Successful school systems in democracies worldwide point to three essential levers to improve students’ life outcomes.


America’s schools do not, as a rule, prepare the next generation to build decent lives and find opportunity. Policymakers have known this since at least 1966, when sociologist James Coleman produced the federal government’s Equality of Educational Opportunity report. Coleman famously found that students’ socioeconomic backgrounds predicted their educational outcomes, and that most schools failed to overcome this “family effect.” His report was a blow to the collective hope that education would inevitably create opportunity and social mobility.

Since then, the federal government, state and local governments, and major philanthropies have rolled up their sleeves to help. Sometimes their efforts bear fruit. For instance, innovative districts (e.g., Indianapolis, Chicago, Miami-Dade, San Antonio) are amping up academic programs and diversifying schools to good effect; some charter school networks virtually erase the typical learning gaps between white students and students of color; some states’ tax credit programs significantly improve college completion rates.

But despite important successes, far too many schools routinely under-challenge students —especially low-income students. The aptly named Opportunity Myth report (2018) showed, with devastating detail, that most American students spend most of their school time on below-grade-level assignments accompanied by low expectations from teachers:

Most students—and especially students of color, those from low-income families, those with mild to moderate disabilities, and English language learners—spent the vast majority of their school days missing out on four crucial resources: grade-appropriate assignments, strong instruction, deep engagement, and teachers with high expectations. Students spent more than 500 hours per school year on assignments that weren’t appropriate for their grade and with instruction that didn’t ask enough of them—the equivalent of six months of wasted class time in each core subject.

To make matters worse, traditional market signals have broken down. High school diplomas, for instance, no longer indicate even basic competence in reading and math, much less career and college readiness. Thus, despite rising graduation rates, what counts as a “diploma” varies substantially across the country and even within some states.

What about using test scores? The majority of 12th graders earn ACT and SAT scores that fail to meet the predictive bar for college-level success. Even GPAs, once stable predictors of educational attainment, have succumbed to apparent inflation, at least at the national level.

The combination of easy coursework and the breakdown of clear signals of preparedness not only sells our students short but carries devastating financial and professional consequences. The most useful measure of K–12 achievement might well be the ability to take credit-bearing courses in community college. A high school diploma should, at the very least, indicate preparedness for entry-level courses in post-secondary programs.

Sadly, it does not. Across all post-secondary institutions, almost half (43%) of high school graduates took remedial courses in 2015-16. In community colleges, though, a full 63% did. In some places, the statistics are even more dire. The percentage of freshman at Baltimore City Community College who can take credit-bearing courses? 13%. Spending Pell grants on remedial courses is a fast track to dropping out without a marketable credential. As a poignant W.T. Grant Foundation report noted in 2015:

Many community college students attain no credentials. Researchers often call this “some college.” Although many community college students have discovered and attained sub-baccalaureate credentials, almost half have no credential eight years after high school.

There are no easy solutions. But a review of research and practices in the United States and abroad suggests that three policy levers, pulled individually or (better still) simultaneously, can accelerate students’ path to opportunity once they leave high school. The three levers reflect the practices of high-performing school systems in democracies around the world—and, where practiced, in our own.

Lever #1: Support Distinctive School Communities

Most democracies fund a wide variety of school types. This is justified in part because schools are inherently meaning-making institutions: the selection of curricula, the disciplinary code, the relationships between teachers and parents, even the topics that are considered off-limits, reflect underlying values, whether explicit or tacit. To avoid establishing orthodoxy, many governments choose to fund a variety of institutions and hold them all accountable.

But there is a pragmatic reason for doing so, too: a positive, normative school culture has an independent impact on student outcomes. Being part of “distinctive educational communities in which pupils and teachers share a common ethosvastly increases the odds of students acquiring academic and civic knowledge, skills, and sensibilities. As education scholar Charles Glenn put it, “Schools with a distinctive identity . . . offer educational advantages deriving from their clarity of focus.”

The good news is that any kind of school can be or become a “thick” community of meaning. This may be most obvious in the case of religious schools, as Anthony Bryk found when investigating Catholic high schools, but it readily pertains to charter schools and district schools, too. For instance, Scott Seider observed the positive impact of shared vocabulary and norms in three very distinctive charter schools in Boston. The 100 distinctive high schools that Mayor Michael Bloomberg scaled up in New York City generated “large, positive impacts on students’ secondary school and college outcomes.” As a final example, one of the key factors in Miami-Dade’s improving test scores is its abundance of distinctive schools—from Hebrew charter schools to small district-based academies and tax-credit-supported Catholic schools.

