How Schools Can Achieve Obama's Lofty Education Goals

Finding depressing education news is easy, but three trends offer hope for the future.

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Richard Whitmire, author of Why Boys Fail, is coauthor of the recent New America Foundation report, "Pathway to the Baccalaureate." Andrew Rotherham is a partner at Bellwether Education and writes the blog

Finding depressing education news is easy. The recession, combined with the waning of federal stimulus money, is about to trigger hundreds of thousands of teacher layoffs—an "education catastrophe," warns Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

The layoffs will play out against a background of flat national reading scores and mediocre showings on international education rankings. Looming behind everything: the country's much-debated school reform law, No Child Left Behind, has fallen into disrepute.

None of this can be sugarcoated; yet dwelling on the negatives masks some significant education breakthroughs that promise to pay dividends for years to come. Together they represent the country's best shot at achieving President Obama's ambitious goal of pushing the country back to the top of international education rankings—measured by college graduations by 2020.

These developments include breakthroughs on answering these questions:

How do school districts do more than just talk about effective teaching?

Most parents assume the debate over teacher quality is about "merit pay" or reforming teacher tenure so that during layoffs the best teachers, not just the more senior teachers, keep their jobs. Far more important are the breakthroughs that even allow those debates. Can good teaching be taught and measured? Yes and yes.

Teacher/innovator Doug Lemov put it into a book: Teach Like a Champion. You can see it in action in any of the charter schools he helps oversee at Uncommon Schools. In the District of Columbia a former national Teacher of the Year, who won that award teaching in one of Washington's most challenging neighborhoods, devised an evaluation system that both defines and measures effective teaching.

DC is pushing the debate to the next level—how you produce teachers worthy of retaining them and rewarding them with higher pay. The best news: scores of states seem eager to follow.

How do you build inner city schools that turn out college-ready students?

A few schools do that on a small scale, but in Houston it's being done at scale. At the end of this month, seniors from YES Prep Public Schools, a network of high-performing public charter schools in Houston, will gather at Rice University for "signing day," where they formally commit to the college they will attend.

In most suburban communities, it's typical for students to go to college and those "signing" commitments hardly merit mention. But YES isn't a suburban school. It serves low-income students from Houston, most who will be the first in their families to go to college. Chris Barbic, the founder of YES, estimates that if current trends continue, YES, with just 3,500 students on its seven campuses, will be sending as many students to college as the entire Houston Independent School District. Houston, with more than 200,000 students, is the nation's 7th largest school district.

YES is one of a growing number of outstanding college-prep charter schools from Los Angeles to Boston that are propelling students into higher education from communities where college going is too rare. Many of these students still struggle in college, but for them to get there at all represents an enormous opportunity.

How do you draw more minority students into four-year college programs?

For years, amid rapid demographic changes, foundations and think tanks have implored educators to channel more minority students into college programs, especially those that yield four-year degrees.

At Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA), a program called Pathway to the Baccalaureate should serve as a national example for achieving that goal. NOVA-based counselors paid for partly by surrounding K-12 school districts sweep into high-minority high schools and recruit students who never imagined college as a possibility.

Updated on 5/19/10: An earlier version of this article should have noted that Andrew Rotherham’s firm, Bellwether Education, has consulted with YES Prep on their strategy and growth plans.