Fixing America's Schools

The School of Education’s (SOE) Dean David Andrews called  on a group of  nationally recognized policy makers, academics and business leaders to address two questions: 1) what should the nation’s top two or three priorities be to improve education? And, 2) how can schools of education contribute to achieving these priorities? Their complete responses are posted below. We also summarized their contributions into five key components of education reform that are posted on our education blog at

On a quarterly basis, SOE will reach out to key individuals in education and related fields, both public and private, asking for their insight on major reform initiatives. Their responses will be posted on Our goal is that our contributors will ignite frank, energetic, and thought provoking dialogue that ultimately takes on a viral life of its own and engages all parts of the education community. We also encourage others to offer their thoughts and ideas on

Andres Alonso, Chief Executive Officer, Baltimore City Public Schools

Andres Alonso

Andres Alonso

There can only be one priority [to improve education]: achieving true educational equity for every student in America. In the hyper-competitive global economy of the 21st century, education is fate. We have an obligation to ensure that every student has access to a high quality education that meets his or her individual needs. Everything else is a means to that end.

We must proactively prepare our principals, teachers, staff, students and families to embrace the tremendous opportunities presented by the Common Core Standards. These standards will fundamentally change teaching and learning in America, because they raise our expectations for what students should know and be able to do. Because the Common Core Standards focus on the depth and quality of the content that is taught, they will promote deeper understanding among students, while allowing for differences in the way students learn—and providing a more realistic standard for measuring educational progress in the real world.

We need to improve the instructional leadership capacity of our principals and teachers, and ensure that we have effective professionals in all of our classrooms, in all of our schools. We need to shift our emphasis away from one-size-fits-all categorizations like “Highly Qualified,” and move toward a process for identifying and measuring effective educators in a more comprehensive, real-world context. The new data tools we have developed will give us the ability to do just that.

Finally, and probably most importantly, we need to mobilize communities so that they take responsibility for outcomes in all public schools, regardless of whether their children attend those schools or not. In too many places, the most influential people in communities abandon public schools, so that true accountability for their results ends, rather than demand that those public schools improve and become part of the forces ensuring that the schools can serve all kids.

Andres Alonso, Baltimore’s longest serving CEO, is considered one of the nation’s leading educational reformers. In 2009, he was named “School Superintendent of the Year” by the Fullwood Foundation. Read his full biography at the Baltimore City School’s website.

Robert Balfanz, Center for Social Organization of School, Johns Hopkins University School of Education

Robert Balfanz

Robert Balfanz

The second decade of the 21st century needs to be one of the half dozen or so times when education plays a transformational role in our nation’s journey. Horace Mann’s common school, the land grant colleges, the high schools built to educate the nation’s immigrants in the early 20th century, the GI bill and the response to Sputnik all propelled our society forward. We need another jolt. The human capital revolution has overtaken our commerce. As the most recent severe recession has ferociously driven home, there is no work for young adults who lack a high school diploma and no work that can support a family for those without at least some post-secondary schooling or training.

Fortunately, the elements of the next educational transformation are falling into place. Within a few years, there will be common college- and career-ready standards across nearly all states. Next generation assessments will move students and teachers beyond sterile recitations toward deeper intellectual inquiry. We will have individual longitudinal data that will enable early warning and much more tailored interventions, as well as ways to more easily let us know what is working and what is not. With the on-going push for increased teacher effectiveness and the smart use of technology with the advent of 1-to-1 computing, this promise of broad-scale revolutionary improvements is at hand.

And yet, millions of students are still attending low-achieving, high-poverty schools. These are schools where achievement gaps become chasms, high school graduation is far from the norm, and college completion rates are in the single digits. If we don’t solve this challenge while the rest of the nation leaps ahead, we will have created an America we don’t recognize.

Here is where Schools of Education can play a vital role. We need an answer to this quandary. If learning is inherently joyful and exciting and students want to succeed, why do some schools fail?

