Education Reform: Real Hope for Change

For the past ten years, it seems education policy news has been for wonks and was regularly feasted on by cynics. Today, strategies for change — new approaches to supporting effective teaching, student testing, college readiness, new designs for low performing schools — are ideas on the nation’s agenda.

What a change. I remember when Michele Cahill — a born teacher, school reformer and colleague leading Carnegie Corporation’s exciting urban school program — first talked about some of the ideas for change in 2000. As a former journalist, I was skeptical they could happen. She turned me into a believer, especially when she left the foundation to become a senior advisor in the Bloomberg administration where dramatic change happened — with the measurements to prove it.

In 2000, there wasn’t a clear understanding of what issues could help lead school reform... at least among people who are outside the community of committed educators. Americans lamented the sorry state of schools. Negatives like the drop-out rate and the growing achievement gap seemed to dominate discussions about education.  That pessimism led to a dispiriting sense of failure about the American school system where seemingly nothing could change.

But less than a decade later, with ideas promoted by Michele Cahill, who returned here after her tour with the Bloomberg administration, as well as by leaders at the Gates, Broad and  Wallace Foundations, there now seems to be a consensus that certain strategies can work, and indeed have worked.  There is a sense of optimism, borne by evidence, that we can help students learn, change school systems and use data to help make a real difference.

The most important change of all for me — who has sat at this foundation perch for a decade — is not only how the national conversation has changed and focused on solutions rather than problems, but also, how there seems now to be a real public will to make some tough decisions.

Congress may be debating but they are focusing on ideas that could make a real difference. And the Department of Education has billions of stimulus dollars at play that would help communities become more innovative and focused on solutions.

Real school reform is not going to be easy — but that dark spiral of defeat has been pushed off the front pages. The focus has changed — and for this observer, that is something that belongs in the success column.