The history of K–12 education is full of what, at the time, felt like unprecedented shocks to the system that forced schools to adapt in dramatic ways.
For instance, this is not the first time a virus has closed schools’ doors. In 1937, an outbreak of polio in Chicago prompted the creation of “Air Newspaper-School,” which had educators teach students at home via radio waves and local print media. The school superintendent called the innovation “promising” and noted that researchers were studying it.
Twenty years later, a different shock hit. On the same day Leave it to Beaver premiered on television, the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik crystallized growing Cold War anxiety into a major national investment into science and math education. The National Defense Education Act of 1958 included more than a billion dollars for education and scholarships and set a new precedent for the role of the federal government in education.
But “promising” potential aside, Air Newspaper-School snapped right back to normal once the polio outbreak faded in Chicago, whereas we can still spot the impacts of Sputnik in schools around the country—from science labs to Advanced Placement courses. In fact, AP is one of the relatively few educational reforms that historians argue actually succeeded.
Neither of these two stories is a perfect analogy for the circumstances school system leaders face today (and few today would laud radio school as an improvement of any kind). Nevertheless, like Chicago’s superintendent, many education leaders are eager not just to survive this year, but to seize the opportunity for promising, positive changes in schools. The sense that a crisis inevitably breeds opportunity seems ingrained. Yet history has proven time and again that innovations implemented in response to sudden changes in circumstances aren’t guaranteed to last into tomorrow.
The good news is this: There is a seed of opportunity for positive change in 2020, and it can grow—if carefully tended. Lasting transformation comes from deep inside schools, not just the world around them. To nurture innovation that persists, school system leaders and policymakers need tools to understand how changes made in response to the pandemic will interact with the “organizational models” they already have.
Luckily, schools’ models aren’t total mysticism. Every school can be described in terms of four components: Schools offer value propositions representing the promises they make to a wide range of stakeholders. They rely on resourcesand processes to carry out their work. And every school has a revenue formula that defines how it covers its costs. These four components determine its capabilities (what it can and can’t do), as well as its priorities (what it must accomplish).
These four components act on each other and respond to the world around them like predictable chemical reactions. Here are three of them:
1. New resources alone aren’t likely to change what schools can do—but resources that power new processes could. For example, in 2015, the OECD’s gloomy findings about the impact of computers in schools could have been predicted: adding a new resource (computers) to classrooms will do very little to change what schools can accomplish unless the new resource enables new instructional processes designed with a specific goal in mind.
In contrast, a different study showed that pairing an adaptive online math homework tool (ASSISTments) with professional learning on formative assessment can increase student achievement in math. Computers and edtech made waves only when enabling teachers to use homework as fuel to power their instructional decisions, not just as stand-alone math practice.
2. To take root and thrive in the long term, new processes have to show they’re better than old ones at meeting schools’ existing priorities. Priorities emerge from a school’s entire organizational model, including its obligation to deliver a value proposition for key stakeholders. Education historians have observed that many a reform has failed to materialize because it simply hasn’t been met by real demand.
On the other hand, the decade of work on competency-based systems at Lindsay Unified School District shows how, in a district that was failing along all the traditional academic measures, new processes took root more easily because the old ones were clearly underperforming. And more important than the fact that Lindsay’s processes are “objectively” improving test scores is that they were also better at meeting the expectations of key stakeholders like teachers, families, and administrators.
3. New priorities are a catalyst for the development of new processes. For example, the launch of Sputnik created urgency around a new value proposition: a generation of competent American scientists and mathematicians to compete with the Soviet Union. The new demand, and new revenue sources through national legislation, prompted a variety of adjustments in resources and processes, like science curricula and AP programs.
Today, there are hints of new demands on schools, such as to ensure all families have home access to the internet, as well as new financial incentives, such as experiments with performance-based funding models that offer weighted funding upfront for schools serving students farthest from opportunity. Formalized changes to schools’ priorities, like these, could strongly influence changes in resources and processes.
But if there’s one warning that our research demonstrates strongly, it’s that the longer an organization has to mature, the more it resists change. Most public schools’ models are deeply entrenched, often persisting with the same fundamental DNA through dozens of leadership changes. Case in point: in the wake of Sputnik, many of the new resources and processes that took root have persisted today precisely because they are synergistic with what Larry Cuban calls the “grammar of schooling,” like age-graded classrooms and A through F letter grades.
That reality is what prompted our work on a new report that digs into what school system leaders and policymakers must know when attempting to nurture long-lasting changes during Covid-19. When equipped with a sense of the dynamics at play in the four-box framework, school system leaders and policymakers can avoid some of the pitfalls of introducing changes to entrenched organizational models. They can also better spot opportunities to introduce promising changes that actually have a chance of sticking around.
