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December 01, 2008

To: President Barack Obama From: Cynthia G. Brown Subject: Public Education from Pre-Kindergarten through High School

by Cynthia G. Brown

All children and youth in the United States need a high-quality education if they are to participate fully in the nation’s future workforce—a workforce that faces intense global economic competition—and in their communities. Public education is free and universal in this country, yet it fails many students. Inequality continues to plague our schools, and many children do not get the support and opportunities they need before they start formal schooling. Although most American students need better quality education, the challenge falls most severely on low-income and minority students. Realizing the right to a quality education is the civil rights struggle of the twenty-first century, and I hope you will make it one of your highest priorities.

The United States has the most decentralized education system in the industrialized world. More than 90 percent of the decisions are made and paid for at the state and local levels of government. Historically, the federal government has stepped in with funding—and requirements for institutions accepting it—to assist disadvantaged students and schools. The proportion of federal support for public K–12 schooling is small, but its influence on the framework and operation of schools and the public education system is large.

Strategic federal laws and investments have promoted and accelerated major reforms in elementary and secondary education. The civil rights laws of the 1960s and 1970s provided legal guarantees of equitable educational opportunities for racial and ethnic minorities, English language learners, students with disabilities, and both genders. Major new funding programs such as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) worked in tandem with the civil rights laws to provide extra funds to programs serving disadvantaged students.

A new, standards-based framework for public education took hold nationwide in the 1990s that called for high learning expectations for all students. It was made real by the adoption of accountability systems through state legislation and the 1994 reauthorization of ESEA alongside the enactment of Goals 2000, which required states to adopt rigorous curriculum standards and new state tests measuring student performance against these standards.

The reauthorization of the ESEA of 2002, known as the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, enacted a tough performance standard requiring that all students be proficient in math and reading by 2014. States were required to assess students annually in grades three through eight and to disaggregate the results for subgroups that traditionally underperform on measures of achievement, including students from minority and low-income families, those in special education classes, and English language learners.

The federal government can do so much more to secure high-quality education as a right for all children by using the bully pulpits of the president and secretary of education and by supporting strong, regulatory actions and enforcement.

What Needs to Be Done?

Federal education investments must continue to grow, especially for disadvantaged students, amidst a severe economic crisis and declining tax revenues at the state and local levels. But it is also critical that we think about sound investments and productive and efficient uses of education funding. In the long run, improving educational outcomes will help our economy because educational attainment is closely linked to economic growth and productivity. Today, many indicators show that we are not educating students to sufficiently high levels, particularly disadvantaged students.

The urgent state of the economy, combined with the talent of your new administration, provides a unique opportunity to rethink how we have traditionally done business in education. To reach the goal of a quality education for all, I propose the following immediate and longer-term investments in the education of our children.

Ensure access to high-quality preschool programs, beginning first with children from low-income families. Research has consistently demonstrated that high-quality preschool education has significant and lasting effects on children’s learning and development, including increased educational attainment and future employment, decreased rates of delinquency and crime, and improved health.

Fix the ESEA/NCLB Title I funding formulas. The greatest funding inequities in the country are among states—more so than within states or within districts. Only the federal government can equalize opportunities for students nationwide. Historically, the federal role has been to invest in added edu cational supports for disadvantaged students. But it makes no sense that a low-income student in one state is given $1,000 less in federal dollars than a low-income student in another.

This occurs because four ESEA/NCLB Title I formulas are based on the actual per-pupil expenditures for a state as well as the numbers of low-income students, with no consideration of state tax effort. Two cases in point: The federal government sent two states with similar tax efforts but very different per-pupil investments—Massachusetts and California—$2,310 and $1,280 respectively for each Title I eligible student in the 2003–04 school year. Your administration should propose a Title I formula based on state tax effort, regional cost variation, and the numbers and concentration of low-income students. Per pupil expenditures should not be a factor. Such a change should be phased in over a reasonable, though not extensive, period.

The federal government should also revise the Title I comparability provision that allows unfair school district resource allocation practices to continue. This provision was supposed to promote equality by requiring that state and local funds for schools be distributed equitably before federal Title I funds are added to schools with large concentrations of low-income students. But it contains a loophole that allows differences in teachers’ salaries to be excluded from calculations and consequently supports the longstanding and unequal ways that local and state funds have been distributed by districts. This loophole should be closed.

Invest in a more effective education workforce. Two million teachers are expected to leave their positions within the next decade, which presents both a challenge and an opportunity to overhaul systems of preparing, hiring, retaining, and compensating teachers and principals. Your administration should make a major investment in experimenting with innovative initiatives that will increase the supply of highly effective educators, including elimination of the single salary scale and substitution of competitive compensation that recognizes and rewards different roles, responsibilities, and results.

