Improvements in education have stalled due to a lack national leadership and an absence of vision, according to two former U.S. Secretaries of Education.
Writing in the Washington Post this week, Secretary Arne Duncan, who served under President Barack Obama, and Secretary Margaret Spellings, who served under President George W. Bush, called for the resurgence of a “broad coalition” that previously “advanced bold action to improve America’s education system.”
“We see the consequences in state education plans that lack vision, commitment or ambition, and in recently released National Assessment of Educational Progress scores showing stagnant progress in our ‘national report card,’” Duncan and Spellings wrote. “Students are suffering because of an absence of vision, a failure of will and politics that values opposition over progress. There is a moral imperative to act.”
Both Duncan and Spellings’ tenures at the Department of Education were marked by the passage of significant education reform packages that were met with cheers and invectives.
Duncan oversaw the use of Race to the Top grants and other incentives to states to adopt the Common Core academic standards. Republicans severely criticized the program, claiming the federal government was stepping too heavily on states’ ability to direct education.
Spellings was an advocate for No Child Left Behind, which required states to develop annual assessments to ensure students were learning grade-level skills. Opponents criticized the bill for ushering in an era of ‘teaching to the test” so that schools could post higher scores to elevate their performance rankings.
After nearly 20 years of reforms and national movements, some say the education policy world is tired.
“There’s no doubt there’s reform fatigue,” said Michael J. Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. “We have seen wave after wave of reforms come and go. There is an impression among some that these reforms didn’t work. We have this habit of declaring something a failure and the results come out years later that said it was a success.”
Petrilli agreed with the need for a “sense of urgency” portrayed in the Duncan-Spellings piece.
The most recent federal reform package is the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which is the first measure limiting federal power in favor of states’ rights in education for decades. The legislation was done in reacting to the outcry over the Common Core, which sought to raise expectations and academic standards to levels that will prepare students for college-level work and the challenges they will find in the workforce.
Under ESSA, states are required to develop plans to hold schools accountable for educating all students. The law called for states to engage a broad group of stakeholders such as civil rights and business groups in addition to parents and education leaders. Federal education officials must sign-off on the plans. Several education groups have conducted independent analyses, looking at the rigor of accountability measures and the clarity with which schools will report their progress to their communities.
But Duncan and Spellings wrote that “even the country’s greatest champions for local control see state efforts as underwhelming and insufficient.”
The former secretaries also wrote about the need to support teachers.
“Higher expectations and strong standards — backed by federal policy that protects the enormous taxpayer investment in K-12 schools and higher education — are bipartisan concerns,” their piece reads. “Respect for teaching, and the accompanying need for better preparation and support for teachers, must be one unifying goal.”
Richard Long, executive director of the Learning First Alliance, recently posted a blog with that same theme.
“Teachers want professionalism – not only through a decent salary, but through decent working conditions, supportive leadership at their school and supportive colleagues, the ability to learn and grow in their profession, and a secure retirement.”
Long said in an interview that federal officials and philanthropic groups that donate heavily to education reform groups too often focus on the wrong things, such as accountability over instruction and external measures based on different variables in each school district.
“People are frustrated, and they want to see you make a difference faster,” Long said. “The way to make a fast difference is to flood the country with well-educated, well-supported teachers.”