Lessons Learned from Fifty Years of Federal Education Policy
Lessons Learned from Fifty Years of
Federal Education Policy
Jack Jennings, Founder and Former Chief Executive Officer, Center on Education Policy
Bob Wise, President, Alliance for Excellent Education
On May 18, 2015 the Alliance held a webinar on the politics of education reform with Jack Jennings, longtime education policy expert and author of a new book—Presidents, Congress, and the Public Schools. Hosted by Bob Wise, their discussion examined the federal role in education and the prospects for fundamentally reshaping American education.
The book marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), landmark legislation that provided the foundation of federal education policy in the United States. What are the lessons learned about its impact and federal intervention in education? What points the way to solving the problem of broad school improvement and a better education for disadvantaged students?
Gov. Wise and Mr. Jennings also addressed questions submitted by webinar viewers from across the country.
More from Jack Jennings on the lessons learned from fifty years of federal policy.
The following set of video clips includes his commentary on the history of federal policy and major factors influencing education policy reforms.
Good afternoon, I’m Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia. Now let me just begin that if you’re on Twitter we encourage you to Tweet about this webinar using the #all4ed that you’ll see in the left corner of the video window.
Now thank you for joining the Alliance for today’s webinar on the politics of educational reformwith Jack Jennings, longtime education policy expert and author of a new book Presidents, Congress and the Public Schools. You’ve got to read this book. This book marks the 50th anniversary of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, better known as ESEA, the landmark legislation that provided the foundation of federal education policy in the United States and continues so to this day.
I’m delighted to welcome Jack, founder and chief executive officer of the Center on Education Policy. As I mentioned earlier, many years before with the United States House of Representatives Education and Labor Committee. Nobody knows more about ESEA and especially Title I than Jack. Served for twenty-seven years as subcommittee staff director and then as general counsel for the Committee on Education and Labor for the U.S. House. He was a staff director responsible for the reauthorizations of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the Higher Education Act (HEA). After leaving Congress in 1994, he founded and led the Center on Education Policy for 17 years providing independent objective analysis of federal laws and policies.
According to Education Week, the Center was among the 10 most influential national organizations, affecting school policy. Jack is the author of two books. His latest, Presidents, Congress and the Public Schools, was just released by the Harvard Education Press. You can ask questions of our guest during today’s webinar using the form below the video window. Several of you when you registered have already sent questions. So let me just give a brief synopsis. The book tells the tale of federal involvement in education beginning with the heady days of 1965 when the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was first signed into law. Jack focuses on three elements in the book.
First, the history of federal policy and the major factors influencing policy reforms. Second, the lessons learned. And three, the prospects for the future with a very bold proposal. In today’s webinar he will talk about two of these—the lessons learned about federal intervention in education and the prospects for the future. What points the way to solving the problem of broad school improvement and a better education for disadvantaged students? We are videotaping his commentary on the history of federal policy and major factors influencing education policy reforms. Archived video clips will be emailed to you as they become available.
So Jack, let me start. You were heavily involved in first writing and then subsequently rewriting ESEA. What’s been its impact, both the accomplishments and the problems it created as a law evolved through periodic reauthorizations?
Jennings: Well first of all Bob thank you for inviting me. Both you and your organization do very good work and so I appreciate the invitation. This book reflects my experiences of having watched federal aid almost from the beginning to the current time. And federal aid to education has had a number of effects. Some good and some not so good. I’d say the primary effect in all these years has been that the federal government has kept equity as a primary focus of this aid and therefore it has insisted that equity in terms of taking care of kids who have problems of some type or another, whether it is disabilities or economic problems or not knowing the language, that those kids be part of the education program at the local level.
And prior to federal aid, equity was not a major priority, so I think that’s the main accomplishment of federal aid over 50 years. Short comings are many. Some of the early programs became too strict, too categorical. No Child Left Behind, at least in my opinion, has not achieved its objective. I’ve looked at all the test data, the theory of bringing the pressure to bear on teachers to raise student achievement does not work, at least from what I’ve seen from national test data and state test data. But there have been other good effects from NCLB and Title I, but the primary one is equity, keeping equity as a main focus.