School system leaders can begin by distinguishing between the adaptations they introduced as Covid crisis response measures, and those they hope will grow into persistent, positive changes. For instance, some leaders may be eager to rethink attendance policies during remote learning because new policies can prioritize engagement and learning rather than a simple “butts in seats” measure. In this case, leaders should make it clear from the get-go that the new policies are intended to last beyond the pandemic and connect the new policies to the value propositions that they know stakeholders care about. Then, they can get to work improving the new attendance system so that it stands a chance of winning out against the old system when the pandemic ends and the competition between old and new processes begins.
The buck doesn’t stop at K-12 administration. Leaders who influence policy and funding play a critical role in determining the likelihood of lasting change in public schools, especially when it comes to influencing schools’ priorities and processes. Policymakers and funders can nurture change by making funding available for schools to develop new processes (not just shore up resources, which is also critical in an era of serious budget shortfalls). The Department of Education’s grant program, Education Stabilization Fund-Rethink K12 Education Models, is offering this opportunity for some states. Policymakers can also accelerate the creation of innovation zones, exemptions, and waivers to allow schools to let go of legacy processes that hold back promising new ones. Lastly, policymakers can introduce legislation that incentivizes schools to consider new priorities in their decision-making—while also being mindful that schools’ rational reaction will be to deliver on new priorities using their existing capabilities.
Without an understanding of the dynamics at play when schools achieve lasting change, any promising changes introduced this year risk fading away just as quickly as Air Newspaper-School. By taking strategic action, school system leaders, policymakers, and funders can increase the likelihood that school system leaders’ efforts at transformation during the 2020-21 school year bear fruit.
Chelsea Waite is a research fellow for education at the Clayton Christensen Institute, where she analyzes how innovation theory can inform the evolution of student-centered learning and the advancement of student agency. As part of this work, she leads the Canopy project, a collaborative effort to build better collective knowledge about school innovation.
The post Will 2020 Nurture Transformation, or a Return to Normal? appeared first on Education Next.
A Distinguished Senior Fellow and President Emeritus at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, Chester E. Finn, Jr., joins Education Next Editor-in-chief Marty West to discuss Sen. Lamar Alexander’s impact on K-12 education over more than 50 years in government.
Finn’s article, “Leadership Makes a Difference: Lamar Alexander and K–12 Education,” is available now.
An assistant professor of education at the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education, David Quinn, joins Education Next Editor-in-chief Marty West to discuss Quinn’s new research, which investigates how standardized grading rubrics can help combat racial biases in schools.
Quinn’s article, “How to Reduce Racial Bias in Grading,” is available now.
Lamar Alexander walks to the Senate floor on January 21, 2020.
When the 116th Congress adjourns, sometime before January 2021, Tennessee’s 80-year-old senior senator, Lamar Alexander, will retire after three full terms. No one living today has had more far-reaching influence on American K–12 education. As we wish him many glorious years of retirement, we do well to recognize that his legacy will last even longer. That’s in no small part because his work in the realm of education, and in others, adhered to a consistent and effective vision of leadership. Lamar followed some simple advice that he had found in a book about the presidency by LBJ press secretary George Reedy: a leader should “do three things: 1) see a few urgent needs, 2) develop a strategy to meet each of those needs, and 3) persuade at least half the people that he is right.”
Known to those who have worked with him simply as “Lamar,” the senator is renowned for his approachability and affability as well as his intellect, steadfast pursuit of the public interest as he construes it, and insistence on “getting things done.” In recent years on Capitol Hill, he has stood as one of the few representatives of an older and more honorable era of constructive bipartisanship. In 2011, as Congress was growing more polarized and partisan, Lamar voluntarily exited the ranks of Senate Republican leadership, where he was a rising star, explaining that doing so “will liberate me to spend more time working for results on the issues I care most about. I want to do more to make the Senate a more effective institution so that it can deal better with serious issues.”
Alexander listens during the “Covid-19: Going Back to School Safely” hearing in his role as chairman of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, June 4, 2020.
Instead of waiting to become an admiral, Lamar opted to captain a battleship. While serving on four Senate committees and 10 subcommittees, Lamar focused primarily on his chairmanship of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, known as the HELP Committee. During his four years in that chair, the committee reported out some 45 separate bills that were enacted into law, a remarkable accomplishment in this fraught era on Capitol Hill. Working effectively across the aisle with Senator Patty Murray of Washington, the committee’s ranking Democrat, he advanced signal legislation on primary-secondary education, including 2015’s Every Student Succeeds Act and 2018’s reauthorization of the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act. Last year, he and Murray agreed on a bill to simplify the notorious FAFSA undergraduate financial-aid application with which 20 million families wrestle each year and to permanently fund historically Black colleges and universities. As I write, he’s doing his darnedest to get those reforms across the congressional finish line.
This legislative activity, however, is just the latest, and perhaps not the final, act in Lamar Alexander’s half-century performance on the education stage.
Education and Early Career
Lamar was born in east Tennessee in 1940. Andrew Lamar Alexander, Lamar’s father, was an elementary-school principal until, needing to earn more to support his growing family, he went to work for Alcoa. Still passionate about education, he then ran for the Maryville City School Board, on which he served for 25 years, some of that time as chair.
