NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

A Short History of K-12 Reform

March 20, 2013

Over the last two decades, the American education system has made significant changes. While generally slow to react, K-12 education is filled with innovations and novel programs that provide promise for the future, says Chester Finn Jr., a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.

Finn reviews 10 major K-12 developments that took place between 1990 and 2010.

  • Following the groundbreaking work in "A Nation at Risk," the development of academic goals, standards, assessments, tracking metrics and accountability systems created a system that evaluated results, not inputs or intentions.
  • These new standards reformed the way the federal government granted aid to students, adding significant strings attached to federal funds to compel states to adopt specific educational initiatives to produce targeted outcomes.
  • The federal government also modified its key monitoring system, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, changing the once general oversight report into a detailed state-by-state analysis of education performance.
  • The spread of charter schools across the country has fostered significant school choice and created an entirely new type of school that creates more competition and personalized education.
  • By 2010 five in every 10 pupils were enrolled in schools that they or their parents played an active role in selecting rather than passively being assigned by a district bureaucracy with geographically-based attendance zones.
  • To improve the quality of teachers, individual schools, districts and charters created new routes for teachers to enter the classroom that do not involve a formal pedagogical education.
  • Many political leaders at the state and local levels took an active role in K-12 policies and operations, and leadership of state and local education agencies was vested in unconventional characters.
  • Technology revolutionized data systems, administrative communication and teaching capabilities and now enables hybrid and online learning systems.
  • States experimented with school funding, which allowed greater flexibility.
  • Education before and after K-12 was integrated seamlessly, enabling lifetime tracking of an individual student's progress.

Together, these changes occurred slowly over time but completely transformed the American education system as a whole. For politicians and parents, reforming K-12 education may seem like a daunting and stodgy task. Looking at these 10 developments, it is clear that the education system changes more quickly than we often think.

Source: Chester Finn, Jr., "A Short History of K-12 Reform," Hoover Institution, March 14, 2013.


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