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The Bottom Line What We Do: Transforming Our Schools


Here at the Discovery Institute’s, American Center for Transforming Education (ACTE) we focus on system change rather than focusing on improving the present system.  We do that because, for decades we have tried dozens, if not hundreds, of reform ideas without any material improvement in student outcomes. We have also tried to improve schools by dramatically increasing the amount of money we spend on education.   Again, the results have not been forthcoming.  Basically, we have learned that reforming a failed system yields a reformed failed system.  We have also learned that putting more money into a failed system simply gives you a more expensive failed system.     

The current system is obsolete and no matter how much we tweak it and no matter how much money we spend on it, the results will not materially improve for the vast majority of our children.  Today, after decades of effort, both in the classroom and from increased funding, about 30% of America’s children receive an education that prepares them for college or a career.  Of the remaining 70%, about 25% drop out before graduating and the remain 45% will graduate without the skills and knowledge needed to live a productive life in the 21st Century. This miserable level of performance has been the rule for more than three decades.

Changing the system must start at the state level.  States control most of the money, they control who can teach, who can lead, the governance structure, the compensation system, the curriculum, the testing regimen and graduation requirements. In other words, states control.   Thus, if we want to improve our schools, it has to start at the state with legislative changes.  That is why, we at the ACTE, are focusing on states and specifically on those states where change is most likely to occur.

We also believe that our current school system and the school calendar, are integral parts of the American culture.  This means that changing the system will also require changing the culture.  Both will take time and, therefore, our effort involves a multi-year plan that creates the demand for change from the bottom up, not the top down. Thus, the legislative changes we propose do not deal with the system itself, but rather with the rules and regulation that inhibit innovation and inhibit the successful education of every child. 

Our plan for change is divided into two phases:

Phase One:

Identify Reform-Minded States. Our early research efforts are focused on identifying states that are positioned for change and equipped with courageous state leaders who are willing to buck the education establishment..

Promote Choice Legislation. The formal education of a child, which is one of the most important aspect of raising a child, is not controlled by the child’s parents or guardians. That is simply unacceptable. Thus, we promote and support school choice legislation in all its forms—choice within a district, vouchers, tax-credit scholarships, education savings accounts, and charter schools.

Pass Innovation Districts Legislation. We support passing legislation that will grant innovative education leaders the freedom to enact change within their schools and districts. By allowing public school districts to apply for waivers that grant flexibility for school administrators, we empower school administrators to implement innovative solutions to insure the learning of every child.

Pass Leadership Institute Legislation. Orchestrating fundamental change of our school system is going to take well-trained innovative education leaders.  Today, those types of people are in short supply.  We propose the creation of leadership institutes that, in partnership with universities, would select and train educational entrepreneurs to be agents of change within their schools and districts.   Effective leadership is an essential ingredient for the transformation of our school system.

Phase Two:

Appointed School Board Legislation. Change is a difficult, long-term process,  Currently, such long-term planning and execution is impeded by the continual turnover of both school board members and superintendents. This is particularly the case in urban districts where more than half of our students attend school.  Allowing for appointed school boards will provide greater stability of governance that is critical to implementing lasting, far-sighted change.

Modifying Certification Laws. The education profession should be open to our brightest and most talented citizens. Education schools now have a monopoly on the supply of human capital that is allowed in our schools. By removing barriers that prevent subject matter experts from becoming teachers, we can hire teachers based on qualifications—not just their certification.

School Funding Legislation. The current funding system greatly constrains innovation by heavily restricting how school districts can spend their money. We believe that education funding should follow the child and be based on the cost to educate that child—making school funding a function of both the number and the type of children who elect to attend a particular school.

Teacher Compensation Legislation. By eliminating the state salary schedule, schools will be able to hire and pay teachers based on school need, market conditions and budget allowances—ultimately attracting higher quality teachers. This allows high-demand teachers, like math and science teachers, to be paid more.

Graduation Requirements Legislation. Currently, high school credit hours measure how much time a student spends in a seat. Instead, states should re-define graduation standards and requirements to reflect the level of learning achieved by the student.  We believe there should be a minimum of three different diplomas that could be earned upon completion of high school.

Donald Nielsen

is a Senior Fellow of the Discovery Institute and author of Every School. After a successful business career, culminating with being CEO of a NYSE company, he has concentrated his time and effort in the field of Public Education. In 1993, he was elected to the Seattle School Board where he served for eight years. He also served nine years as a trustee of Seattle Pacific University and now serves on the Dean’s Advisory Board of the University of Washington School of Education and the Foster School of Business.

The Team

ACTE has an extraordinary team of experts in pursuit of these objectives.  Together, they have many decades of experience at all levels: as teachers, administrators, school board members and elected officials.  All are wholeheartedly committed to realizing the full vision of educational transformation outlined herein. Advisory Board

Further Readings

Every School
Donald Nielsen

The Customers in Public Education are the Parents, Seattle Times op-ed 
Donald Nielsen

A Charter School Lesson For Washington
Nina Rees, President & CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools

Working to promote systemic change to our nation’s education system

Donald Nielsen

Senior Fellow and Program Director, American Center for Transforming Education
Donald P. Nielsen is a Senior Fellow of Discovery Institute and chair of the Institute’s program on public education reform. He currently serves as Chairman of Lumenal Lighting, LLC., a business he purchased in 2004. Lumenal Lighting is in the commercial lighting business and serves companies, schools, government facilities and non-profit organizations in the Pacific Northwest.