority students. Half of all poor, immigrant, and minority children never earn a regular high school diploma. In many cities, more than 30 percent of all low-income African- American students score below the bottom 10th percentile on national reading and math tests.
We also do not know exactly what all youngsters will need in order to meet the demands of the fast-changing global economy. Surely, all students will need to read, write, and reason mathematically, but what else? Today's workers need skills that were not even considered important 30 years ago, and there is little reason to think that 30 years from now schools will not find themselves in a similar position.
These realities demand new educational approaches that allow for various types of schools that have the freedom to innovate to meet students' unique needs. However, our public education system is incapable of such problem solving because it is oriented in precisely the wrong direction. Today, public education policies and administrations are organized to serve the needs of the institutions and the adults that work in them.
Addressing our stunning achievement gaps, particularly those affecting minority students in our cities, means that students, not the system, must become the primary organizing principle for educational policies -- and, more importantly, for schools themselves.
Today's public school system tolerates new ideas only on a small scale and it does so largely to reduce pressures for broader change. The current system is intended to advance individual, community, and national goals, but is, in fact, engineered for stability. That is normally a good thing. We want schools to open on time, teachers to count on having jobs from one day to the next, and parents to feel secure knowing that their children will have a place to go to school.
Stability alone, however, is the wrong goal in a complex, fast-changing, modern economy. Students -- disadvantaged students, in particular -- need schools that are focused on providing them with the skills they will need to succeed in today's society, schools that are flexible enough to try a variety of teaching methods until they succeed in reaching these goals. The existing structure of public education, and most of today's schools, were not built to serve students with special needs and it does not work for them.
Paul T. Hill is a research professor at the University of Washington's Daniel J. Evans School of Public Affairs. He also directs the Center on Reinventing Public Education and is a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, having previously directed Brookings's National Working Commission on Choice in K-12 Education.
Paul T. Hill
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