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Fundamental Rethinking Of Federal Education Policy
Now is the time to start a detailed discussion on the education reform at the national level and this discussion should be based on the value and understanding of the success of the reforms in the states. Washington, in other words, can learn a lot from what has happened in education in the states and should look to the states for ideas and solutions. It would be a profound shift in a set of policies and programs that have signaled to states that ideas — and rules — flow from Washington.
This is a time for a fundamental rethinking of federal education policy and for national support for public education reform that begins at the state and local levels. The central organizing concept for this much-needed transition is student success. Results in student achievement should be easily understood and reported by parents and taxpayers, and create an academic baseline. Everyone in public education—at the federal, state, and local levels, elected officials and professional educators—should toe that line and be held accountable for it.
Public education is undergoing a transformation of late. Waves of accountability, innovation, and flexibility are sweeping across every level of the educational landscape—except one. Federal policy just hasn’t kept up with the pace of reforms happening at the state and local levels. Now it must change to complement and support this new reality. Energy and ideas can no longer flow out of Washington. It is time for the federal government to join this trend. Americans are better informed than ever about school performance and its implications for our future, and feel a sense of urgency to take decisive action to improve their children’s education.
This urgency draws attention to politics at all levels of government. There are many examples of places that place the educational needs of children and the wishes of parents on the habits of embedded systems. Teachers focus on improving student achievement rather than strict implementation of processes and procedures. Superintendents and school boards adopt policies that unleash the creativity, energy, and unique abilities of communities, leading school leaders, and dedicated teachers. Responding to the needs of students, parents, educators and communities, states have adopted high academic standards with rigorous assessments to measure student performance. Student achievement is easily determined and reported by parents and taxpayers, creating an academic benchmark. The people responsible for producing that bottom line aren’t just responsible for intent or effort.
Educational options have been enhanced through initiatives such as strong and independent charter schools. Efforts are being made 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 are headed in the wrong direction: toward tighter micromanagement from Washington of thousands of pages of laws and regulations. The addition of procedural controls, input tasks and rules seem to have become goals in themselves, with little thought given to whether they actually improve student learning. We understand that educational initiatives, policies, and practices are strongest when created by those closest to the children being served, and weakest when imposed on communities through federal mandates and regulations. The federal government has a legitimate role in supporting national priorities in education. However, this does not mean that every problem that interests someone in Washington must have a corresponding federal program or that every legitimate national priority is best achieved through the means set forth in Washington.
This approach makes sense to most citizens, but in practice it will require overcoming years of implicit assumptions about the proper role of federal, state, and local governments in providing a quality education to America’s children.
Title I was created as part of the landmark ESEA (Elementary and Secondary Education Act) of 1965 and remains central to the federal role in public education. Its goal has always been laudable: to increase the academic performance of poor and disabled children and to 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 achievement of disadvantaged students has not been significantly improved, and the performance gap between the rich and the poor has not been significantly reduced.
Perhaps the most notable example of a critical area where Title I efforts have failed is literacy. Despite the claimed focus on reading and language arts, reading readiness in our schools is seriously lacking. Much has been taught about how and when to focus on reading and reading readiness. This research shows that the quality of early childhood literacy programs predicts later reading success and language development, and offers greater potential for overall academic success.
This legacy of failure largely results from misplaced priorities and faulty design. Chief among these shortcomings is a focus on process rather than outcomes, a tendency to fund school systems rather than children, and a design that leaves parents outside the door to decisions that affect their children’s education and future.
In many states, 39 percent of state education department employees are required to oversee and administer federal education dollars, even though they account for only 8 percent of total spending. A focus on improving the academic performance of disadvantaged children needs to be backed by demands that funds be spent in dictating categories and that mandatory processes are carefully monitored and accounted for. Although the federal contribution to education is small, it has a significant influence on state and local policies. Today, increasingly, that influence is moving from positive to neutral to harmful.
Micro-bureaucratic administration of redundant and burdensome regulations will never improve the education of a single child. Washington must recognize the appropriate role of state, local and school leaders to set priorities and decide how to achieve educational goals. At the same time, it should recognize the role of parents as the first and most important teachers of children.
In return for this freedom and flexibility, state and local authorities must deliver results for all children. Meaningful accountability requires clear and measurable standards, and annual assessment of student learning at the state level. On this basis, there should be real rewards for success and real consequences for failure. This point is important to ensure that all children, regardless of income or location, receive the quality education they deserve.
If our democracy is to survive and thrive, we cannot continue to have two education systems—one of high expectations for wealthy children and one of lower standards for poor children of color. The most important thing is that it doesn’t have to be this way.
It is a common belief among all educators that parental involvement is an important component of educational success, especially among disadvantaged students. However, as currently configured, the system does not allow parents the opportunity to take action on behalf of their children when schools fail them. Federal policy has more than a little to do with that denial.
It’s a matter of fairness 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 path set by parents.
We are well aware that “school choice” is a controversial issue in America today and that states have come to different conclusions about how much of it to encourage and allow. We are well aware that state constitutions and laws governing school choice vary widely and that emotions on this issue are sometimes strong. In this sensitive area, we believe that the only policy that makes sense for Washington is strict neutrality. The federal government should neither impose educational choices on states that do not want them nor reverse the practice of choice in states that do. Today, however, federal programs restrict the exercise of choice where state policy allows.
In this area as well as others, Washington should stand against the states. Federal dollars must be “transferable,” meaning tied to eligible children, but states and communities must set limits. Federal dollars must “travel” with children as long as states allow their education dollars to travel. This is the formula for “neutrality” and we believe it is the only acceptable policy for the federal government in this regard. States must decide what options are available to children, and federal dollars must follow suit.
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