Manhattan Institute

School Reform’s Lost Momentum

The legacy of education’s federal era won’t be undone quickly, but states and localities should lead the way forward.

The 2018 midterms marked the second straight electoral cycle paring back the education reforms favored by the Barack Obama and George W. Bush presidential administrations. Education reform was relegated to the background in the 2016 election, but a well-funded effort to increase modestly the number of charter schools in Massachusetts went down to defeat. In 2018, Wisconsin voters replaced a strong supporter of school choice with a candidate more likely to raise educational spending. And New Yorkers flipped the state senate, the last refuge of charter school support, from Republican to Democrat. In these and other states, voters backed candidates promising more funding for traditional public schools.

Reformers set themselves up for these defeats with their bipartisan support for reforms driven from Washington, seemingly at the expense of local control. Prior to the mid-twentieth century, American educational policy had largely been a local matter. Schools operated under local and state control, in close collaboration with parents. This model had much to recommend it. Sociologist Anthony Bryk has shown that schools succeed where trust exists between school professionals and the local families they serve.

Starting in the mid-1960s, Washington took a growing role in education policy, culminating in large-scale efforts by the Bush and Obama administrations to establish local education directives at the federal level. We’re now seeing a reaction against those efforts. The Trump administration’s secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, seemed to grasp this at the outset of her term, stating: “You cannot fix what ails education by telling people how to do things from the Washington-level down; it really has to be a grassroots local initiative.” Yet the Education Department she leads has only begun to introduce the changes necessary to make this vision a reality. The divided government delivered by the midterms almost guarantees that we’ll be stuck with some of the legacy of education’s federal era, while lasting reform efforts will have to take place at the state and local levels. The diversity of outcomes that will likely mark these initiatives should not be feared, however; it is truer to America’s historical approach to education policy.

At the height of 1960s federal activism, Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration had to fight hard to enact a major education-funding program, Title I, as part of its War on Poverty. Given the venerable American tradition of local control of schools, the 1965 legislation established only a limited federal role: “In recognition of the special educational needs of children of low-income families and the impact that concentrations of low-income families have on the ability of local educational agencies to support adequate educational programs, the Congress hereby declares it to be the policy of the United States to provide financial assistance . . . to local educational agencies serving areas with concentrations of children from low-income families to expand and improve their educational programs by various means.”

Thirty-six years later, George W. Bush’s administration gained bipartisan support for passage of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which amended Title I with more expansive language regarding federal intent. The new measure set a goal of providing a “fair, equal, and significant opportunity to obtain a high-quality education and reach, at a minimum, proficiency on challenging State academic achievement standards and state academic assessments.” The law’s mandate ranged from “ensuring that high-quality academic assessments, accountability systems, teacher preparation and training, curriculum, and instructional materials are aligned with challenging State academic standards” to “meeting the educational needs of low-achieving children in our Nation’s highest-poverty schools, limited English proficient children, migratory children, children with disabilities, Indian children, neglected or delinquent children, and young children in need of reading assistance.” Beyond the bureaucratese, NCLB pledged to hold schools and localities accountable for improving student performance. Seemingly as an afterthought, the law also promised to give parents “substantial and meaningful opportunities” to participate in the education of their kids—presumably, as long as they didn’t interfere with the implementation of that long list of ends.

Henceforth, students would be tested annually in third through eighth grades, the results for individual schools and for subgroups within each school would be published, and schools would have to make progress in bringing all students to proficiency—supposedly—or face consequences. Critics soon faulted the wide latitude that No Child Left Behind allowed to local discretion: states selected the tests used to measure achievement and defined their own standards for proficiency on those tests. Wide variations emerged across states, with many setting lower standards. However they defined proficiency, though, states still had to identify schools not making adequate progress toward achieving it. These schools were then directed to develop improvement plans. Yet enforcement was lacking.