Wise: So I just want to stress to persons to please read this book because what it does is it provides you a very understandable history of the federal role, particularly of the last 50 years. It also gives you a lot of the inside stories of who was doing what, how certain grants and programs emerged, where there were bumps in the road. As I say, it’s one of the best readable histories of the federal role in education that I’ve read. So Jack if you could reflect a little bit on some of the key lessons learned from the past 50 years of federal investments in education and how that’s influenced your view of the federal role. As I read this book, I thought I saw your view of the federal role changing some over that time.
Jennings: Well you’re exactly right Bob. First of all let me thank you for reading the book. I appreciate that. It took a lot of time to do it. But in reviewing these 50 years, what I wanted to do was pull out the lessons that we could learn from all of those experiences. There were so many different battles over bussing, over what language should be taught in school, whether it should be a foreign language to children from Mexico, or Spanish to children from Mexico, or whether there should be a different instructional technique.
There are so many battles, but the five major lessons I think that I would draw out of those 50 years are that first of all if the federal government spotlights a problem, that problem is paid attention to by the states, by local school districts, and therefore it’s an important ability because what happens with so many different reports from think tanks, so many different news stories that there’s a lot of noise in the system and the federal government can pull something out and make it a major issue.
Secondly, I saw that the federal government has a variety of means of attaining something whether they’re court orders, Supreme Court decisions, whether they’re lower court orders, whether they’re mandates from Congress, whether they’re funding programs. There are different ways to do something and so the federal government has to pay attention to what it does and there are advantages and drawbacks to each of these different ways.
The third thing I saw is that the federal government does not administer programs itself. It relies on states; it relies on local school districts to carry out the programs, and therefore the federal government should be very careful about how many requirements it puts on programs because it’s relying on other people to carry them out. And there have been instances as there were that occurred on the 1980s where the federal government became too heavy handed and there was a reaction against that and it hurt federal aid to education. So the federal government has to be aware of its number of requirements but also try to build up state and local capacity. The federal government, related to that, should help to pay for what it is asking the states and local school districts to do. And unfortunately a prime example of not paying is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, where the federal government pledged in the beginning to pay a certain amount of the costs because there are extra costs to pay for children with disabilities and the federal government has never achieved that promise; it’s never fulfilled that promise. And what happens, then, is that the school districts must take the money from other causes and put it into these services it’s providing to disabled children. So the federal government should pay for what it says it wants people to do or at least pay for a good part of it.
The last lesson I would draw is the federal government should try to find broad support for what it does. It does not help to impose something on states or local school districts because eventually in our system there’s a rebound. And so there’s an important lesson is that what the federal government does, it should work at making sure that it’s supported by states and that states will help to carry it out and that local school districts feel comfortable enough to carry it out. Not that does not mean there shouldn’t be innovations or things that are difficult to do, but there should be attention paid to trying to get popular support for programs.
Wise: So those are the lessons that you’ve learned and talk about over the last 50 years. Let’s fast-forward to today—2015—where more than 40 states have now received waivers from No Child Left Behind, which seemingly dismantles a number of its main provisions. Recognizing that No Child Left Behind has not lived up to its promise, namely all children being proficient by the year 2014, both houses of the current Congress have taken up ESEA reauthorization in the recent months. And so what kinds of improvements are we looking at here?
Jennings: Well Bob, let me lay this out in my point of view, according to my point of view. What the waivers were and what the legislation is as it goes through the House and the Senate is basically a cleanup operation. What the waivers did and what the legislation is doing is removing provisions from No Child Left Behind that the states and local school districts did not like, that they felt were not productive. For instance, the idea that every child would be proficient in reading and math has been jettisoned. And now states can have different goals and that will be enshrined in whatever legislation is passed. So what’s happening is that the waivers to 42 states and the legislation is just simplifying a law that I think was not conceived in the best of theories.
I don’t think … what happened was that the last four presidents since 1990—last four presidents, two Democrats, two Republicans—have supported the idea of raising academic standards, having tests to make sure kids learn that academic material. But then I think we veered the wrong way under No Child Left Behind when penalties were attached to not raising test scores and I think that has resulted in no major improvement in educational achievement, as measured by NAEP, has not worked. And so the standards movement veered in the wrong direction and what the waivers are doing and what this legislation is doing is cleaning up the mess of a policy that should not have been enacted. The problem is, we still have the schools where they are, we still have challenges in the schools, what’s the next vision that makes more sense than what we had and how do we make sure it’s grounded enough to work?
