For most people, the purpose of education is self-improvement — becoming better informed, more knowledgeable, better equipped to solve problems, more able to earn a living and prosper. The more effectively an education system delivers on those promises, the greater likelihood a community will thrive.

So it's not surprising that one of the themes running throughout the history of U.S. education is an ongoing effort to improve education itself. Reform efforts over the years have resulted in more people attending school for more years in better facilities where better-trained instructors have more resources to help students learn more effectively.

It's not too much of a stretch to say that everyone involved in education who takes his or her role seriously is a school reformer: anyone seeking ways to reshape the status quo and make schooling a more effective, rewarding learning experience is a reformer at heart.

Of course, when personalities, politics and money enter the mix, what looks like reform to one person might seem misguided or counterproductive to someone else. A mayor's attempt to wrest control of a school system from an elected school board might seem like a brave effort to shake up a recalcitrant education system, or it could be dismissed as a politician's power grab. Supporters of the No Child Left Behind Act may point to the greater accountability and higher standards set forth in the law, but opponents may counter with arguments that the law relies too heavily on testing, is too punitive, and sets standards that are arbitrary.

As long as educators and their constituents see an imperfect system that cries out for improvements, school reformers will be at the front ranks beating a drum for changes. As Congress prepares to consider reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act and presidential hopefuls gear up for their 2008 campaigns, those who carry the mantle of school reformer are doing what they can to put the issue at the front and center of the nation's agenda.

Controlling reform

Urban school systems, frequently with large numbers of underperforming students from low-income families, are fertile areas for school reform. In many cases, city leaders, recognizing that an effectively run school system is critical to the overall success of the city, are the leading voices for school reform. Mayors in New York City and Chicago have gained control of the massive public school systems in those cities and have put reforms into place.

In recent weeks, other large cities have been trying to follow suit:

  • In Washington, D.C., Mayor Adrian Fenty has won approval from the City Council and the U.S. Congress to assume control of the struggling school system. The mayor will have control of the operating budget and the capital improvement budget for upgrading facilities. Fenty says that under his control, facility repairs will be completed more quickly.

  • In Los Angeles, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa attempted to gain substantial control over the Los Angeles Unified School District's operations through a law passed by the California legislature. The mayor's stated goals were to bring in new leadership, create greater accountability, empower educators and parents, and give local leaders a voice in their local schools.

Opponents of the move challenged the law in court, and a judge ruled that the legislation was unconstitutional. After an appeals court upheld the judge's ruling, Villaraigosa decided to end the yearlong battle over control of the district.

However, Villaraigosa still may have significant influence over the school system. After May's school board elections, those identified as allies of Villaraigosa now make up a majority, and the mayor is expected to have influence as the board sets policies.

Putting children first

In the nation's largest city, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been in charge of the nation's largest school system since 2002, when the state legislature approved legislation putting the 1.1-million-student system under control of the New York City mayor. Bloomberg appointed Joel Klein as schools chancellor.

The reform initiatives that Bloomberg and Klein have pursued in New York City make up the Children First program. The elements include a leadership academy, which trains principals to become empowered and “make informed decisions and take smart risks.”

The city also has made many of its campuses “empowerment schools” in which principals, with input from the school community, are given greater authority over spending, educational programming and curriculum.

“Principals in more than 300 New York City public schools have the freedom and flexibility that comes with being empowered and have been using it to improve the educational opportunities for their students,” the school system says.

Another key element of the reforms put into place in New York City is the creation of new, small schools. As of September 2006, the city's New School Initiative had opened 184 secondary schools, six elementary schools and 36 charter schools. Each school emphasizes academic rigor, personalization and partnerships with an organization such as a university, youth-development agency or other non-profit group.

The school system also has begun an accountability procedure. Beginning in the 2007-08 school year, each city school will receive a progress report with a grade of A, B, C, D or F. High-graded schools can receive bonuses or other rewards; low-graded schools are subject to intervention, administrative changes or even closing.

“We hold our children accountable every day,” Klein says. “Starting now, we are holding our schools and ourselves more accountable as well, using sophisticated measures.”

Money talks

The school reformers who are best positioned to transform ideas into action are the people who have the power and resources to make changes occur.

Two people who definitely have the money to carry out their ideas about education reform are Bill Gates and Eli Broad. Gates, as the head of Microsoft, has earned enough to become one of the richest persons in the world. Broad has made his fortune through real estate and financial companies. He is founder-chairman of both Sun-America Inc. and KB Home.

The two billionaires have come together to form an organization, Strong American Schools, that will strive to make sure that improving the U.S. education system is an issue addressed in depth in the 2008 presidential election.

Separately, Broad and Gates have been devoting resources to education reform for several years. Each has established foundations that have focused attention on improving U.S. school systems. The Broad Education Foundation, founded by Broad and his wife, Edythe, has spent more than $500 million since 1999 in an effort to improve urban education. Among the foundation's initiatives to improve education:

  • The Broad Prize for Urban Education, a $1 million award distributed each year to urban school districts making the greatest progress in raising student achievement.

  • The Broad Superintendent's Academy, a 10-month management program that trains executives from inside and outside the education field to lead urban public school districts.

  • The Broad Residency in Urban Education, a two-year management training program for executives seeking to become leaders in education reform. It is geared for graduates from the top business, law and public policy schools who have at least four years of experience in the private and nonprofit sectors, and places participants immediately into managerial positions in urban school districts or charter management organizations.

