National Leaders Fail in School Reform

Teacher pointing to raised hands in classroom
Teacher pointing to raised hands in classroom

The American public has given its grade to national elected leaders for their attempts to improve the country's public schools. The verdict is an "F" for failure.

The public's alternative to the present policies, however, is also lacking according to the American public's very own views as shown in the 47th Annual PDK/Gallup Poll of the Public's Attitudes Toward Public Schools released on Monday, August 24, 2015. The poll is done annually by PDK International, a prestigious educators' group, and the Gallup organization, an internationally respected polling company.

This split opinion shows that it is time for a thorough re-thinking of how the country is attempting to improve its elementary and secondary public schools.

National Leaders

The federal government's political leadership has adopted school policies that the public does not support or does not believe will lead to better education.

• 64 percent of the public believes that too much emphasis is given to testing which is the cornerstone of the No Child Left Behind Act initiated by President George W. Bush, written by U.S. House of Representatives' Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), and supported by prominent congressional Democrats.

• 55 percent opposes teacher evaluations which include student test scores, a key change pushed by President Obama.

• Only 19 percent supports the federal government holding schools accountable for what students learn, a major premise underlying both the Bush and Obama education policies.

The Public's Alternative

The public strongly prefers state and local control of education: 70 percent or more supports states and local school districts deciding funding, textbook, accountability, and testing issues. But, states and school districts already have the ability to respond to the major problems facing the schools identified by the public.

• Lack of financial support has been cited in this poll for the past 10 years as the biggest problem facing the schools. Yet, states and school districts decide the levels of school funding.

• States have adopted programs to use public funds for tuition at private schools, although 57 percent of the public opposes such vouchers. Indiana and Nevada have state-wide programs, several states have more limited programs, and many states are considering authorizing vouchers.

• States and school districts make nearly all decisions regarding the quality of schools. Yet, only 51 percent of the public gives an A or B to their community's schools and only 21 percent gives the nation's schools those grades. Incongruously, 72 percent of parents rank their child's public school much higher by awarding that school an A or B. Why are individual schools good but collections of such schools in communities and states not so good?

• Academic standards are important and too low: 67 percent believes the expectations for what students should learn is important to school improvement, and 39 percent believes that the standards are too low in their community's schools. Yet, 54 percent opposes the use of the demanding Common Core State Standards developed by the states without any federal financial support or input.

• The quality of teachers is the most important issue to address in improving the schools, says 95 percent of the public. But, states and school districts determine that quality since they control teacher certification, hiring, and other teacher-related requirements.


The American public is of two minds: state and local control is preferable to federal control, and yet most of the major problems facing the schools result from state and local decisions. This schizophrenic attitude must be resolved if real improvement is to come to American schooling.

A solution is to make key issues the focus of attention, and to create an approach so that school districts, states, and the federal government can work cooperatively.

My new book, Presidents, Congress, and the Public Schools (Harvard Education Press, March 2015) contains such a proposal. States would be encouraged to adopt the research-based changes that will improve schooling while the federal government provides higher levels of funding and more flexibility in financial support for those changes.

The important point is to face the truth: Public schools need to do better but that will only occur when there is cooperation in government, not antagonism.