Bar graph depicting higher levels of stress among public-school educators than U.S. workers on average

Get Smart Fast, vol. 2: New agenda, new coalitions, overcoming malaise

This is the second installment of a quick weekly read of ideas and data points that inform our work.

The New Reform Agenda

Rick Hess observes that the current education reform agenda, from revamping career and technical education to giving students education savings accounts, challenges features of American public education that have endured, unchallenged, for centuries.

In short, today’s reform agenda features proposals that would fundamentally change that old Horace Mann schoolhouse. It eschews the traditional building blocks of grades, Carnegie units, and time spent in favor of greater personalization, customization, and inventiveness. That makes for a very different and potentially much more contentious agenda.

Why it matters: Greater customization challenges the “grammar of schooling” that has long persisted in public education. These conventions shape public and private schools alike, not to mention state laws governing everything from teacher qualifications to the amount of time students spend in class.

The new agenda has the potential to be less contentious than recent fights over school accountability or teacher evaluations if the current generation of reforms transcends the usual partisan divides and enlists the support of educators.

Complicating the Narrative

Kevin Drum reckons with the fact that post-pandemic learning loss appears to be growing worse, not better, despite the fact that schools have been reopened for multiple years.

In hindsight, a lot of people overestimate how many schools were closed during the pandemic. In reality, about half were fully open for the 2020-21 school year and upwards of 90% for the 2021-22 school year. And yet, the evidence so far suggests that kids fell behind considerably anyway and haven’t made up any ground this year.

Why it matters: School closures during the pandemic are an important part of the story behind the current malaise in public education. They likely aren’t the sole cause.

Numbers to Know

Bar graph depicting higher levels of stress among public-school educators than U.S. workers on average
Source: RAND Corporation, “Selected Findings from the Spring 2023 American School District Panel Survey.”

33: Percentage of U.S. working adults who say work is often or always stressful.

58: Percentage of public-school teachers who say this.

85: Percentage of public-school principals who say this.

6: Number of 50 states that require school districts to maintain multi-year forecasts for how economic trends, changing student enrollment, and tax revenue will affect their budgets.

24: Percentage-point jump in grade-level math proficiency among New Jersey students who took part in a tutoring pilot program.

The Last Word

Thinking skills, know-how, creativity, problem-solving—all of these things require the acquisition of a tremendous amount of knowledge. It’s a myth that you can simply impart problem-solving skills in someone and then have them look up all the actual facts they need to know on Wikipedia.

Montessorium’s Matt Bateman on why knowledge matters more than ever in the era of AI and Google.

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BY Travis Pillow

Travis Pillow is Director of Thought Leadership at Step Up For Students and editor of NextSteps. He lives in Sanford, Fla. with his wife and two children. A former Tallahassee statehouse reporter, he most recently worked at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research organization at Arizona State University, where he studied community-led learning innovation and school systems' responses to the Covid-19 pandemic. He can be reached at tpillow (at)