  • The Broad Institute for School Boards, which trains new urban school board members to become effective policy and reform leaders.

Last month, the Broad Foundation provided a $6.5 million grant to the Alliance for College-Ready Public Schools to help the group open 13 middle and high school campuses by 2010 in Los Angeles.

Likewise, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, founded by Gates and his wife, has made education reform one of its priorities. The Gates Foundation says it has spent more than $1.5 billion creating “high-quality, high-performing schools.” One of the Gates Foundation's initiatives provides funds to create small high schools in urban districts. It also has established the Gates Millennium Scholar program, which each year gives college scholarships to 1,000 low-income students.

For the Strong American Schools effort, the Gates and Broad foundations have committed up to $60 million to push education issues to the center of the stage for the 2008 presidential campaign. The new organization has begun a non-partisan public-awareness campaign called “ED in '08.” The chairman of the campaign is Roy Romer, who served 12 years as governor of Colorado and later led the Los Angeles Unified School District for six years.

“Without an educated and skilled workforce, America's competitiveness and security are undermined,” says Romer. “A strong America depends on strong American schools.”

The campaign will urge presidential candidates and other political leaders to address three priorities:

  • Strong American education standards

    “All students need to acquire knowledge and skills that prepare them for college, for the workplace, and for life,” the campaign asserts.

  • Effective teachers in every classroom

    “We need to enable teachers to improve their skills, measure teachers' performance in the classroom, and pay them more if they produce superior results or take on challenging assignments,” the campaign says.

  • More time and support for learning

    “We need to provide successful and struggling students alike more time for in-depth learning and greater personal attention,” the campaign says.

“We need every American to demand better schools and specific policy solutions from presidential candidates,” says Broad.

Kennedy, staff writer, can be reached at mkennedy@asumag.com.

Not so big, not so easy

Paul Vallas has earned his stripes as a school reformer running the massive school districts in Chicago and Philadelphia. This summer, he begins his next education-reform challenge in a smaller system faced with overwhelming academic, financial and infrastructure problems.

Vallas has agreed to take the helm of the Recovery School District, the New Orleans public school system that is run by the state of Louisiana. The Recovery District controls most of the public schools that were part of the Orleans Parish system before Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in 2005. The Orleans Parish already was struggling and an outside management firm was running the district's finances before Hurricane Katrina unleashed a knockout blow.

After the hurricane left most schools in the area unable to open for months, the state took control of most of the New Orleans public schools. As of this Spring, the Recovery district oversaw 22 traditional schools and 17 charters; the Orleans Parish system was responsible for five traditional schools and 12 charters.

Officials anticipate 6,000 to 7,000 students will return to New Orleans schools this summer, and the Recovery district plans to open 12 to 15 traditional schools and eight charter schools to accommodate them. But even with the influx of returning students, public schools in New Orleans will have only about 33,000 students, compared with 66,000 in 2004, the year before Katrina struck.

Vallas became one of the first in a line of non-educators chosen to lead large urban school districts. When the Illinois legislature gave Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley direct control of the city's faltering school system in 1995, Daley appointed Vallas, the city's budget director, to take the reins of the nation's third largest district. During his six years with the school system, Vallas was given credit for improving its financial health, carrying out a huge school construction program and improving student performance.

Vallas carried the reform banner with him in 2002 to Philadelphia, where the School Reform Commission summoned him to turn around the public school system's dismal performance. Over five years, he introduced reforms and the district showed improvement in test scores, but recent problems with school violence and a sizable budget shortfall clouded the end of his tenure.

Vallas says he will meet with a wide range of community members in New Orleans so he can move quickly to make improvements in the school system.

“Clearly, many challenges are still ahead,” says Vallas, “including the need for additional facilities, recruitment, finances and most importantly, building a strong internal team.”

Reform goes national

In the last quarter-century, education reform efforts have gained more attention as the federal government and national leaders have recognized education as a key issue that demands their attention.

Some of the events that have helped spur education reform efforts:

  • In 1979, President Carter signed a law creating the U.S. Department of Education as a cabinet-level federal department.

  • In 1983, the National Commission on Excellence in Education, created by the Reagan administration, issued the report, “A Nation at Risk,” which contained alarming conclusions about the inadequacies of the American education system. The report is credited with giving education reform a prominent place on the national agenda.

  • In 1989, President George H.W. Bush convened the nation's governors for an education summit. Following the summit, national education goals were established that addressed school readiness; school completion; student achievement and citizenship; teacher education and professional development; mathematics and science; adult literacy and lifelong learning; safe, disciplined, and alcohol- and drug-free schools; and parental participation.

  • In 1992, the first public charter school opened in Minnesota. President Bill Clinton voiced support of charters as a way to offer students more choices. In the 2006-07 school year, about 4,000 charter schools were operating in 40 states and the District of Columbia.

  • The Clinton administration's focus on improving technology in schools accelerated the installation of computers and Internet connections in the nation's public schools. By 2001, virtually every public school had Internet access, and by 2005, 95 percent of public school instructional rooms were connected to the Internet.

  • The federal government's reports on the deteriorating state of public school facilities, most notably a 1995 report from the General Accounting Office (now the Government Accountability Office), brought increased attention to the need to invest in education infrastructure.

  • President George W. Bush's key education reform effort, the No Child Left Behind Act, was enacted in 2002 and gives the federal government more involvement in how local districts educate students. The law seeks to improve public education through four “pillars:” stronger accountability for results; more freedom for states and communities; proven educational methods; and more choice for parents.