Wise: That’s then going to be my next question for you. How do you address the two big problems? Broad improvement in schools and a better education for traditionally underserved or disadvantaged students? And if current federal policy to improve public schools is not working, what’s a better solution? And particularly for securing a good education for every American student?
Jennings: I wouldn’t say what’s there now is totally not working, NCLB has helped local school districts use data better. It has put a spotlight on poorest-performing students. Title I has provided extra money to students who need it. The problem is that these are not means of a broad enough scope that they’re going to really change American education to the good on a broad scale, which is what we need. And so both of these two means—Title I, the equity programs, and NCLB, pressure on teachers to raise the test scores—are indirect means of bringing about improvement. There is a little extra money in Title I but no basic change in classroom instruction. There is pressure on teachers to change but again no basic change in classroom instruction, it’s just indirect pressure trying to bring about a good.
I think we have to put that aside and then look directly at the problem which is that in American classrooms, teachers and students are not functioning to the degree they should and we should start with teachers and students; we shouldn’t start with answers, we shouldn’t start with charter schools, we shouldn’t start with evaluating current teachers. We should look at the heart of education, which is a teacher and a student. And that’s what I did in the book. I started with a teacher and student and I looked at the research that was done and I read all these research studies and I found that there were four factors that helped to bring about better education, better teaching and learning in the regular classroom. One was that there should be an expansion of preschool programs especially for poor children and lower middle class children. Research is solid that that is what helps kids do better in school and it lasts for years.
Secondly, the teaching profession in the United States is a low-standards profession. People can become teachers without fulfilling high requirements. And what this teacher evaluation movement is doing is letting somebody in the door and then trying to get them later. It’s a “gotcha” movement. It’s like having a dentist who isn’t prepared and then after a couple years issuing a report on whether that dentist has caused harm through his or her work. Rather, like dentists and doctors and other professionals, teachers should be held to high standards to enter the profession. They should be taught better, prepared better, while they’re getting ready to be a teacher. And they should be mentored while they’re new teachers and then paid well.
The third element that makes sense, and the research is behind it, is that there ought to be higher standards in our schools, especially in schools where there are concentrations of poor children. And the Common Core is one way to do it. The New Generation Science Standards are another way to do it. The Tea Party people and folks like that are wrong. These are good standards; they are going to raise the quality of American education. And the Tea Party should understand that it is not a good thing to have dumb kids; it is not patriotic to have dumb kids. And they can’t just oppose the Common Core Standards without an alternative. If they’re going to oppose them they should come up with something that’s as vigorous, as rigorous as the Common Core Standards.
The last element in addition to preparation of students, upgrading the profession, having a more rigorous instruction, is having fairer funding for schools. We need adequate funding for schools and we need fairer funding for schools. And I’ll just give you one example. In my state of Illinois, on the west side of Chicago is Cicero, Illinois, which has almost 100 percent poor kids. And then there’s Winnetka, Illinois, which is in the north suburbs of Chicago and they have 100 percent rich kids. The rich school district gets $10,000 more per student per year than the poor school district. Now, how can we have any pretense that there’s equality in Illinois? That both those school districts can be held to the same standards? They can’t. And so these are hard problems: expanding preschool, raising the quality of the profession, getting a vigorous, rigorous curriculum, and doing things with funding that are fairer to all students. But these are the things that make a difference, and if we don’t do those things then we’re not really going to bring about broad lasting change in education. So I propose both that through grant programming and through constitution legal guarantees that we try to achieve those changes.
