Published 6:38 AM EDT, Thu May 2, 2019
Over the last few weeks national coverage of the college admissions scandal has focused on the elite, diverting our attention away from the underperforming schools and students who most need our help. While it is important to expose bribery and fraud, the real challenges of education start long before the college admissions process. And to solve them, we need to make education a national priority again.
Thirty years ago, President George H.W. Bush and the nation’s governors convened in Charlottesville, Virginia, for a two-day education summit. Many key players in national education policy were in attendance, including then-Governor of Arkansas Bill Clinton, Director of Education Policy at the National Governors Association (NGA) Michael Cohen, and US Secretary of Education Lauro Cavazos. They determined that the country not only needed to set educational goals in order to achieve academic excellence but hold itself accountable for achieving those goals.
The goals were clearly enumerated: All 6-year-olds would be ready for first grade; illiteracy would be wiped out; students would have a love of learning across all subjects, including a second language; and every student would leave school prepared for membership in society.
This clarity of purpose paved the way for a solidified national education agenda throughout the 1990s. But somewhere along the way, we lost track of our priorities.
In the past decade, scores on national testing have stagnated. Since the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) was first administered in the early 1990s, student achievement, particularly in math, steadily improved until the late 2000s, then flatlined. Reading scores also stagnated. Achievement gaps between white students and students of color, and between low-income and affluent students, have remained fairly steady during the last decade. Minority students and those from low-income households perform more than 20 percentage points below their white, wealthier counterparts.
In a worldwide exam given to 15-year-olds in 2012, teens from Asian nations performed exceptionally, while US students lagged, not reaching the top 20 performers in math, reading or science.
The reasons behind the stagnation are debatable. Some blame an imbalance in school funding. Others blame an inability to recruit and retain top teachers. But a 2019 Pew study shows that while Americans value education, the public doesn’t have high expectations that our leaders will work together to fix the system. And failing schools elect the same school boards term after term. This perpetuates a vicious cycle of inadequacy.
In 1983, when President Ronald Reagan’s administration released its shocking report, “A Nation at Risk,” which highlighted the flaws in our nation’s public education system, something remarkable happened. People were alarmed. Education became a topic on the nightly news. Americans banded together to enact change. And those changes led to great progress, including higher mathematical scores, standards-based reform and a stronger federal presence in schools.
Many of the problems plaguing schools are being solved by those “on the ground” – school administrators and teachers in districts throughout the country.
Recently in early childhood education, for example, school leaders and administrators helped bring the number of states offering state-funded preschool up to 46. Now we’ve got to finish the job, and make sure every child has the chance to begin kindergarten with the right start.
We also know that wealthy school districts and impoverished ones share one thing in common: wherever we’ve raised our expectations, our students have risen to meet them. As more states adopted college and career-ready standards, the national graduation rate hit a record high in 2017 – more than
It’s time now to build on those gains if our nation is going to be a leader in global education.
In April, leaders from diverse industries and political backgrounds gathered in Washington D.C. for the second annual Reagan Institute Summit on Education (RISE) to assess the American education landscape. But while the conversations were exciting and constructive, they can’t stop here – we must keep the conversation going. One way to do that is to again gather our nation’s governors together for a dedicated conference on education, as we did in 1989 and again in 1996.
Ultimately, we need to determine our educational priorities and lay the groundwork for achieving them. We need to determine the role of the federal government in education while also emphasizing state and local responsibility. And we need to find solutions that will reinvigorate the American educational system.
The rewards that stem from a promising educational system are many: more technological innovation; better health care; effective business leaders; and a flourishing arts landscape. But the first step to achieving this will be making education a national priority, as it once was and can, undoubtedly, be again.