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Fundamental Rethinking Of Federal Education Policy
Now is the time to begin a focused discussion of education reform at the national level, and that this discussion should be grounded in an appreciation and understanding of reform successes in states. In other words, Washington can learn a lot from what has happened in the states with education and should look to the states for ideas and solutions. It would be a profound transformation in the mix of policies and programs that have warned states that ideas — and rules — come from Washington.
This is the moment for a fundamental review of federal education policy and a national push for public education reform that begins at the state and local levels. A central organizational concept for this much-needed transformation is student achievement. Student achievement results should be highlighted and reported in a way that is easily understood by parents and taxpayers, making academic sense. Everyone in public education—at the federal, state, and local levels, elected officials, and professional educators—must focus on and hold this bottom line accountable.
Public education is undergoing an overdue transformation. Waves of accountability, innovation, and flexibility are sweeping the education landscape at every level—except one. Federal policy has simply not kept up with the pace of reforms at the state and local levels. It must now change to complement and support this new reality. We should no longer think that energy and ideas flow from outside Washington. It is time for the federal government to contribute to this flow. Americans are better informed than ever about school performance and its implications for our future, and they feel a sense of urgency to take decisive action to improve their children’s education.
This urgent need is changing the policy focus at all levels of government. Examples abound where the educational needs of children and the wishes of parents are placed over the system’s ingrained habits. Educators focus on improving student achievement rather than strict adherence to process and procedure. Superintendents and school boards adopt policies that unleash the creativity, energy, and unique abilities of communities, entrepreneurial school leaders, and dedicated teachers. Responding to the needs of students, parents, teachers, and communities, states have adopted high academic standards with rigorous assessments to measure student performance. Highlighting and reporting student achievement is made easy for parents and taxpayers to understand, creating an academic record. Those responsible for building that bottom line are responsible for results, not just intentions or effort.
Education choice has increased with initiatives such as strong and autonomous charter schools. Efforts are underway to improve the quality of teaching and reduce regulations that make it harder for the best and brightest to enter and stay in the profession.
Despite these changes, federal programs enacted generations ago are moving in the wrong direction: toward tighter micromanagement from Washington through thousands of pages of laws and regulations. Increasing procedural controls, input mandates, and rules seem to have become ends in themselves, with little consideration of whether they actually improve student learning. We understand that educational initiatives, policies, and practices are strongest when generated by those closest to the children they serve, and weakest when imposed on communities through federal mandates and regulations. The federal government has a legitimate role in supporting national priorities in education. This does not mean, however, that every issue that concerns someone in Washington must have a corresponding federal program or that every legitimate national priority is best achieved by rules established in Washington.
This approach makes sense to most citizens, but in practice it will require overcoming years of entrenched assumptions about the proper roles of federal, state, and local governments in providing quality education to America’s children.
Title I emerged as the landmark 1965 ESEA (Elementary and Secondary Education Act) and remains at the center of the federal role in public education. Its goal has always been laudable: to raise the academic performance of poor and disadvantaged children and reduce the performance gap between rich and poor students. Despite this clear and present commitment, Title I has not achieved the results it promised. The academic performance of disadvantaged students has not improved significantly, and the achievement gap between the rich and the poor has not narrowed significantly.
Perhaps the most prominent example of a critical area where Title I efforts have failed is reading. Despite the supposed emphasis on reading and language arts, reading readiness is sorely lacking in our schools. We learned a lot about how and when to focus on reading and reading readiness. This research indicates that the quality of early childhood literacy programs predicts later reading achievement and language development and offers greater potential for overall academic success.
This legacy of failure is largely the result of misplaced priorities and poor design. Chief among these shortcomings are a focus on process rather than outcomes, a tendency to fund school systems rather than children, and a design that leaves parents on the outside looking in when making decisions that affect their children’s education and future.
In many states, nearly 39 percent of state education department personnel are required to oversee and administer federal education dollars, even though they account for only 8 percent of total spending. The necessary focus on improving the academic performance of disadvantaged children has taken a back seat to spending money in prescriptive categories and following and following mandatory processes meticulously. Although the federal contribution to education is small, it has a dramatic impact on state and local policy. Today, this effect is increasingly shifting from positive to neutral to harmful.
Bureaucratic micro-management of inflexible and burdensome regulations will never improve a single 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 should also recognize the primacy of parents as children’s first and most important teachers.
In exchange for this freedom and flexibility, state and local officials must be held accountable for getting results for all children. Meaningful accountability requires clear and measurable standards and annual assessments 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 have two systems of education—one with high expectations for children of privilege and poverty, and one with low standards for children of color. Most importantly, this should not be the case.
It is a matter of belief among all educators that parental involvement is an important component of educational success, especially for disadvantaged students. However, as currently configured, the system does not allow parents to take action on behalf of their children when schools fail them. Federal policy has more than a little to do with this denial.
It is a matter of fairness that parents should have the ultimate authority to decide what type of education their children receive and that federal dollars — like state and local dollars — should follow the parents’ lead.
We are well aware that “school choice” is a contentious issue in America today, and that states have made varying decisions about how much to encourage and allow it. We are well aware that state constitutions and laws relating to school choice vary widely and that feelings on the issue are sometimes strong. In this sensitive area, we are convinced that the only policy that makes sense for Washington is strict neutrality. The federal government should neither impose educational choice on states that do not want it, nor impede the practice of choice in states that do. Today, however, federal programs stifle choice even when state policy allows it.
In this area, as in others, Washington must defer to the states. Federal dollars must be “portable,” meaning tied to eligible children, but states and communities must set limits. Federal dollars must “travel” with children as much as states allow their own education dollars to travel. This is the formula of “neutrality,” and we are convinced that it is the only acceptable policy for the federal government in this area. States must decide the range of options available to children, and federal dollars must follow.
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