What is the role of public education in the US?
Leaders at a summit sponsored by the Reagan Foundation debated the purpose of schools — and the role of the federal government in helping them achieve that purpose
Condoleezza Rice has served as Stanford University’s provost and a U.S. Secretary of State, among numerous other high-profile positions, and her indictment on the nation’s system of education at the Reagan Foundation’s first summit on education placed the blame for failure at every level of the industry.
“We can’t have any more third graders who can’t read, we can’t have any more 18 or 19 year olds who go to college and come out without any skills, and [there] can’t be any more 35 year olds who can’t be re-trained by any of our 37 federal re-tooling programs we have, none of which seem to work very well.”
The event, which was held in Washington, D.C. April 12, brought together leaders from government and K-12 and higher education to discuss the state of education and chart a path ahead. Seven U.S. secretaries of sducation — from Bill Bennett to Betsy DeVos — joined the all-star line-up of professionals, who debated everything from the role of the federal government in overseeing public education to the ways schools at every level can move forward.
Role of American public education
Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chair Lamar Alexander (R-TN) said the role of American public education is “to teach reading, writing, arithmetic and what it means to be an American citizen” — a sentiment echoed by Rep. Danny Davis (D-IL) in remarks during an unrelated event Friday, in which he said the system's greatest failure is in not teaching students what it means to be a part of the American democracy and what their role is in advancing our democracy forward.
Bennet explained a huge part of the problem is that we’ve been “thinking of education as liberal arts and the arts and sciences, and not people knowing how to do things,” which again raised the question: What is the role of American education, and particularly higher education, as it relates to preparing citizens to participate in the economy upon graduation?
“We can do both,” said Bennett. “We can have literacy, we can have numeracy, we can do multiple things, but I think there has been a built- in bias against those more practical things.”
DeVos, like Rice and many others, sees the answer as more of a continuum, and believes any Higher Education Act re-authorization should “break down the silos that have artificially grown up between career and technical and traditional higher education, because in the real world, the lines are much more blurred.”
“There are some core competencies that it would behoove all students to learn and all schools to teach: communicate well, think and work collaboratively with others, think creatively,” DeVos said. “Kids are creative, and I feel that all too often, we try to fit them in boxes and make them conform to something that they’re not.”
Speaking on the opening panel, Rice emphasized that while she is “all for jobs and employment paths,” learning is about much more. “I hope we won’t lose sight of the part of education that focuses on your humanness,” she said. “I think it’s important that kids have different pathways to excellence, and it’s not limited to one type of curriculum."
However, education does have to play a stronger role in dismantling the idea that “just because you have an opinion, it’s right” or individuals are qualified to hold their opinions, which, Rice said, has to happen through not just exposure to people who will challenge their beliefs and opinions, but intelligent dialogue about those differences.
Louisiana State Superintendent of Education John White said, “I think the issue of how we solve achievement gaps and how we move the needle on any type of measure has to start with do we know what we want from public schools. We want to talk a lot about high standards and we want to talk a lot about choice, but we don’t talk about the essential elements [of] high quality curriculum and teachers who are prepared to teach that curriculum [and ensuring] the best people possible are at the front of the schools.”
“Everybody loves pre-K. Everybody loves [grades] three through eight and high school accountability. But what happened to K-2? And then we wonder why we have a literacy problem,” he said. “We create very little opportunity to transition folks into postsecondary. … We’ve narrowed the curriculum quite a bit, and that’s fine, but if you take out things like history, which help kids learn how to read, you’re doing a real disservice to everyone involved. If we’re not solving these problems, our accountability systems are not leading.”
Role of the federal government
But higher education is backpedaling on any progress that was being made in this era, promoting instead seemingly monolithic, group think-promoting spaces, which compound a re-segregation of schools at the K-12 level and allow everyone to remain in their comfort zones, only interacting with individuals who reinforce their opinions and perspectives. The same is true, too, of news media and the structure of social media “that draw people into their corners,” said Janet Napolitano, former secretary of Homeland Security and current president of the University of California System.
Former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan blamed scattered reform efforts that have left the nation without any goals to put strategy behind. Greater access to early childhood education to close the gaps that exist before Kindergarten and lead to the third grade disparities on NAEP, pushing for higher high school graduation rates — though the nation has reached record highs in recent years, Duncan says still not enough children are graduating from high school — and ensuring that everyone who graduates from high school is college ready, those are the areas Duncan thinks we should be laser targeting as a country.
And the federal government has to play a role in promoting greater accountability for states in getting all students on the K-16 continuum to achieve at higher levels. “Gaps for African-American and Latino students are still too high, low-income students still don’t have the access, there’s greater segregation” today than there was in the past, said former Education secretary and current Education Trust President John B. King. “We no longer lack the urgency we need around education, we lack the urgency around building a society that is just for all people.”
Despite widespread agreement that the federal government should not be too heavily invested in education policy, it is this accountability piece, particularly around equity concerns, where many believe the federal government can play a greater role. But despite bipartisan agreement from the panelists throughout the course of the day, there is still a tremendous amount of disagreement along party lines on how this should play out.
For her part, DeVos came in to her role as secretary seemingly scrutinous of the equity component as she reviewed state ESSA plans, but received pushback from Alexander and other congressional Republicans who criticized her for rejecting the initial plans.
Former U.S. Secretary of Education and current University of North Carolina System President Margaret Spellings said, “The way states can and do manipulate the system to leave kids out is disconcerting,” and urged the federal government to do a better job of holding states accountable for outcomes of every student in the state. It is not enough to be satisfied with the progress of individual schools on metrics like standardized tests and NAEP reports and college-going rates if all groups within the school are not progressing and gaps remain for decades.
Follow Autumn A. Arnett on Twitter