Signaling Effect

There has been a lot of buzz about national standards and a lot of chatter about Diane Ravitch’s recent essay in Education Week’s Quality Counts. It’s a fine essay but the political road to national standards, voluntary, federal, or otherwise is not well marked and if anything the embrace of the states’ rights position by many on the left in the wake of No Child Left Behind make the politics even more challenging than they’ve been the last few times this has come up.

For Eduwonk’s money the most significant essay in the package is the one by Mike Smith, former #2 at the Department of Education during the Clinton years and one of the key intellectual architects of standards-based reform (Disclosure — Smith’s also on the board of Education Sector and Hewlett, where he now works, is a funder). For a long time you could count Smith among the skeptics on charter schools but in his Quality Counts essay discussing the work still to be done on standards he writes:

The theory and practice of standards-based reform does not directly address the issues of stimulating innovation within the public system, or of safety valves for parents and students who would like an alternative to the standard public schools.

Two significant strategies address these issues. The first is the creation of charter schools and the development of small secondary schools in areas where they serve as an alternative to traditional large schools. Both charter and small schools typically offer choices to students, and stem from the widely held perception that many schools (particularly secondary schools) are too bureaucratized and impersonal to do a good job in teaching most students, especially those needing the most help.

Potentially, the two types of schools both provide the opportunity for competition in ideas and practice to the traditional systems and serve as incubators for new strategies. Though charters, on average, look a lot like regular public schools and have similar effects on student achievement, there are exceptions. In my view, the most important of the innovations that some charters have used has been to extend the time of schooling by significant amounts. Of course, the time has to be used well. The Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, for example, extends time by roughly 60 percent, and is realizing striking and powerful results on achievement working with poor and minority children across the country. The widespread use of such interventions would greatly enhance our chances of closing achievement gaps.

That’s significant and worth watching in terms of the leading-edge thinking.

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