America’s K-12 students just returned to the classroom to start a new school year, traditionally a time of promise and hopeful expectation.
But we cannot let the promise of a new school year hide the real challenges that we face as a nation in education, or mask the profound differences among children, and their opportunities, that also show up on the first day of school. More than a quarter of our students start the school year grade levels behind their peers because of a lack of opportunity in their early years—and the systemic obstacles to equity that perpetuate racial and economic gaps.
Unfortunately, there is no credible effort to develop a national policy agenda to address these realities. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and the Trump Administration have shown a shocking lack of leadership and imagination. For months they’ve focused almost exclusively on their voucher plan, an ill-conceived drop in the bucket. That controversial effort stalled once the recent Senate Appropriations Committee voted, wisely, to reject their proposal to shift the Department of Education budget to fund private school vouchers.
While that failure is good news for those who care about public policy that strengthens public schools’ delivery of good outcomes for kids, and it has further exposed the vacuousness of this Administration’s ideas for PreK-12, railing against this Administration won’t magically spur them to new ideas. And kids can’t “just wait four years” for a change – these are the only years they’ve got. So let’s present an agenda for education now that features the ideas that address these challenges. I’ll start with three things we should do today:
First: ensure a high quality, effective, early childhood education for every child from a low-income family. Expanding Pre-K is the closest thing to a consensus issue as there is in education, and yet we still don’t have the political leadership and will to make it a reality. Maybe we have to take a different approach; even if it risks losing some natural allies, we should focus on low-income children who have the greatest gap to make up in their early years. We must significantly improve the effectiveness of programs and educators, and find a way to ensure that every poor child in the United States is enrolled full time for two full years in an educationally effective preschool program starting at age 3. I’ve written in detail about how to get there.
Second: realize the promise of innovation and equity under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The Administration has so far squandered this once in a generation opportunity to lead on the implementation of our nation’s new education law that could further improve instruction in the classroom and close systemic achievement gaps. Not surprisingly, states are not proposing bold innovations but instead focusing narrowly on accountability systems – and engineering those systems to make themselves look good. How can we be assured that real learning and real progress is taking place without real, meaningful, transparent accountability? And beyond accountability, where are all the other innovative approaches from states that ESSA encourages? Because if all we do is accountability, we’ve missed a tremendous opportunity. Even if one fully embraces the ESSA goal to put states in control of education reform, the lack of federal attention risks a giant step backwards.
And third: a renewed focus on the skills and learning opportunities that make kids successful employees, citizens, and parents. For years, we talked about providing students with a well-rounded education in 21st century skills – communication, teamwork, relationships, decision-making. What are we doing today that educates kids to get along with other people? Very solid research tells us this may be as important a part of education in America as anything else. An informed agenda would include policy requisites for teacher preparation programs to include contemporary content on child and adolescent development—and social-emotional learning (SEL) standards and school climate in new state accountability systems under ESSA. A new agenda for education does not mean abandoning work in critical areas, chief among them being teacher effectiveness. Improving teacher preparation and meaningful teacher evaluation is a critical, unfinished agenda. Too often, education reform follows a familiar pattern: identify an important issue, start addressing it, meet resistance, and move on the next shiny object. We must not back away from the effort to ensure every student has an effective teacher.
There are other priorities for a new education agenda: protecting students from civil rights abuses, sexual violence, and student loan predators; a diverse and inclusive teacher workforce; and realizing the potential of personalized learning and technology. We have yet to see leadership on any of them from Washington.
If the Administration won’t lead to promote an agenda for the good of all students in America, educators and citizens must. This is the one and only moment our students have to get the education they deserve. It is not too late for a new course; they don’t have time for us to waste.