Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has gone on record as saying that his goal is to turn around the 5,000 lowest achieving shools in the country. Under the "rising tide lifts all boats" thinking, focusing on those bottom tier schools would bring about the greatest and most effective change for the entire system. I'm a huge supporter of this plan. I think that when you're trying to fix something (like an education system) it makes sense to focus on where it's broken.
A recent article in Education Week highlights educators who are asking if such an enormous goal can actually be achieved. To my way of thinking, that means that it's a good goal. If everyone said, "Yeah, we can do that," it probably means that the bar is set to low and you have an order rather than a goal. If everyone freaks out and says that it's impossible, you have to start considering whether you're too pie in the sky. But if people are questioning whether the goal is to big, it means that they think it might be able to be done, but aren't sure if it will actually work. To my way of thinking, that's exactly the range that goals should fall into.
The bigger question even than whether we can do it is how we're going to do it. Duncan's plan calls for turning around the schools through changes in leadership, staffing, and structure (i.e. traditional public vs. charter). That's one way of thinking about it, but I'm not sure if it's really going to get the most bang for the buck.
The fact remains that zip code is the most defining predictor of educational quality in America. Live in a good zip code and you're well-educated. Live in a poor zip code and the education you get reflects that. Obviously there are bad schools in good neighborhoods and excellent schools in bad neighborhoods. But if you were to boil it all down, zip code is what you're left with.
Given that the realities affecting education are bigger than what happens in schools, efforts to afffect a real turn around also need to be bigger than schools. Certainly schools should be part of that picture, but the reform can't stop at the school house gate. When we get serious about improving all the aspects that affect children's lives, we'll start seeing serious improvements in our education system. It's a big goal and I don't know whether we can achieve it, but I do know that we sure have to try.