Wise: I was struck, in the book, at how you laid out your four principles that you just laid out. You worked from the point of view of what do students need, what do teachers need, what are the funding needs, what are the infrastructure needs, and then you mapped back and said what is it that we need to put in place. And that, as you say, is a lot different than coming up and saying, “what do we need to promote this particular approach?” So a tactical question I guess is, I had the privilege of spending 18 years in the Congress and some of it was working on your committee under your leadership. I have deep respect for your expertise both as a tactician and also a legislator. So I know how hard it is to get something done. Is what we’re talking about realistic in particularly the proposal you’re making, in the political and economic difficulties that have to be overcome? Is it something to expect anytime soon? And I guess if you would or if you could outline your proposal because I think it’s one of those proposals that I don’t think it’s going to happen this year, but I think it sets the stage for work in the future.
Jennings: Bob, that’s a very good question. When I worked for Congress, I had come from working in precincts. I am a lawyer so I was in law school at Northwestern, but I also worked precincts. And so I went door to door, so I understood at least that part of politics. And so when I was working in the Congress I understood what could get passed and what couldn’t. Who had votes, who didn’t have votes. And I tried to fashion bills in a bi-partisan way so that they could get passed.
This bill that I’m proposing today could not pass. I know that. But I draw inspiration from Milton Freidman and the Choice Movement. Last week I was on the campus of the University of Chicago and in the 1940s/1950s Milton Friedman was an economist who helped found the University of Chicago “School of Economics” and he started advocating for school vouchers in the 1940s/1950s. They were not enacted in the United States in any locality ‘til 1990. And so there were decades that passed before what he advocated came to fruition. But that didn’t stop people who believed in vouchers from working year after year to achieve what they wanted to achieve.
What I have found is that American educators know what they’re against. They don’t know what they’re for. And I think American educators have to look at the research, have to look at their own experience and decide what they’re for, and then adopt that as a long-term policy and try to achieve it in the long run. This cannot be achieved in the short run, but this is my attempt to start with students and teachers, look at the research, and then build a legislative program based on that. There may be other ways to do it, but this the way I did it.
Now the two proposals is a two-pronged approach. One approach is through a grant program. And here what I would propose is that if a state wanted to, and these are very difficult requirements, so I would say if a state didn’t want to, they could continue with federal aid as it is now with the money they have now, with the regulations they have now, and let them carry on. But if they are willing to accept this challenge that the federal government, over time, gives them twice as much money and allows them to take the money and put it directly into their budgets so it would become general aid to the state. And that’s being an ongoing commitment from the federal government for as long as possible. And then in exchange for that, the state would agree to a ten-year plan where it would carry out this set of recommendations or another set if they can be scientifically grounded. But something that has an effect on teaching and learning in the classroom.
And this would be a ten year plan. The state would immediately get an increased payment, but then after five years and according to indicators agreed to by the Secretary of Education and the state, if the state had moved halfway along to achieving equitable funding in education, halfway along to achieving professionalization of the teaching corps, then they would get 50 percent of the money. They would get an increase of 50 percent in terms of what they have now and it can go right in their budget. And then after ten years, they’ve in effect achieved the whole plan so that there is fair funding, there is rigor in instruction, there is a professional teaching corps and preschool, then they get double what they get now and that money goes into their operating budget.
I’m moving away from categorical aid. I’m moving away from the federal government having programs. Instead, I’m recommending that the federal government work with the states and get them to agree jointly that certain things are important to improving teaching and learning and then judge whether the states are moving in that direction and give them money to help them carry it out. That is different from what we have today in many regards.
The second prong is that both our last two presidents, President Obama and President George W. Bush, have said that education is a civil rights issue of our time. Well the progress that was made for African Americans and others with civil rights was made because they had constitutional backing; they had legal backing. African Americans had the Brown decision of 1954 and numerous other federal decisions over the next 20 years. They also had the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to help them achieve their civil rights and they’ve gotten a good distance. They have not gotten to where they ought to be, but they’ve gotten a good distance.
I propose if education is as important as President Obama and President Bush have said, and their exact quote is that, and both of them almost use the same words, that “education is the civil rights issue of this time.” If it is a civil rights issue of this time, then we should use the weapons that were used to bring about civil rights, which is the Constitution; we should either get the Supreme Court to reverse a constitutional decision it had from 1973 where by one vote it decided that education was not a fundamental right under the Constitution. We should ask for that to be reversed. If not, I think we should move a constitutional amendment and follow the example of the women’s groups that moved a constitutional amendment through the Congress and through most of the states. They didn’t achieve what they wanted, which was to get all the states to agree, but in lieu of that they got Title IX, which gave them equality in education and has brought about all sorts of changes in schools and society and sports. And they got other legislation.