Barack Obama’s administration used its 2009 American Recovery and Renewal Act (better known as the post-financial-meltdown stimulus) to encourage states to apply for federal education funding if they could demonstrate their commitment to the administration’s school-reform initiative, Race to the Top (RTTT), a competitive-grant program that incentivized states to adopt various educational reforms, ranging from performance-based evaluations of teachers and principals to ambitious curriculum standards. At the heart of RTTT were the Common Core curriculum standards, which took shape prior to Obama’s election, developed by nongovernmental agencies, including a nonprofit called Achieve, along with the National Governors Association and the Council of State School Officers. Private philanthropies and corporations contributed funding. Common Core’s original purveyors sought voluntary commitments from states and territories to help develop the standards and to choose the final version for use in schools. Race to the Top rewarded states for embracing the Common Core, and 44 states (and the District of Columbia) went on to do so.

Common Core represented the apex of more than 20 years of effort in Washington to achieve some degree of national standardization of K–12 education. Its goal of developing new tests that would have the same meaning and interpretation across state lines was a direct response to the perceived weakness of No Child Left Behind in this regard—but Common Core was never intended to be a national curriculum. The standards don’t mandate the use of particular lessons or textbooks; they were meant only to provide a statement of what students should master at each grade in the key subject areas of English and math.

And yet, by the end of the Obama administration, “Common Core” became a catchphrase for opponents of a Washington-driven educational agenda. While Common Core did not originate with the federal government, it took on the rubric of federal authority, not only because it was mostly conceived in Washington policy circles but also because Race to the Top incentivized adoption of the standards.

Local resistance to Common Core quickly swelled. On the left, critics pointed to the funding provided by the Gates Foundation as well as from corporations such as ExxonMobil, Microsoft, and others, seeing it as evidence that Common Core was a proxy for privatization of public education. Conservative foes saw nonprofits and voluntary state participation as covers for an Obama-administration attempt to usurp local control of schools. These opponents often referred to the standards as a “national curriculum.”

In part, hostility to Common Core stemmed from the ill-considered roll out of the new strategies, and the sometimes-shocking academic results that followed. In 2013, for example, New York State deployed what it called Common Core–aligned tests, with tougher proficiency standards. Parents and educators objected that the state was using the new assessments before fully implementing the Common Core–aligned curriculum. The anxieties escalated when the 2013 statewide exam results were released: New York students registered an ELA proficiency rate of just 31 percent—24 points below the previous year’s results and less than half the rate reported in 2009 (77.4 percent), before an earlier round of standards-raising.

Soon parents across the U.S. were out in force against Common Core. Thousands chose to “opt out” or refused to let their children sit for state exams. Speaking for many parents, a New York–based comedian (the now #MeToo-shamed Louis CK) went viral with his tweet: “My kids used to love math. Now it makes them cry. Thanks standardized testing and common core!” Refusing to let one’s child take the annual state assessment became a dramatic way to express discontent with policies increasingly conflated in the public mind with the term “Common Core.”

Grassroots opposition was hardly alleviated by the high-handed federal response. Obama’s education secretary, Arne Duncan, infamously suggested that the opt-out movement was spearheaded by “white suburban moms,” upset that their children weren’t “as brilliant as they thought they were” and their schools not “quite as good as they thought they were.” The idea of the opt-out as an affluent suburban phenomenon was misleading, however. In the New York City suburbs, for instance, affluent communities registered opt-out rates around the state average of 20 percent. The movement’s hot center was in fact Trump country—white, working-class districts, where opt-out rates soared above 60 percent.

Common Core proponents ran up against families and communities who didn’t believe that their schools needed to be disrupted; they were pleased with the schools they had. Whatever educational goals they had for their own children, they resented the attempt by Washington-based groups, especially with the imprimatur of the Obama administration, to dictate policy in their local schools.

