STATELINE: Critical Mass

By Christie, Kathy | Phi Delta Kappan, March 2005 | Go to article overview

STATELINE: Critical Mass


Christie, Kathy, Phi Delta Kappan


IN PHYSICS, "critical mass" refers to the minimum amount of fissionable material required to sustain a chain reaction. The adoption of state education policy isn't often equated with this concept, but occasionally solutions and ideas seem to gather around a common problem. If the solution at hand is simple, easily understood, and strengthened with personal anecdotes, and if someone or some organization tags it with a common name, a solid core of support can quickly emerge in a number of locales.

While some critics might presume that states copy one another's legislation, this is rarely the case. However, during the Vietnam War era, states moved almost in unison to provide scholarships to widows and orphans of POWs and MIAs. The adoption of minimum competency testing two decades ago and the more recent embrace of charter schools are two more examples of how simple concepts reach critical mass.

Not Your Common Bandwagon

Ideas that hinge on a narrow point of view are often picked up and translated into policy. But the initial flurry of state policy is just that -- a flurry that has limited appeal and does not tend to generate high levels of subsequent policy activity. However, when a reform idea hinges on strong evidence and a broader consensus and is replicated widely or successfully, it can generate so much more knowledge and interest that it feeds off of its own growth. Nationally, of course, a large-scale mandate such as a federal law can accelerate the proliferation of policies, but a credible, well-publicized research report can often do the same. Activities generated from such a broad policy base have a much greater chance of reaching critical mass. A bandwagon effect can result when a particular policy forces a solution onto the education scene that initially lacked broad support. In contrast, issues generated from a groundswell of agreement can reach critical mass very quickly.

Charter School Laws: A Good Example of Critical Mass

The first charter school law was enacted in Minnesota in 1991. By early 1996, 20 states had charter school laws on the books. As of November 2004, 40 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico had enacted charter school laws. Charter school laws vary from state to state, often differing on several important factors, including who is allowed to sponsor charter schools, how much money charter schools receive for operational and facilities expenses, and whether the teachers in a charter school have to be certified. As of January 2004, there were about 3,000 charter schools across the country. The number of schools is certainly not at a critical mass. However, the number of state laws has reached a point where just 10 states do not have a charter school law in place.

Restructuring Policies in Abundance

Todd Ziebarth, a policy analyst with Augenblick, Palaich, and Associates, recently compiled state policies on restructuring for the Education Commission of the States (ECS). We can glean some idea of how widespread particular policies are from Ziebarth's research:

* 12 states have enacted policies addressing the closing and opening of low-performing schools as charter schools;

* 27 states have enacted policies related to the reconstitution of the staff of a low-performing school;

* 14 states have addressed contracting with an outside entity to operate a low-performing school;

* 23 states have enacted policies regarding turning over the operation of a low-performing school to the state education agency;

* 12 states have enacted policies addressing other major restructuring of a low-performing school's governance;

* 7 states have policies that were enacted because of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act and are directly related to NCLB's AYP (adequate yearly progress) time line; and

* 24 states have accountability policies that were in place prior to the enactment of NCLB and appear to be unrelated to its AYP time line. …

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