+ What is the most important thing the next administration could do to change disparities in K-12 education?
In the weeks leading up to the election, In Theory will be asking policy experts to weigh in on the critical questions our presidential candidates should be addressing — but often aren’t. This week we’re discussing K-12 education reform.
This election cycle, fights over higher education have gone mainstream. But besides Donald Trump’s statements that he’ll end Common Core, K-12 education has largely been sidelined. This is in contrast to significant activity around K-12 reform in the two administrations prior.
For many conservatives, closing the achievement gap between poor and minority students and their wealthier counterparts was seen as a key ingredient to reducing poverty and racial disparities. President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind reforms — signed into law in 2002 — attempted to tie federal funding to academic progress to hold schools accountable for student outcomes. It required all schools to report academic achievement and test their students, and it prescribed consequences if schools failed to reach targets, including allowing states to turn them into charter schools.
By 2010, however, it was clear that most schools weren’t going to meet their achievement targets. The Obama administration, in response, announced that it would waive the law’s academic requirements so long as states adopted Common Core standards, a national set of learning goals for students. Last year saw the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act, which formally did away with the NCLB’s federal achievement requirements.
Yet despite years of reform and rhetoric, poor children in big cities still go to worse schools than their richer counterparts in suburbs or at private schools. And neither of the two major-party candidates has taken up the issue within their campaigns: Hillary Clinton’s campaign has so far been vague on K-12 policy, in part because education reform has been a flash point for the Democratic Party, and while Donald Trump has historically been pro-school choice and anti-Common Core, he has rarely discussed details of the reform proposals.
What should the federal government’s involvement in K-12 education look like under the next administration? What is the most important thing the next president could do to change educational disparities?
Michael J. Petrilli is president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution.
School failure is no longer the United States’ most pressing educational problem — mediocrity is. Both Trump and Clinton could do a lot of good by changing the tone of the education reform debate — and backing it up with a few discrete changes in policy. Specifically, they could shift the conversation from “failure” and focus it instead on “excellence.”
This is particularly the case for Trump, who found himself in hot water recently for saying to African Americans that “You live in your poverty, your schools are no good, you have no jobs, 58 percent of your youth is unemployed.” Understandably, much of the black community took offense to his inaccurate assertions on poverty and employment. But his claim that “your schools are no good” is problematic, too.
For sure, we’re used to hearing that, and some of us are used to saying it. Indeed, many schools serving African Americans (and Latinos and low-income students) haven’t been very good. Some are still failing. But the truth is that they have gotten better over the past two decades. A lot better. The typical African American fourth-grader is reading and doing math two grade levels ahead of where the previous generation was back in the 1990s. That’s enormous progress.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that “better” still isn’t enough. African Americans, Latinos and low-income students are still years behind white, Asian and affluent peers, on average. They are graduating high school in higher numbers than before, but they aren’t making much progress in college completion, mostly because too many aren’t ready for college in the first place. They need excellent schools, not just “not bad” ones.
So what might the next president do to promote excellence? First, he or she could encourage the states when they develop their new accountability systems under the Every Student Succeeds Act, to focus as much on recognition of their high-performing schools as they do on punishments of their worst. Ohio’s Momentum Awards (for schools showing super-fast student-level growth) and All-A Awards (for schools earning straight A’s on their report cards) are great examples. Note that Ohio gives those awards to any public school that qualifies — whether it is a traditional district school or a charter school. That’s the right approach to emulate.
The next president could also encourage states to pay more attention to students who are doing work at an excellent level. A new analysis that I co-wrote found that most state accountability systems maintain one of No Child Left Behind’s fatal flaws — a primary focus on getting students to the “proficient” level of achievement. This encourages schools to ignore their high-flyers, which is particularly problematic for low-income high-achieving students, who tend to lack access to “gifted and talented” programs and similar initiatives. The next president should make it clear that our advanced students deserve our attention too, and states should send clear signals that they matter by holding schools accountable for their progress.
The next president, whether it’s Trump or Clinton, is unlikely to do much on elementary and secondary education in his or her first term. That’s mostly because Congress just finished its work on K-12 education nine months ago, in the form of the Every Student Succeeds Act.
Still, a presidential focus on excellence would enliven the education discussion and serve as a sign of true leadership. Candidates: How ’bout it?