By the end of the Obama administration, No Child Left Behind, now associated in the public mind with Common Core, had endured years of criticism. In response, Congress rewrote the law, changing its name to the Every Student Succeeds Act. The rewrite continues the NCLB requirement of annual testing and release of results, but it lowers the stakes attached to student scores and largely returns the evaluation of schools to the states. Race to the Top, meantime, was time-limited, but many of the changes that states instituted in order to receive the program’s funding remain in place. To some extent, Common Core survives, but its name is tainted and is heard less often.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos (Photo by Oliver Contreras-Pool/Getty Images)

What went wrong with Washington’s top-down approach? It was too far removed from reality in three important ways. First, national efforts were directed at all public schools, even in communities where parents were pleased with their schools.

The second problem was federal reformers’ belief that the goal of elementary and secondary education should be universal college preparation. The United States has never remotely approached that end. Race to the Top equated student proficiency with preparation for college entrance; many states tied their own definitions of proficiency to National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) standards. The NAEP’s definition of proficiency is often misunderstood to be similar to a “passing score” or “grade level,” but it is actually a higher standard than that. The NAEP website warns that its definition of proficiency is equivalent to solid performance and competency in challenging subject matter and should not be confused with mere grade-level proficiency. Yet NAEP proficiency became the benchmark, and that definition aligns closely with college-readiness. Nationally, 84 percent of students graduate high school, and of those, about 70 percent enroll in two- or four-year colleges. But college-completion rates are low: 60 percent for four-year colleges and 30 percent for two-year colleges. The effect of all this is that only about 30 percent of the students who start out in K–12 systems complete a two- or four-year college degree by their mid-twenties. The 30 percent figure is slightly lower than NAEP proficiency rates of eighth-graders in public schools across the U.S. Students who plan to complete college should be scoring at NAEP’s proficiency levels by the eighth grade—but what about the other 70 percent?

The third disconnect of the federal school reformers was their failure to reconcile the public and private aspects of education. Policymakers rightfully think about other people’s children. They deal in abstractions and broad goals for various groups—No Child Left Behind clearly identified at least seven groups of students in need of assistance and support. But parents think about their own kids not as abstractions but as human beings, whose needs are immediate and time-limited—what is best for my fifth-grader? The reformers didn’t heed the lessons of the nationwide revolt against forced-integration programs of the 1950s through 1970s. Reacting to Common Core and its aligned tests and standards, suburbanites and rural Americans led a similar revolt. Perhaps this is what President Obama meant when he noted, at Arne Duncan’s farewell as secretary of education, that “Arne has done more to bring our educational system—sometimes kicking and screaming—into the twenty-first century than anybody else.” Kicking and screaming was an accurate description, anyway.

The failure of Washington’s education agenda stands in stark contrast to innovative local reform efforts that took place during the same period. While the federal government was embarking on one large-scale initiative after another, individual schools and districts were accomplishing what the large urban systems and state departments of education were failing to do—helping low-income and minority youngsters get ahead in school. Charter schools, introduced in the 1990s, staged impressive growth in states and cities through the 2000s and into the 2010s. Charters grew to a more than $24 billion sector, providing choice to families and allowing entrepreneurial educators the opportunity to design new schools outside the constraints of local school boards and, in most cases, without unionized teachers. Washington had little input into these developments.

The nation’s largest school system—New York City—underwent rapid structural change after the state legislature gave Mayor Michael Bloomberg direct control over it in 2002. The city closed 109 low-performing district schools and opened 311 new small district schools, largely designed by local educators. In addition, with the provision of underutilized space in public school buildings, 179 new charter schools opened in the city during the Bloomberg years. Today, charter schools in New York City educate more than 115,000 students, 93 percent of whom are black or Hispanic. Those schools outperform Department of Education–managed schools on the state’s annual tests of English language arts and mathematics by 11 percentage points and 17 percentage points, respectively. Bloomberg’s reforms also contributed to greater opportunity within the traditional system. During the years that the city was replacing failing schools with new, smaller schools, the four-year high school graduation rate leaped from 46 percent to 71 percent. Studies conducted by MDRC and the NYU Research Alliance for NYC Schools confirmed that the new schools produced beneficial results for students who otherwise would have been relegated to the failing schools they replaced.