The answer won’t be simple. If it were, all our efforts and good intentions to date would have solved it.

A sustained, systematic, and inter-disciplinary effort will be required. To do this Schools of Education will have to change. They will need to become networked engines of innovation and dissemination that tightly link research to practice to policy in an endless loop of advancement. This means developing researchers with a profound understanding of classroom interactions, and school organizations and practitioners with analytic skills and methodological chops who can work in teams in a sustained manner and present their findings in formats that inform and shape policy. It also means creating the infrastructure to train teachers and school leaders in ways that combine reflection and broad learning, with hands and minds immersed in schools that are successfully meeting intense educational challenges. Finally, Schools of Education need to work hand in hand with school districts and help provide the analytic capacity to match educational needs with evidence based solutions. Our nation’s future requires it.

Robert Balfanz is a research scientist at the Center for Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University and associate director of the Talent Development Middle and High School Project. He has published widely on secondary school reform, high school drop outs, and instructional interventions in high poverty schools. Read his full bio here

Nancy Grasmick, Maryland State School Superintendent


Nancy Grasmick

Nancy Grasmick

American education needs to start earlier. We must invest in high quality preschool education, aligned with our preK-12 curriculum, and we need better trained early childhood educators to work with our youngest students. Related to this, we must develop a stronger focus on neuroscience, providing educators with a sharper understanding of how the brain develops and how we might strengthen the learning process.



Our teachers require stronger content knowledge, particularly in the mathematics and sciences areas where our students are having the most difficulty. If our teachers have difficulty with the material, it is a good bet that our students will as well. Related to this, our educators need to be more familiar with classroom data, and have the technological infrastructure necessary to access and study information.

Each high school diploma must mean something. When students leave our schools, they need to be prepared for the next step, be it more education or employment. Our programs need to be aligned with what is next in the life of our graduates.

Finally, we need to continue to improve teacher and principal evaluation and compensation models. Breaking away from models based on longevity in the classroom, and developing models that acknowledge differences in schools and in subject matter, are sensible next steps in the evolution of our system.

Educator preparation programs at the college and university level must be at the table when it comes to improving our nation’s schools. If our schools are going to prepare students with 21st century skills, our education schools need to have prepared our teachers for the challenge.

Education programs need to have a greater emphasis on content, particularly at the primary and middle school levels, ensuring that teachers understand and can respond to how children learn. While pedagogy remains extremely important, there is no substitute for understanding mathematical and scientific thinking in the STEM-related courses in particular, and strong subject matter knowledge throughout the curriculum.

Teachers also need to better understand how to use data effectively, and schools of education must better prepare their graduates in how to use databases and assessment information in order to allow them to address individual student learning needs. The key to strengthening achievement in all of our children is in understanding each student on an individual basis. One of the best ways to do this is through the use of technology, and our educator preparation programs must embrace data and help teachers to use it in ways that help every child.

Nancy Grasmick is the nation’s longest serving appointed state superintendent. Under her leadership, Maryland has won three consecutive first place rankings for its K-12 public education from Education Week. Read her full biography here

Robert Slavin, Center for Research, Johns Hopkins University School of Education

Robert Slavin

Robert Slavin

Education outcomes will only improve when teachers in all schools are using improved methods, materials, and technologies to make the classroom experience exciting, motivating, and well-focused on critical knowledge, skills and orientations to learning. The goal of policy must be to create and then bring to large scale means of reliably improving daily teaching. Nothing else matters. Priorities are as follows.

1. Promote the use of proven programs.

Where evidence supports the use of effective and replicable programs, policies should support their use. For example, in applications for Title I or competitive grants for schools, applicants should receive competitive preference points for committing to implement programs found in multiple rigorous experiments to improve student achievement. Further, the federal governments should provide substantial support for the development, evaluation, and scale-up of proven programs, as it has begun to do in Investing in Innovation (i3).

