Innovation for educational opportunity


By Doug Mesecar and Don Soifer - Guest columnists



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States and school districts have a once-in-a-decade opportunity to pursue student-centered, results-oriented policy and funding for their educational systems in order to provide greater opportunity and equality for students.

This is a pivotal time for our nation’s educational destiny. The implementation of the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is enabling states and districts to pursue game-changing innovation — if they rise to the opportunity. The new law requires states to redesign their educational systems by the start of the 2017 school year.

Instead of beating around the No Child Left Behind bush by narrowly focusing on test-based proficiency, states and districts can take advantage of major flexibility and authority under the new federal law to completely transform funding, accountability, testing, and instruction to better educate all of their diverse learners — without seeking Washington’s permission.

Our education system is likely not sustainable at its present level of productivity. The more than $600 billion that U.S. taxpayers spend every year on public elementary and secondary education is 5.2 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product.

Globally, according to George Mason University’s Mercatus Center, U.S. spending per pupil is the second-highest among 34 benchmark countries. But U.S. student performance on the Program for International Student Assessment was 17th in reading, 20th in science, and 27th in mathematics, relative to the same group of nations.

Clearly, there is a disconnect between funding and performance.

Two strategies gaining traction — and results — around the country are competency-based, personalized models for teaching and learning and performance-based funding, or “pay for success.”

Rather than using a “wait-to-fail” model where students only get more attention and personalization as they fail to succeed, competency-based education cuts through the lost time and angst of students who fail before getting the opportunity for success. Competency-based models make learning the constant, and time becomes the variable, rather than the other way around.

In a competency-based approach, students can learn at different rates in different subjects. They progress to more advanced work as they demonstrate mastery of standards-based content — and are assessed in meaningful ways that emphasize application and creation of knowledge, along with facts and skills. By replacing seat-time requirements, students aren’t “socially promoted” and don’t receive “passing grades,” both of which leave them with large gaps in knowledge, skills, and motivation.

Success with this new approach to instruction requires fundamental changes in how schools are run; diplomas are awarded; assessments are given; curriculum is designed; and accountability for results is implemented.

And while funding is necessary for getting results and achieving equality of opportunity, it isn’t sufficient to produce transformative results or solve long-standing educational inequalities. It is what you do with the funding — like competency-based learning — and how the funding is provided that are as important, if not more so.

Performance-based funding, or “pay for success,” can better align critical education funding with important outcomes to incentivize ongoing, improved performance of schools.

Applying “pay for success” funding principles can positively reshape how an education system operates. As the Obama administration has noted, “For too long, the U.S. government has funded programs based upon metrics that tell us how many people we are serving, but little about how we are improving their lives.”

Competency-based learning and performance-based funding are new, strategic directions for improving academic outcomes, funding schools and critically, pursuing educational excellence and equality of opportunity. There are a growing number of experiments in states and school districts across the country with one or the other of these innovations. It is time to take on both innovations and at scale.

The nation has the opportunity to think big and act swiftly. Because components of these reforms are already underway in many communities, it makes sense to utilize the present opportunity to adopt them more thoroughly. To meet the educational needs of all students, the question is not whether we can afford to make changes. It is a question of whether we can afford not to.

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By Doug Mesecar and Don Soifer

Guest columnists

The writers are education analysts with the Lexington Institute, a nonpartisan, nonprofit think tank in Arlington, Virginia.

The writers are education analysts with the Lexington Institute, a nonpartisan, nonprofit think tank in Arlington, Virginia.

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