Two Economists on School Reform: We Know (A Few) Things That Work

Conversations about America’s public-education system range from confusing to dispiriting.

Charter schools? The best seem fantastic, but is the typical charter school really better than the typical conventional public school?

Teach for America? Is it drawing America’s best and brightest into inner-city classrooms where they turn lives around? Or is it a cult of well-intentioned 20-somethings ill-equipped to teach?

No Child Left Behind? Is it imposing sorely needed standards and accountability on K-12 education? Or has it bred a teach-to-the-test-and-only-the-test mentality that discourages teachers from focusing on low-income children?

Into this debate come two economists, Greg J. Duncan of the School of Education at the University of California at Irvine, and Richard J. Murnane of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, with an encouraging message: We do have evidence that a few approaches work.

Professors Duncan and Murnane previously have argued that the economic forces of technology and globalization are driving a wedge between winners and losers in the U.S. economy and making it tough for schools to help children from low-income families to get the skills they need to compete.

Tough, they argue, but definitely not impossible.

To persuade you of that, they’ve melded academic research with case studies of students, families and schools in a short, new and hopeful book, “Restoring Opportunity: The Crisis of Inequality and the Challenge for American Education,” that you don’t need a Ph.D. to understand. Indeed, they’ve even boiled it down to an infographic. The book is a refreshing antidote to those on K-12 education in which authors claim to have found the one sure solution to all that ails American higher education, or to have identified the one true villain.

To make their case, the economists report – both in the book and in short videos on their website – on three exceptional programs: a Boston public school pre-K program, the University of Chicago’s K-12 charter school network and New York City’s small high schools of choice. Each has been found to be successful by state-of-the-art evaluations.

What works? It’s not simple. It’s not just more money. Or more choice. Or more tests. Or more organizational innovation. None of those options has succeeded because none has focused on improving instruction in high-poverty schools and developing a successful approach for students to master critical skills, they say.

Rather, they argue, the building blocks of a solution are found in (1) nurturing the Common Core curriculum standards and developing curricula and teacher training to meeting them, (2) providing consistent coaching, training and financial support to teachers and schools with lots of low-income students, (3) creating an atmosphere in which teachers and school leaders have a deep-seated responsibility to their colleagues for educating every student, (4) harnessing the latest research, such as evidence that lousy vocabularies block low-income pupils from understanding textbooks, and (5) outside of school, supporting low-income families with programs like Wisconsin’s New Hope experiment that supplemented paychecks of low-wage workers with cash, health-insurance subsidies and advice.

“There are many reasons to temper optimism with caution,” professors Duncan and Murnane write. But in the 19th century, the U.S. was a leader in making primary school universal, and in the 20th it led the world in high school and expanded its system of higher education beyond those who grew up rich. Given that history, they say, we can do it again. And we must.