Schools of education can support the evidence-based reform movement in several ways. First, researchers in schools of education should be creating, evaluating, and scaling up replicable programs capable of improving student outcomes in all subjects and grade levels. In their courses, schools of education should equip their students with knowledge and experience with proven programs and with enough knowledge about research to critically evaluate program evaluations.

2. Draw top students into teaching.

Teacher quality matters, yet teaching does not draw top graduates. Perhaps learning from Teach for America, schools of education need to find ways to attract and support top graduates into teaching, with accelerated MAT programs that focus on practice and lead to well-supported teaching positions.

3. Give schools responsibility and capacity to deal with children’s health and development.

Especially in high-poverty schools, many children fail because of preventable non-educational problems: Vision, hearing, social problems, and so on. Instead of relocating these problems to overwhelmed health and social service departments, schools need nurses and social workers with the capacity and the charge to solve these problems as early as possible, to ensure that children are physically and psychologically ready for school every day. Schools of education could help this by creating and evaluating replicable models of services that cost-effectively ensure student readiness, and by emphasizing educators’ roles in using all means to see that children succeed.

Robert Slavin is the director of the Center for Research and Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins University. He has been recognized by the American Educational Research Association for his exceptional scholarly contributions to education research. Read his full biography here

George Cigale, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of

George Cigale

George Cigale

Education reformers loudly proclaim that we need to put students’ needs first, yet student perceptions and feedback play a marginal role in their own education. Students are rarely asked whether instruction is effective and meaningful, nor are they asked to truly participate in setting the direction of their own learning. Creating a dynamic feedback cycle between students, teachers and administrators needs to be a priority if reform efforts are to be successful.

To make student feedback count, we need three things:

1. Administrators who are armed with the data needed to understand how students are learning (or not learning) week to week, not only when standardized exam results are in;

2. Teachers who are willing to accept and use student feedback to improve their day-to-day instruction;

3. Students who have the tools to rate their learning experience and give thoughtful input into when and why they are getting stuck.

In the education company I founded, we have made student feedback a key focus. Every time a student requests and receives help from one of our 2,500 tutors, the student is encouraged to quantify and review the experience in a post-session survey. Armed with this student feedback, our tutors and tutor mentors meet regularly to continuously improve the quality of every tutoring session we deliver. Tutors have a rating created from student feedback. These ratings are a key component of their performance evaluations, and help determine when promotions and pay increases are earned.

Using this approach has had a significant impact on achievement, engagement, and confidence. Students consistently report increases in their confidence in school work, ability to complete more assignments and improved grades. Students also tell us when and how instruction should improve and what changes should be made to our online classroom.
Incorporating student feedback into a classroom setting is not without challenges, but it can and should be done. Here’s how it can be done successfully:

  • Use technology tools in and out of the classroom that allow students to work on the concepts they find most challenging—at their own pace—while the teacher keeps the classroom learning on track.
  • Create a way for students to provide feedback on their learning experiences throughout the course.
  • Students should be able to report:

- A self-assessment of their level of understanding pre- and post-experience
- How well the experience fit with their current needs
- How engaging the teacher and the experience was for them.

  • Share the data with both teachers and administrators to enable:

- Teachers to make tactical decisions about how to adjust their day-to-day teaching;
- Administrators to make strategic decisions about curriculum, how to deploy high performing teachers, and identify systemic professional development needs.

Schools of education need to incorporate this model into their own classrooms. We need to demonstrate to the next generation of teachers that students are not empty vessels that teachers fill with knowledge. Students should be treated as valuable partners who, if asked, will provide the critical insights that teachers and school leaders need to create successful and engaged learning environments and an improved educational system.

George Cigale leads, a leading on- demand homework help and online tutoring service. He brings more than 20 years of experience in education, software, and Internet industries in executive positions at The Share Group, Adizes Institute, and the Princeton Review. Read his full biography here