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Fundamental Rethinking Of Federal Education Policy
Now is the time to start a focused discussion on education reforms at the national level and this discussion should be based on appreciation and understanding of the success of reforms in the states. Washington, in other words, could learn a lot from what happened to education in the states and look to the states for ideas and solutions. It would be a profound transformation in the set of policies and programs that have signaled to states that ideas — and regulations — flow from Washington.
Now is the moment to fundamentally rethink federal education policy and support nationally the public education reforms initiated at the state and local levels. A central organizing concept for this much-needed transformation is student achievement. Results in student achievement should be emphasized and reported in a way that is easily understood by parents and taxpayers, thereby creating an educational bottom line. Everyone in public education – at the federal, state and local levels, elected officials and professional educators – must focus on and be held accountable for that bottom line.
Public education is undergoing an overdue transformation. Accountability, innovation and flexibility pervade academia at all levels – except one. Federal policy has simply not kept pace with the pace of reform taking place at the state and local levels. It must now change to complement and support this new reality. No longer should energy and ideas flow outward from Washington. It is time for the federal government to contribute to this trend. Americans are better informed than ever about school performance and our future outcomes, and feel the urgency to take decisive action to improve their children’s education.
This urgency is driving policy focus at every level of government. Examples abound where the educational needs of children and the wishes of parents supersede the built-in habits of the system. Teachers are focusing on improving student achievement rather than strictly following processes and procedures. Superintendents and school boards are adopting policies that unleash the creativity, energy, and unique abilities of the community, proactive school leaders, and committed teachers. Responding to the needs of students, parents, teachers, and communities, states have adopted higher academic standards with rigorous assessments to measure student achievement. Student performance is being emphasized and reported in a way that is easily understood by parents and taxpayers, creating an academic bottom line. Those responsible for creating cravings are responsible for results, not just intentions or efforts.
Educational choices have increased through initiatives such as stronger and autonomous charter schools. Efforts are underway to improve the quality of teaching and reduce 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 continue to push in the wrong direction: toward ever-tighter micro-management by Washington through thousands of pages of laws and regulations. Increasing procedural controls, input commands, and rules seem to be ends in themselves, with little thought given to whether they are actually improving student learning. We understand that education initiatives, policies, and practices are strongest when created by the people closest to the children being served, and weakest when imposed on communities through federal mandates and regulations. The federal government has a legitimate role to support national priorities in education. However, it does not follow that every issue that concerns an individual in Washington must have a federal program, or that every legitimate national priority must be achieved through rules set in Washington.
This approach makes sense to most citizens, but in practice it requires overcoming years of ingrained assumptions about the proper roles of federal, state, and local governments in providing quality education to America’s children.
Title I came into existence as part of the landmark ESEA (Elementary and Secondary Education Act) of 1965 and remains central to the federal role in public education. Its purpose has always been laudable: to boost the academic performance of poor and disadvantaged children and to reduce 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 achievement of disadvantaged students has not been significantly improved and the achievement gap between rich and poor has not been significantly reduced.
Perhaps the most striking example of a critical area where Title I efforts have failed to produce results is reading. Despite the supposed emphasis on reading and language arts, reading readiness is severely lacking in our schools. Much has been learned about how and when to focus on reading and reading preparation. This research suggests that the quality of early childhood literacy programs predicts later reading achievement and language development and has greater potential for overall academic success.
This legacy of failure is largely due to misplaced priorities and flawed design. Chief among these shortcomings are a focus on process rather than outcome, funding school systems rather than children, and a structure that externalizes parents as making decisions that affect their children’s education and future.
In most states, about 39 percent of state education department employees are needed to oversee and administer federal education dollars, even though they account for only 8 percent of total spending. The essential focus on improving the educational performance of disadvantaged children has taken a backseat to demands that money be spent within prescribed categories and that mandatory procedures be strictly followed and accounted for. Although federal contributions to education are small, they have a dramatic impact on state and local policies. Today, more and more, that influence is moving from positive to neutral to harmful.
Bureaucratic micro-management of inflexible and burdensome rules will never improve a single child’s education. Washington must recognize the appropriate role of state, local, and school leaders in setting priorities and making decisions about how to achieve educational goals. Also the priority of parents as the first and foremost teachers of children should be recognized.
In return for this freedom and flexibility, state and local authorities must be held accountable for delivering 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 issue is critical to ensuring that all children, regardless of income or location, receive the quality education they deserve.
If our democracy is to survive and prosper, we cannot tolerate two systems of education—one with high expectations for privileged children and one with low standards for children of poverty and color. Most importantly, it shouldn’t be.
All educators believe that parental involvement is an important factor in educational success, especially among disadvantaged students. Yet, as currently configured, the system denies parents the opportunity to take action on behalf of their children when schools fail them. Federal policy has little to do with that denial.
It is a matter of justice that parents should 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 by parents.
“School choice” is a controversial issue in America today, and we’re well aware that states have come to different conclusions about how much to encourage and how much to allow. Constitutions and laws relating to school choice vary widely, and we recognize that emotions are sometimes strong on this issue. In this sensitive area, we are convinced that the only policy for Washington is strict neutrality. The federal government should not impose education choices on states it does not want, or stop the practice of choice in states where it does not want them. Today, however, federal programs impede the exercise of choice even when state policy allows it.
As with others in this area, Washington must pay attention 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 long as states allow their own education dollars to travel. This is the formula of “neutrality,” and we are convinced that the only acceptable policy for the federal government to support in this area is. States must determine the range of options available to children and comply with federal dollars.
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