So we should fight for constitutional guarantees, legal guarantees. You may not achieve them fully, but I think you’re going to achieve something along the way very close to the objective. So I would use both the grant program for states that were willing to face the hard decisions that are scientifically-based that will bring about improvement, and also use constitutional legal guarantees to help bring about improvement. It would be a two-pronged approach.
It’s difficult. It won’t be done tomorrow, but if this is what is the right thing to do, if this is what educators think will bring about improvement, I think educators should get behind it and should work for it—maybe they won’t work for it for as long as Milton Friedman who went from the ’40s to the ’90s. Maybe it will only take half as long, but it’s going to take a little while. But you have to work for something because if you’re not working for your own agenda, you’re working on somebody else’s. And educators today are working on businessmen’s agendas, governors’ agendas, and other people’s agendas. They’re not working on their own agenda. So educators should write their own agenda, which is scientifically based, and start to work on it.
Wise: So a couple points leapt out at me as you discuss this in your last two chapters—both the legislative proposal’s increased grant and also the legal challenge. And on the legislative one, I was thinking, “Okay, you made the point that about $35 billion I believe is being spent K–12 at the federal level. And this would be a total of over 10 years that you would get up to about $70 billion a year.” But if you simply increase education 5 percent a year, you’re probably going to be pretty close to that $70 billion regardless. And what you’d be getting from it I think under your proposal is much more results and the ability to actually measure how people are doing.
On the legal one, my first thought was, “Look, given the present situation in the Supreme Court, I think it would be pretty hard to get the right to education in there when it was turned back five to four many, many years ago. I think it was 1973. But then again, the points that you make about what’s been learned about education since then, posits this in a whole new way for a court to consider. So I really urge folks to read these last two chapters because there’s a lot of reasoning in there that this is not something that is way off but something that definitely, definitely should be considered. So Jack I have to ask though, we’re talking about the future. What are your thoughts on the current Senate bill to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that’s been reported out of committee, ready for floor action?
Jennings: I think it’s a good step. It’s a bi-partisan bill which is a wonder in itself. There haven’t been any bi-partisan measures to any great degree for a number of years. So this is good. But you have to look at what it’s doing. It’s cleaning up, it’s a mop operation. It’s not putting in place a new vision. So it’s good. It will help the states feel more comfortable that what they’re able to do under their waivers, they’ll be able to do beyond two or three years, that they don’t need another waiver. But it’s not putting place things that are really going to bring about change.
I’m almost giving up on the present generation of leadership. I think they’re almost addicted to testing and accountability. It’s like they took a pill and they have to take it every day and only think about testing and accountability and looking for the perfect test.
I served on the board of the Educational Testing Service for nine years. I watched all this testing stuff. Tests are just snapshots of performance at one particular point in time and you’re not going to find a perfect test that’s going to answer all these issues. What we do know, though, is that if a kid sits in preschool and a kid is poor and the kid lacks language ability and vocabulary, the kid can increase his or her vocabulary and do better in school. We know that if funding is fairly distributed, there’s evidence that kids do better in school. We know these things, but with testing and accountability, we don’t know. And I was involved in the early stage of this and I don’t think the scientific basis is there that it can be relied on. And so I think we have to get out of this box of testing and accountability and spend our time on something that really makes a difference.
Wise: In the few minutes we have remaining on this part of the webinar Jack, I wanted to do a couple questions that have come in from people viewing right now. From Pittsburgh the question comes, “How can we make progress when the educational focus changes every election season? Wouldn’t we be better off giving education back to the educators and taking it from the politicians?”
