Although the education community has identified numerous effective interventions for improving the literacy of U.S. schoolchildren, little headway has been made in raising literacy capabilities. David K. Cohen and Monica P. Bhatt, of the University of Michigan, contend that a major obstacle is the organizational structure of the U.S. education system. Three features in particular—the lack of educational infrastructure, a decentralized governance system, and the organization of teaching as an occupation—stymie efforts to improve literacy instruction.
The authors emphasize that the education system in the United States has always been a patchwork of local school systems that share no common curricula, student examinations, teacher education, or means of observing and improving instruction. Although localities have broad powers over education, few have built the capability to judge or support quality in educational programs. The quality criteria that have developed chiefly concern teachers, not teaching. The decentralization and weak governance of U.S. schooling also deprives teachers of opportunities to build the occupational knowledge and skill that can inform standards for the quality of work, in this case instruction. And, unlike practitioners in other professions teachers have little opportunity to try to strengthen teaching quality by setting standards for entry to the occupation.
Cohen and Bhatt review six types of organizational reforms undertaken over the past several decades to improve literacy and other academic outcomes for U.S. students. After briefly describing accountability, comprehensive school reforms, knowledge diffusion, improvement of human capital, and market-based reforms, the authors turn to the Common Core State Standards, an effort initiated by state governors and school leaders to raise student achievement. The authors conclude that the fundamental question about the Common Core, as with the other reforms they discuss, is whether educators and policy makers can mobilize the capability to help states and localities invent, adapt, and implement reliable ways to improve instruction.