- Educational issues such as testing, standards, teacher evaluation and school reform efforts that have been focuses of education policy for the past few decades were generally not emphasized in the 2018 election cycle. Instead, they were supplanted by a focus on more popular educational issues such as career and technical education (CTE), STEM learning, early-childhood education, social-emotional learning and school funding, Education Week reports.
- That evolution makes political sense, said Frederick Hess, education policy studies director at the American Enterprise Institute – a think tank that analyzed candidate positions in the recent election – because issues such as testing and teacher evaluation have lost family support in recent years, while less-defined but less-controversial issues are considered more important and are better understood by voters.
- With the switch to the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), education policy has also largely shifted from a federal to a state concern, which has made the topic more popular for gubernatorial elections than for those at the national level. Also, the appointment of Betsy DeVos as U.S. education secretary has tended to galvanize federal-level Democrats this year, Ed Week notes, in denouncing her policies rather than arguing about state accountability issues.
While the need to improve education to meet the needs of the future is still an important issue, school reform strategies are often complex and controversial. Most attempts at reform have focused on measurement strategies, such as increased testing and teacher evaluation, which simply draw attention to deficiencies and gaps rather than taking action to correct them. Many parents have come to see the increase in testing as a distraction from true education, while some teachers resent the impact teacher evaluations have on their career – particularly when they feel they are being measured on elements, such as the impact of poverty, that are beyond their control.
In election cycles, politicians don’t have time to explain the complexities of education policy – even if they truly understand them. Focusing on catchwords and more easily understood concepts draws more applause and political favor. Issues such as early-childhood education – which can help meet family child care needs – and a focus on career and technical training, which can benefit families and communities financially, carry more weight with voters who can more easily grasp their value. Increased funding for schools or teachers and more school safety are also educational issues driven by news reports and weighed heavily on voters' minds.
Testing and accountability issues, though losing favor among politicians, will likely still remain important parts of education policy for years to come, despite the decrease in political attention paid to them recently. As past testing has revealed achievement gaps, schools are now being required to pay more attention to closing those gaps, and future testing will provide evidence of progress. And though the policy issues may change, education will still likely remain among the top issues for the 2020 election cycle. Education will likely still remain more important in state races rather than federal races in the coming election, however, as states have been given more leeway in making decisions. But issues such as the appointment of the education secretary will still have many keeping any eye on the presidential race.