Some Policy Suggestions
This chapter has taken a broad look at the federal role in education, particularly about issues of equity. It has looked in detail at efforts to raise the achievement of poor children and those of color and ethnicity, as well as improving education for English language learners, women, and children with disabilities. Now, I offer some policy suggestions for ways to move U.S. education forward.
Reassessing the Federal Role
First, we should de-emphasize the role of the federal Department of Education in K-12 standards-based reform from defining and enforcing the details of school reform to a collegial support role. The states and districts will have an unprecedented challenge to implement the Common Core in addition to their other duties. Common Core has created a host of new policy questions that must be made by states and districts, not by the federal government or the Common Core national administration. These include which assessment system to choose; how to phase in these new assessments and standards into already complex systems of curriculum, testing, and accountability; how to produce or purchase curriculum materials that will serve their needs and comport with Common Core standards; how to provide the requisite teacher education and professional development; and how to guarantee that students in the least effective schools will have equal access to what they need to achieve in the Common Core. Given the importance of these decisions, which will manifest themselves differently in the various states, it may be an opportune time to reconsider the relationship between the federal Department of Education and the states' role in providing high-quality education and increasing educational opportunity.
Aside from challenges of the Common Core, there is a renewed sense among many educators that the states are “where the action is” and that on many matters the states can assess their needs, capacities, and priorities better than the federal government. This is not suggested in the spirit of a “kinder, gentler” face of the department or to “reduce” the federal role but to suggest some changes given the giant workload Common Core will generate for the districts and the states. Furthermore, in this past 23 years of standards-based reform, the states have had ample time to develop reform systems and accountability; most have more capacity than they have ever had.
One example of federal-state cooperation is suggested by a recent article about California having some documented success with a state program of more extensive on-site technical assistance in individual districts (Strunk and McEachin 2014). If such successes continue, the Department of Education could disseminate information about California and subsidize state education agencies so they can create such units or use California's insights to strengthen their present technical assistance programs.
The relationship between Common Core and the Department of Education will continue to exist. It is hard to imagine that there will not be issues where adjustments might have to be made in federal regulations or in Common Core procedures. One important area might be the relation of the Common Core's heightened standards to possible disparate effects on economically disadvantaged students, students of color, or other groups. Perhaps it would be appropriate for the department and the Common Core leaderships to collectively look at how the new, more challenging Common Core standards and activities are affecting the lowest achievers. One of the most important contributions the Department of Education has made during the long era of standards-based school reform has been, with the support of their Presidents, to press the states and districts to put special emphasis on helping lowachieving students coming from low-income families or students of color who so often encounter racial prejudice. I am confident that these and other issues are already under discussion as we move into a more collegial relationship between the department and the states. It will be interesting to see what the next reauthorization of ESEA says about the Common Core, and how the existence of the Common Core will impact on the Department of Education's requirements for receipt of grants such as for Title I.
One of the risks of relying more on the states to carry the ball in school reform is that the states' capacities are uneven, and they differ greatly in the achievement of their students and their progress in reform. The department could ameliorate that by incentivizing state action on various important national priorities. The incentives would be to subsidize the costs of introducing new or improved programs in return for reliable agreements to carry them out. The department could choose to start with two or three areas of reform. For example:
Early Childhood Education Individual states have been the leaders in the reform of early childhood education. (Rose 2010). The results have been quite different in these states that have led in attempting to upgrade early childhood opportunities by improving training and salaries, standards, and facilities. The federal government has endorsed this cause.
School Finance Equity Here again, some states are leaders and are well down the road that ran through many courtrooms. The idea of federal subsidies to help other states was raised in the Department of Education's Commission on School Finance a few years ago and would have the same effect as the early education option: stimulating reform and equalizing education across districts and across states (see Chap. 4).
Technical Assistance As mentioned above, another subsidization idea is to support the state education agencies in providing enhanced technical assistance to districts.
Title I Improvements
Congress and the administration should approve the continuation of Title I, at a higher level of authorization. As we have seen, there is much divided opinion about the effectiveness of Title I in reducing achievement gaps between race-ethnic groups and between students from varying family income groups (free lunch, partial free lunch, and not-free lunch). I am an outsider to this literature, but it seems that the lack of connection between Title I assignment and a student's race or family income level renders most research results inconclusive in judging Title I's effects. The federal government should make a major effort to support research that follows actual Title I students, tracking them through Title I instruction, and probing why children of color are now making better progress on improving scores and narrowing gaps, while children from families with low income are not.
Income inequality, increasing since 1980, has devastating effects on most people in the lowest one-fifth of the population and even above that. With people facing difficulties related to low wages, unemployment, housing, and health care, this would be an illogical time to decrease our support for our main educational program aimed at children from poor families.
Major legislation regarding other programs that have attempted to lessen educational disadvantages and bias should be enacted. I do not know as much about current policy controversies in these fields as I do about Title I. I should simply like to say that, as a historian, I believe that the programs included in this essay have achieved historically important breakthroughs yet still need further extension and reform. Because their principal object is to ensure specific group rights and they have been underfunded in the past, I believe that programs regarding these issues— education of children with disabilities; bilingual education and other recognition of the needs of English language learners; women's rights in education and their enforcement, and the improvement of Native American educational resources and governance—should be amply funded to the fullest extent allowed by the resources of the Congress and the nation.