It's worth taking a gamble on school reform

Posted: Thursday, October 07, 2010

You ready to roll the dice?

That's really the issue when it comes to reforming education, one of the dividing lines in American society.

Those driving change in public schools - who have been for the last 25 years - believe school districts need to keep experimenting with a variety of changes to prepare students for college educations or good jobs after high school.

Those resisting most change - from measuring students to linking teacher evaluations to classroom performance to demanding a more rigorous curriculum - largely defend the turf of the modern education system. They see rolling the dice as too great a risk when it comes to kids.

Indeed, it is a risk. And as with all big debates, there is some truth on both sides.

I've been writing columns this year explaining what the school reform movement is about and why that camp is so important to our schools. But those who believe some change-agents are out selling magic potions make a good point. There is no single answer for improving schools. No lone reform will suddenly elevate them.

Which doesn't mean we can sit still, as the powerful "Waiting for Superman" documentary shows. By focusing on several students who are stuck in mediocre schools, it captures the hopelessness some kids feel. If you don't want to get up and fight for better schools after watching that movie, not much else will light the fire.

True, the film over-invests in charter schools, which are independently run public schools. I'm a big fan of expanding charters - proven ones, that is, like Uplift's charters across North Texas and KIPP's charters across America. But there are many pitiful charters, so don't walk out of the film thinking charter schools are the only answer.

The real challenge comes in taking your neighborhood school and turning it into a success. When we do that right, which means relying upon numerous changes, such as constantly using data to assess classroom trend lines, then we will have improved education in America.

The George W. Bush Institute presented an idea last week that also could lift up neighborhood schools. The proposal is one more building block in the reform movement.

Laura Bush unveiled the concept at North Dallas High School, one of Dallas' oldest. The goal of this idea is to create a network of sites across America that would recruit and train strong principals.

Teachers could apply, but the institute also wants to recruit people from other fields to become principals. Leaders who have served in the military, business or some other arena could step up to train to become principals.

Can someone from another profession master this difficult field, especially if they haven't actually taught in a classroom? It's a legitimate question, but that point alone shouldn't disqualify them. Michelle Rhee never served as a superintendent until she led the Washington, D.C., schools. Many Teach for America graduates come from outside of a teaching background.

So this can be done, as long as principals from other fields receive ample on-site training and possess the skill to win over skeptics in their own buildings.

There's no doubt that school districts need more leaders. Today, you often find them in elementary schools but not always in middle or high schools. That's why the Obama administration is looking for quality principals and why organizations like New Leaders for New Schools are already out preparing them.

I'm not trying to wear you down with all this education talk. Certainly we have other issues to fret about, such as whether our two major political parties can grow up and govern America.

But quality public schools go directly to the kind of future Americans will enjoy. The success of that enterprise rests in coming up with new and better fundamentals, including finding and grooming more talented principals.

Let's roll the dice.

•William McKenzie is an editorial columnist for The Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him at

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