In fact, most democracies take school culture so seriously that they fund and actively encourage distinctive schools, and hold them to the same academic standards in a regime known as “educational pluralism.” As but two examples, the Netherlands built the freedom to attend distinctive schools into its national constitution and therefore funds 36 different school types; the UK’s Department of Education requires schools to publicly post their mission statements as a condition of funding. School culture is also part of both countries’ accountability regime.

The mechanisms through which school culture supports students’ civic and academic outcomes are not entirely understood. It may have to do with social capital generated by alignment between parents and teachers, the way in which normative values help students make sense of success and failure alike, or the stable coherence between words and practices. Yet the benefits persist, regardless of the precise mechanism.

State and local policymakers can pursue a range of measures that enable multiple avenues to diverse schools. At the state level, these could include robust charter school laws and private school scholarship funds via vouchers or education tax credits. Local laws should enable within-district options for families rather than relying exclusively on residential assignments. State and local leaders should also ensure nimble, well-funded transportation systems so that school options make sense for low-income families.

Lever #2: Require Content-Rich Exit Exams and Curricula

Just as important as facilitating distinctive schools is ensuring that all of them provide consistently rigorous instruction.

High-performing school systems around the world (e.g., the UK, the Netherlands, Finland, Germany, Switzerland, Denmark, and others) require students to master serious academic content. They also assess mastery of this content through rigorous exams, the results of which provide clear signals about students’ strengths and weaknesses. Routine exposure to rigorous, knowledge-rich curriculum and assessments not only provides signals of preparedness; it also helps to narrow achievement gaps.

Why doesn’t the United States follow suit? There are many causes, chief among them the fact that 100 years ago, our school systems jettisoned the liberal arts K–12 curriculum in favor of disaggregated “skills.” The process approach (“learning how to learn” instead of “learning something in particular”) may work reasonably well for students from well-resourced homes, but a skills-only curriculum has been devastating for low-income students who enter school with constrained background knowledge about the world. Furthermore, the skills-only assessment regime inadvertently encourages teachers to favor test preparation over engaging, if more difficult, classroom discussions.

There are signs of hope, however. Thanks to the infusion of recent research confirming the cost-neutral academic benefits of high-quality curriculum, local and state educational leaders have begun to prioritize the use of high-quality curricula. Some are reinforcing the shift through curriculum-aligned state tests. For example, Louisiana is using ESSA’s federal pilot authority exemption (the Innovative Assessment Demonstration Authority) to administer tests that align directly to two of the state’s commonly used English Language Arts curricula (Guidebooks and Wit & Wisdom). This initiative, currently focused on middle school students, tests the usual ELA skills, but also asks students to think deeply about specific sources they’ve read in class, integrate new but related content thoughtfully, and synthesize ideas in an end-of-grade essay.1The Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy is one of several partners to the Louisiana Department of Education in the test design.

Districts need not wait for a state initiative, though. In 1997, Chicago Public Schools put the academically rigorous International Baccalaureate Diploma Program in 13 of its extremely low-performing high schools. Students who went through all four years were 40% more likely to attend college than their peers. Why? The rigorous four-year program enabled students to develop a “strong academic identity.” Interviews with the program’s graduates indicate that they acquired the academic background and skills to perform with confidence in college, even though only 20% of the students actually earned the international diploma (the national rate is 70%). So impressive were these results, that then-Mayor Rahm Emmanuel made scaling up International Baccalaureate programs a priority of his tenure.

Content-aligned assessments not only elevate classroom instruction; they also provide meaningful signals about a student’s preparedness to enter college or a career after graduation. The combination of rigorous instruction and externally validated “exit exams” would go a long way to creating opportunity for our most disadvantaged students—and give all students a shot at fulfilling their dreams.

Federal and state policymakers can take steps to encourage curricular experimentation and adapt best practices. The U.S. Department of Education should expand the scope of the Innovative Assessment Demonstration Authority to more than the currently allowed seven states, and allocate funding to enable participation. Meanwhile, state policymakers should adapt the successful models of other states, such as Louisiana’s approach to promoting high-quality curricular choices aligned with professional development or the “Massachusetts miracle” of the 1990s that aligned content-rich curricula, commensurate assessments, and teacher credentialing to form the highest-performing public education system in the country.

Policymakers should also be attuned to quality and preparation of their teachers to adopt content-rich curricula. Without a suitable teaching corps, even the best-designed curricular reforms will fail in practice. Systems must routinely allocate dollars to curriculum-aligned professional development, to ensure fidelity of implementation. State leaders should also consider aligning teacher preparation programs to high-quality materials use.

Lever #3: Bring Career and Technical Education into the Same Equation

High-quality curriculum and assessments must also pertain to students bound for careers rather than to college. In the nations that do it best, rigorous testing and curricula are not singularly oriented toward college preparation and do not come at the expense of work-focused education. In fact, many of these nations offer high-quality vocational pathways in upper secondary school. They manage to offer both challenging coursework and differentiated career pathways for everyone.