Enforce federal civil rights laws and reinvigorate the Office for Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education. Although federal court decisions have greatly constrained potential civil rights enforcement actions, especially with regard to discrimination on the basis of race and ethnicity, the Office for Civil Rights has shown little initiative in addressing well-documented gaps in student outcomes based on race, ethnicity, first language, gender, and disability. It needs new leadership that will examine big patterns of likely institutional discrimination and move beyond just a focus on individual complaints that come over the transom.

Recommend revisions in the ESEA/NCLB accountability. Accountability provisions in ESEA first appeared in 1988 and have been routinely strengthened. The current ESEA/NCLB accountability structure has resulted in a major change in educator behavior and has a welcome focus on low-performing students. But design flaws and unintended consequences of the system are now recognized and must be corrected. For example, the law allowed states to set their own academic standards and measures of student proficiency. This has resulted in wide variance across the states in required rigor of learning and the numbers of schools identified as falling short.

Invest in data systems and better student performance assessments. Wise data-driven decision-making and accountability actions will only be as good as the solid and comprehensive data that is available. A nationally consistent data system may be a future goal, but in the short term your administration should support the building of transparent and easy-to-understand state longitudinal data systems that track individual students’ performance over time, connect this data to individual teacher records, and present schools and districts resource allocations in real dollars. This data system should provide the means to target incentives and subsidies for states to adopt better student performance measures.

Recommend incentive programs for low-performing schools. Your administration should undertake more research on how best to assist low-performing schools and initiate incentive programs for states and districts to experiment with new programs and strategies. This should include support for public school choice programs and charter schools, but not vouchers. A particularly promising strategy is the expansion of learning time for all students in low-performing and high-poverty schools.

Invest in reform of high schools enrolling large proportions of low-income students. The on-time high school graduation rate for American students has been below 70 percent for decades and is well below graduation rates in other countries. Non-graduation rates for low-income, African American, and Hispanic students are closer to 50 percent. Your administration should propose a substantial investment in middle and high schools with high concentrations of low-income students. This would correct the federal government’s historic inattention to these schools given that an estimated 90 percent of ESEA/NCLB Title I funds have been spent at the elementary school level.

Promote the scaling up of successful, innovative programs. The achievement gap in the United States is unac ceptably large and narrowing very slowly. Yet there are small pockets of success around the country. Scaling up best practices enables the gains made at one school to take hold across networks of schools and, ultimately, across school districts. To accomplish this, your administration should work with Congress to create a “Grow What Works” fund, as proposed by Congressman George Miller (D-CA). This fund would identify, document, sustain, and expand programs and best practices demonstrated to produce results in high-need communities.

Support the development of national academic standards. Consensus is developing among educators nationwide that fifty different state standards for core academic subjects are counterproductive to strengthening the quality of education. Despite growing agreement around the desirability of national standards, major policy questions exist. Your administration should recommend a process for moving forward that can be reviewed and adjusted at regular intervals.

Fund development of high-quality academic curriculum and discontinue support for abstinence-only programs. All states have standards in core subjects, but decisions about curriculum are left to districts and even schools. Some states exercise more control than others, but there are too few curriculum materials across the board, and the training and support in using them are not well-aligned with state standards. Your administration should propose a major program of funding for states to develop or procure high-quality curriculum materials that are aligned with state standards and provide training on them to teachers.

One area of misguided federal support for curriculum has been for abstinence-only programs that rely on distor tions, stereotypes, and fear. After more than $1.3 billion in expenditures since 1998 for such programs, they have utterly failed to achieve their stated objectives. The programs should be discontinued and support provided instead for comprehensive sex education programs.

Invest in community schools. Too many children come to school every day burdened with hunger, health challenges like asthma, and worries about their families’ distress. Schools should link to other supportive agencies and organizations in their neighborhoods and communities and open their facilities for much longer hours to these groups so that children are ready to learn every day. Your administration needs to foster and encourage these community schools.

Increase the federal investment in research and evaluation. Your administration should increase the investment in education research and development to help ensure that students nationwide benefit from strategies and methodologies that have proven effective in some locales. Just as in the health arena, where research and development are expected to lead to breakthroughs in diagnosing and treating the most serious illnesses, research and development in education have the potential to radically improve schools and student learning.

Cynthia G. Brown

Cynthia G. Brown is the director of Education Policy at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C.