Jennings: Well I don’t think educators had it back. The United States is different from almost all other industrialized countries in that we have local education controlled by locally elected school boards. That does not happen in most other countries in the world. And so since the beginning, politicians in the form of school boards have been involved in education. So it’s not giving education back to educators, because they never had it. The local school boards always had control over education. But the broader point is correct in that we should pay far more attention to what is research driven that shows what works in education and we should pay much more attention to teachers. But I’ll tell you I’ve been around this argument so many times, why isn’t teaching a more highly regarded profession? And I don’t think it will be until the requirements for entrance to become a teacher are higher, until teachers are better trained in induction programs and so on and better paid. It’s not going to be a profession that people are going to defer to. So I don’t think you’re going to have the politicians just walk away from this. It’s not our tradition. And secondly, the teachers and others in education haven’t worked for a common agenda that they could present that would be as convincing to people as what the politicians are proposing.
Wise: Another question comes in, “To what do you attribute Congress’s lack of ability to reach consensus on education policy today?”
Jennings: I attribute it to a number of things. One is that when No Child Left Behind was enacted in 2002, it was signed by President Bush. It was his first bill and it was supported on a bi-partisan basis by some very heavyweight senators and congressmen. John Boehner, for instance, the speaker of the House was the one wrote the bill in the House. In the Senate, it was Ted Kennedy who wrote the bill, a Democrat. So they wanted this policy to be in place for as long as possible without change so that it would become embedded in the school system and couldn’t be washed away easily. And so they avoided amendments. I was at a meeting with some congressmen and they asked me if there could be changes in the law and I laid out exactly how they could bring about the changes. It would be done in a relatively short period of time. But the leaders didn’t want changes. So I think for seven, eight years they resisted amendments.
No Child Left Behind is the only major education bill I know of in 50 years that has not been amended within a year or two after it was enacted. And that’s an intentional aversion to amendments from the leaders who wanted to leave it embedded. But more recently the reason there hasn’t been agreement is that the liberals are upset about too much testing and too much reliance on testing in the NCLB. And the conservatives don’t want the federal government in education even though it’s been in education since 1789. But they don’t want the federal government involved. And between the two of them, there’s so much suspicion that you can’t get agreement and then President Obama doesn’t want to give up on the law so you just have a stalemate. But now it’s starting to move. But again, what’s moving is a cleanup operation; it’s not a new vision.
Wise: You mentioned in your book a lot about research and what we know now and what we’ve learned over 50 years. Sunny in Virginia asks, “What can the research community do? Are the issues we’re not investigating? Are we falling short in answering important questions?”
Jennings: That’s a question that’s been asked repeatedly. The research world and the political world are two different worlds. In the research world, you’re rewarded with an academic thesis, with appearing on a panel, with getting tenure, and so on. In the political world, you’re rewarded by getting reelected and by passing bills. And the timelines are different. In the academic world, it takes ten years to do something. In the political world, sometimes it takes ten months to do something. So they are two different worlds. But researchers have to be aware of the political schedule; they have to be aware of what’s important in the political schedule; and I think they have to hire translators. They have to hire somebody who can translate something that they write into something that can be read.
And lastly, they have to come to a conclusion. Before every reauthorization, I would ask the Library of Congress to give me all the research they could on a certain topic, whether it vocational education, children with disabilities, or whatever, and I’d read it all. And you couldn’t get much out of it. It just didn’t come to a conclusion. And so if research wants to have an effect, it has to have conclusions and it has to monitor to make sure that the conclusions are carried out correctly, because with this small class size research, Governor Wilson in California carried it out incorrectly and had the exact opposite effect. And so that would be the fifth step. That there should be some way to monitor to make sure that the research is properly understood. If it is understood, if it is translated, and delivered on time, and is an issue that is important to the policy world.
Wise: So that’s all the time we have for this webinar. But I want to thank Jack Jennings very much and also I hope you have just caught a glimpse of what this book is about. I have not heard anyone better connect the research imperative with the political imperative, all that must go on in between, the interaction that takes place, the ability to “translate,” I love that word Jack. The ability to translate because you’re not speaking only to other educators or to researchers, but you’re speaking to policymakers, you’re speaking to their constituents, and they’ve got to be able to go home and explain it as well. So I urge you to read this book. I also urge you to look for the video that provides the inside story about how the federal education program came about, its impact, and the reason for major changes in the federal role in K–12 education. Again many thanks to Jack Jennings for both participating in this webinar, answering these questions, and writing this book. Have a great day.
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