But the American education system fails miserably in this regard. As my colleague Al Passarella noted in a policy brief on career and technical education (CTE), the number of students who enroll in CTE programs is quite small:

At roughly 6%, U.S. student enrollment in CTE programming is paltry by international standards: 42% of students the United Kingdom are enrolled in CTE (internationally known as vocational training), 59% in Germany, 64% in Switzerland, and 25% in Japan. While the vast majority of high schools (94%) in the United States offer CTE courses, only 4% of them are within specialized career/technical high schools, defined as schools in which all students participate in some form of CTE programming.

Besides low participation, CTE programs also suffer from uneven quality and uncertain prestige; they disproportionately enroll students from low-income households. These unfortunate realities merely compound the damage done by weak curriculum and instruction across the entire K–12 journey.

Policymakers can turn this around by applying the same strategy of rigorous instruction and aligned assessments—namely through apprenticeships and industry-ready credentialing.

Effective CTE programs can occur at the local or state level, but often require both federal funding and significant philanthropic support. Delaware Pathways, for instance, is a public-private initiative that brings industry-relevant CTE programs to almost every high school in the state. The programs include relevant work experience and result in industry-ready credentials. Early findings suggest positive outcomes for graduates of the program. Georgia’s Construction Ready offers another promising model that aligns high school courses to proficiency in the construction trades; connects students to worksite experiences; and introduces young people to industry leaders. Its leadership is designing integrated vertical pathways that span the K–12 continuum—in place in five districts already—and should be analyzed for long-term effect.

Local districts, charters, and private schools, too, can adapt rigorous programs such as International Baccalaureate Career Pathways (IBCP). Like its Diploma Program noted above, the IBCP programs require rigorous academic inquiry in the major subjects alongside career coursework that prepares students for local or regional industries. The IBCP has not yet been evaluated for impact but is likely to show benefits to participants because of its built-in quality control, academic rigor, and external assessments.

Districts can also partner with local business communities and universities to design innovative, high-impact schools. Indianapolis’s Purdue Polytechnic High School, for instance, “exists to create a pipeline to post-secondary success for underrepresented minority students, for whom rising graduation rates do not equal workforce participation.” Indiana businesses provide STEM “challenges” that students solve through four- to six-week engagements. The coursework operates on a mastery basis, so that students can demonstrate competence in an academic subject at their own pace. Early findings suggest it works: 55% of sophomores met the College Board’s benchmark criteria for college readiness. The state’s average is 40%.

Another interesting partnership is underway in Illinois: private high schools, run by trade unions, that may eventually be supported through the state’s education tax credit program. The initiative, called the Untapped Potential Project, aims to “offer rigorous academic coursework blended with project-based technical training in a range of industries […] to ensure every student graduates prepared for postsecondary success and at least one employable technical skill.” Its first school will open during academic year 2022–23.

Such models, and others like them, indicate that systems in the United States can provide innovative, high quality, career pathways for young people. While there are many factors in effective CTE programs, they must at least be academically robust and lead to either workforce-ready credentials or credit-bearing college coursework.

Creating and sustaining strong CTE pathways is a long-term proposition. It requires years as well as overlapping networks of support (e.g., K–12 systems, universities, philanthropies, and the business community). But state policymakers can immediately pursue reforms that enable the creation and ensure the quality of CTE programs. For instance, they can leverage existing education tax credit policies to support innovative models. They can ensure that all CTE programs are academically challenging and externally assessed by industry-ready credentials or exit exams, as in the inclusion of CTE programs in New York’s Regents Exams.

* * *

Since the Revolutionary War, the United States has tasked its education systems with equalizing opportunity and forming democratic citizens. Indeed, both aims run through our laws, our public documents, and our court decisions. It is true that our country has yet to achieve fully Jefferson’s hope that “those persons, whom nature hath endowed with genius and virtue” to be “rendered by liberal education worthy to receive, and able to guard the sacred deposit of the rights and liberties of their fellow citizens, and that they should be called to that charge without regard to wealth, birth or other accidental condition or circumstance” [italics added]. However, policymakers can accelerate social mobility and civic formation by focusing relentlessly on three basic but transformational moves. Content-rich curriculum and aligned assessments, industry-ready career pathways, and distinctive school cultures remain hallmarks of successful school systems around the world. They work in our country, too.

[Correction: Three block quotations were not offset when this essay was originally published. This has been corrected.]

Ashley Rogers Berner
Ashley Rogers Berner is director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy and an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins School Education.
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