For more than a decade education policymakers have been convinced that improvements in student achievement depend on comprehensive improvements in schools. The key to greater learning is a not a new reading or math program or having the Internet in every classroom. Learning depends on quality instruction aimed at high standards and attentive to the needs of all students.
Quality instruction is no simple matter. It begins with knowing how to manage a classroom that likely includes a diverse group of students. It continues with knowing what should be taught and how best to teach it. Schools must organize themselves explicitly to set high academic standards, to help teachers with challenging material, and to help students succeed. Great schools have every element of an effective organization in place, from training to assessment to supervision.
During the 1990s policymakers took a number of initiatives to promote "comprehensive school reform." The Bush administration created the New American Schools Development Corporation to support research into comprehensive school models, such as Modern Red Schoolhouse and Roots and Wings. Congress authorized monies for Title 1 schools that wished to adopt "whole school reform" models. The record of these models in boosting student achievement is mixed. But the disappointments have more to do with the implementation of the models than with the models themselves.
Privatization could advance the accomplishments of school reform dramatically. School reform has foundered over two obstacles. One is money. It can be expensive to make comprehensive changes at a school. A typical school receives money for new curriculum in one major subject area every two years. It receives money to pay for two or three days of teacher training annually. Money for widespread change does not exist, unless it can be raised from a philanthropic grant program or a local bond issue. These are tough ways to spur reform. Businesses, however, could fund comprehensive reform with investment dollars. Edison Schools, for example, invests about $1.5 million in the start-up of each of its schools, earning money back through the course of its contract with its public education client. This money ensures that Edison's comprehensive reform model is launched as effectively as possible. Other firms could bring this advantage to public education as well.
Businesses can also help schools overcome the "buy-in" problem. Comprehensive reform requires the enthusiastic assent and long-term cooperation of every teacher and administrator in the school in which the reform is being pursued. Without this buy-in, the reform breaks down. Teachers begin closing their doors and doing their own thing. Public schools struggle with the buy-in problem for many reasons, not the least of which is that teachers and administrators have rights as public employees and need only cooperate with reform so far. Being free from the constraints of traditional school systems, however, businesses can reconstitute public schools with teachers and administrators who want to do something different. Firms have the ability to manage the school toward implementing a contractual reform model that will lead to improved academic results.