Now is the time to begin a focused discussion on education reform nationwide, and that this discussion should be rooted in an appreciation and understanding of reform successes across states. Washington, in other words, can learn a lot from what has happened to education between states and should look to states for ideas and solutions. It would be a profound transformation in a series of policies and programs that have signaled to states that the ideas – and the rules – come from Washington.
Now is the time for a fundamental rethinking of federal education policy and national support for the public education reform that is beginning to gain traction at the state and local levels. The central organizing concept for this much-needed transformation is student achievement. Achievements in student achievement must be emphasized and reported in a way that is easily understood by parents and payers, creating an academic achievement. Everyone in public education – federal, state and local, elected officials and professional educators – must focus on that bottom line and be held accountable for it.
Public education is undergoing a lagging transformation. Waves of accountability, innovation and flexibility are sweeping through the education landscape at every level but one. Federal policy has simply not kept pace with the pace of reforms underway at the state and local levels. It must now change to complement and support this new reality. One should no longer think of energy and ideas flowing out of Washington. It is time for the federal government to contribute to this flow. Americans are more informed than ever about academic achievement and its implications for our future, and feel the urgency to take decisive action to improve their children’s education.
This urgency is shifting political attention to all levels of government. Examples abound of localities that place children’s educational needs and parents’ wishes over ingrained systems habits. Educators are focusing on improving student achievement rather than strict adherence to process and procedure. School superintendents and boards are adopting policies that unleash the creativity, energy and unique skills of communities, enterprising school leaders and committed teachers. In response to the needs of students, parents, educators, and communities, states have adopted high academic standards with rigorous assessments to measure student performance. Student achievements are emphasized and reported in a way that parents and payers can easily understand, creating an academic achievement. Those responsible for delivering on that bottom line are accountable for results, not simply intentions or efforts.
Educational choices have been increased through initiatives such as strong and self-contained charter schools. Efforts are underway to improve the quality of teaching and reduce the regulations that make it difficult for the best and brightest to enter and stay in the profession.
Despite these changes, federal programs enacted generations ago have pushed in the wrong direction: toward increasingly stringent micromanagement from Washington across thousands of pages of laws and regulations. The rise of procedural controls, input mandates, and rules appears to have become an end in itself, with little regard for whether they are actually enhancing student learning. We understand that educational initiatives, policies and practices are strongest when generated by those closest to the children being served and weakest when enforced on communities through federal mandates and regulations. The federal government has a legitimate role in supporting national education priorities. It does not follow, however, that every matter affecting someone in Washington must have a corresponding federal agenda or that every legitimate national priority is best achieved through rules established in Washington.
This approach makes sense to most citizens, but in practice it will require overcoming years of ingrained assumptions about the appropriate roles of federal, state, and local governments in providing American children with a quality education.
Title I originated as part of the historic ESEA (Elementary and Secondary Education Act) of 1965 and remains the core of the federal role in public education. Its aim has always been commendable: to increase the academic performance of poor and disadvantaged children and to narrow the achievement gap between rich and poor students. Despite this clear and present commitment, Title I has failed to deliver the promised results. The academic performance of disadvantaged students has not improved significantly, and the achievement gap between rich and poor has not narrowed significantly.
Perhaps the most striking example of a critical area where Title I efforts have failed to produce results is reading. Despite an alleged emphasis on reading and the language arts, reading literacy in our schools is sorely lacking. Much has been learned about how and when to focus on reading and reading readiness. This research indicates that quality early childhood literacy programs predict subsequent success in reading and language development and offer greater potential for overall academic success.
This legacy of failure stems largely from misplaced priorities and flawed design. Chief among these flaws are a focus on process rather than outcomes, a bias towards funding school systems rather than children, and a design that leaves parents on the sidelines watching as decisions are made that affect education and the future of their children.
In many states, nearly 39 percent of state education department staff are required to supervise and administer federal education funds, even though they account for only about 8 percent of total spending. A much-needed focus on improving the academic performance of underprivileged children has taken a back seat to demands that money be spent in dictated categories and that mandated processes be meticulously followed and accounted for. While the federal education grant is small, it has a dramatic effect on state and local policies. Today, increasingly, that effect is slipping from positive to neutral to detrimental.
Bureaucratic micromanagement of rigid and burdensome regulations will never improve an individual child’s education. Washington must recognize the proper role of state, local and school leaders in setting priorities and making decisions about how to achieve educational goals. It must also recognize the primacy of parents as the first and most important teachers of their children.
In exchange for this freedom and flexibility, state and local officials should be held accountable for delivering results for all children. Meaningful accountability requires clear, measurable standards and an annual assessment of student learning at the state level. On this basis, there should be rewards for success and real consequences for failure. This point is critical to ensuring that all children, regardless of income or location, receive the quality education they deserve.
If our democracy is to endure and thrive, we cannot continue to tolerate two education systems: one of high expectations for the children of the fortunate and one of lower standards for poor and colored children. Most importantly, it doesn’t have to be like this.
It is a matter of faith among all educators that parental involvement is a vital component of academic success, particularly among disadvantaged students. However, as currently configured, the system denies parents the opportunity to act on behalf of their children when schools fail them. Federal policy has a lot to do with this denial.
It is a matter of justice that parents have the ultimate authority to decide what kind of education their children receive, and that federal dollars — like state and local dollars — should follow the lead set forth by parents.
We are well aware that “school choice” is a contentious issue in America today and that states have made different decisions about how much of it to encourage and allow. We understand that state constitutions and laws affecting school selection vary widely, and feelings on this issue are sometimes strong. In this delicate area, we are convinced that the only sensible policy for Washington is rigorous neutrality. The federal government should neither impose educational choices on states that do not want them nor delay the practice of choice in states that do. Today, however, federal programs prevent choice even where state policy permits.
In this area as in others, Washington should defer to the states. Federal dollars should be “portable,” that is, attached to eligible children, but states and communities should set limits. Federal dollars should “travel” with children to the extent that states allow their education dollars to travel. This is the formula of “neutrality” and we are convinced that it is the only acceptable policy that the federal government adopts in this area. States must decide the range of options available to children and should follow federal dollars.