As these local improvements suggest, families and communities must be engaged in any school-reform push if it is to work. State and federal policy can still play an important role, though, both by removing barriers to innovation and by targeting funding to promising strategies. Most important, state and federal policy should support a diverse set of educational offerings. In her book No One Way to School: Pluralism and American Public Education, Johns Hopkins scholar Ashley Rogers Berner endorses what she calls “educational pluralism,” arguing that it “offers a different way of doing public education by accommodating both individual belief and the common good.” This is precisely what has been missing from national efforts. According to Berner, America is also out of step with much of the world in its insistence that a public monopoly is the appropriate delivery system for education. The term “educational pluralism” can also describe a system of schools diverse in their goals and values.

Currently, too many elementary and middle schools in lower-income neighborhoods provide their students with an unchallenging basic curriculum. Schools aligned with E. D. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge Foundation, as well as some high-achieving charter school networks, have shown that low-income youngsters can benefit from higher curricular expectations. As students get closer to maturity, however, educational pluralism becomes more essential. By the time students reach high school, they vary in academic preparation, and differentiation is appropriate. Secondary schools do need to prepare more students for success in college, but they must also recognize that most students are likely not to flourish on the college path. These students require skills and behaviors that will prepare them for the working world.

These goals can be achieved without mandatory tracking of students into one path or another. In school districts with a single or small number of high schools, the high schools often track entering students depending on their academic preparation. In larger school districts with many high schools, that tracking occurs across schools with different admissions criteria. While the value or appropriateness of such academic tracking on a large scale is open to debate, academic selectivity in urban public and private high schools has created pathways for students from low-income communities to prepare themselves for college and to do well once they get there. Attacks on these types of schools in the guise of equity are misguided. These schools are not for every student, but they should be treasured, as they offer the best hope of moving students from impoverished backgrounds to success in college and beyond.

Yet for a far greater number of students, a different need exists. Families and students should also be able to choose high schools that provide a solid grounding in specific work or technical skills. State diploma regulations should accept relief from “seat time” and academic-exam requirements to allow for well-designed technical training and job-site work apprenticeships. And students should have these options in high school, instead of having to wait for a community college. Technical high schools should be schools of choice, not mandatory assignment.

Most high schools won’t be specialized: they should help students develop the skills needed to make wise life choices, whatever their academic preparation prior to high school. These skills go beyond the basics of reading and mathematics to include both critical thinking and an inculcation of good work habits. Schools that offer a range of skills and creative endeavors may well look like many high schools of today. But if the American school system is to become more responsive to the needs and interests of students and their families, it will need to change how it measures success.

Perhaps the biggest impediment to the creation and maintenance of a truly innovative, diverse system of schools will be getting policymakers and the public to accept that every school will not be to everyone’s liking. The inclination to protect people from their own choices is at the heart of every bureaucratic command-and-control exercise. School reformers should resist the urge to pit one sector against another. Particularly in large cities, the charter, district, and nonpublic schools should be seen as sharing the same mission. Charter and private schools are often accused of skimming the best students; yet charter schools must admit students through a lottery. At the same time, some large public districts impose myriad screening devices for individual schools. Examples of open admissions and screening exist in all sectors, in other words. Likewise, each sector contains some schools that do well and others that lag. Public resources should be directed to schools, in whatever sector, that perform at a high level.

Above all, designers of education policy must resist the hubris that they know best and can impose their will on families and schools across the nation. “Some of the most important work we’ve done . . . has been around the area of overreach and rolling back the extended footprint of this [education] department to a significant extent,” DeVos said, looking back on her first year. If the Trump administration’s goal of largely returning education policy to the states proves successful, then the rest will be up to us.

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