For three decades, Lamar’s mother, Flo Alexander, ran and taught in a preschool housed in a converted garage behind their home. It was one of the few pre-K options available in Maryville at the time, ages before public-school kindergartens and Head Start. As Lamar recalls, “She had nowhere else to put me except in ‘Mrs. Alexander’s Nursery School and Kindergarten’ for five years, so I had quite a head start.” A head start indeed for a career that, while not based in education, has never been far from it. “The point is,” he says, “I was taught and experienced the value of a good education.”
That education later took him from Maryville High School to Vanderbilt University in Nashville, where he became an accomplished student athlete, earned top grades, and graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1962. Even in college, he showed a willingness to swim upstream if the destination was important to him. He used his platform as editor of the student paper to oppose the university’s racial segregation that most of his classmates supported. The New York Times once characterized him as “quietly subversive.”
Lamar went on to New York University Law School, where he participated in the law review and excelled academically. Afterwards, he served as a clerk for Judge John Minor Wisdom of the Fifth Circuit and then as legislative assistant to Tennessee GOP Senator Howard Baker, who became something of a mentor to Lamar.
Senator Howard H. Baker, Jr., and then-governor Alexander meet the press at the annual Lincoln Day Dinner in Knoxville, Tennessee, February 11, 1982.
In 1969, he joined the staff of the Nixon White House, where he and I first met, both still in our 20s. Lamar was an aide to Bryce Harlow, who headed congressional relations for Nixon, and I was on the team led by White House Urban Affairs Adviser Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Before long, though, Lamar and his new bride, Leslee Buhler (known to all as “Honey”), returned to Tennessee, where he practiced law and entered politics in his own right. After one false start, he won a bid for governor in 1978 at the age of 38. At that point, I was again working for Pat Moynihan, by then a Democratic senator from New York, but three years later my wife and I found ourselves en route to—of all places—Nashville, where I would join the Vanderbilt faculty.
An Education Governor
When Lamar became governor, the Volunteer State had the third-lowest average family income in the land. In his inaugural address, he declared, “My goal is to raise family incomes.” He soon concluded that the surest way to boost his state’s drab economic prospects was to revitalize its education system. In what became an oft-repeated slogan, he maintained that “better schools mean better jobs for Tennesseans.”
For a Republican governor, getting anything important done in purplish Tennessee meant joining forces with leaders of the Democratic legislative majority. So, in 1981, Lamar joined with those leaders to appoint a blue-ribbon commission that would explore ways of improving the state’s schools and colleges. The state bought enough Mac computers for every middle school to add computer literacy to its curriculum. With occasional convening help from the Southern Regional Education Board, which for a time Lamar chaired, he also connected regularly with his counterparts in other states. Arkansas’s Bill Clinton, South Carolina’s Dick Riley, and Florida’s Bob Graham, “education governors” all, had been elected the same day as Lamar. He also started quietly exploring the concept of merit pay for teachers. (From my Vanderbilt desk, I helped a bit with that part.)
At the time, Lamar viewed education as properly and entirely a state responsibility. He flew to Washington in 1981 to propose to President Ronald Reagan a “grand swap,” whereby Uncle Sam would shoulder the whole Medicaid burden while offloading all of K–12 education onto the states. Reagan mentioned the idea in his 1982 State of the Union address, and, in retrospect, such a sorting-out might have been good for all concerned, but it never happened.
That didn’t deter Lamar from mounting his own state-specific reform proposal. In a January 1982 “State of Education” address, he set out a five-year Basic Skills First plan that included elements of academic standards, tests, and accountability, all new to Tennessee and to most of the country. But this was just the start. A year later, with the bipartisan commission report and his own reelection in hand, he presented the state’s lawmakers and educators with a 10-point Better Schools Program.
That proposal was comprehensive, ambitious, expensive, and, in one key element, truly bold. It emphasized basic skills, computer literacy, stronger adult and vocational education, summer residential programs for gifted high schoolers, and a substantial investment in university “centers of excellence,” but the heart of the plan was an innovative and intricate merit-pay design called the Master Teacher Program. This was structured as a “career ladder” by which existing Tennessee teachers who chose to join—and all future teachers—could, on the basis of performance, ascend four levels of professional licensure and stature, with considerably higher pay attached to each level. The plan was ultimately enacted, becoming the first statewide program in the nation to, in Lamar’s words, “pay teachers more for teaching well.” And because student performance as demonstrated by test scores was to be one of several factors in gauging teachers’ readiness to ascend the ladder, it paved the way for what we now know as “growth” or “value-added” analysis of student, teacher, and school performance.
Getting the plan adopted, however, involved an epic legislative battle, because the Tennessee Education Association and its parent, the National Education Association, hated the merit-pay part of the program, though it generally supported the rest, including the additional education funding that would be provided by the sales tax boost the governor had proposed.
Lamar Alexander is politically adroit as well as famously dogged in pursuit of purposes and plans he believes in. In his 1978 quest for the governor’s office, he walked more than a thousand miles across the state. He proved tireless and imaginative in pressing for the Better Schools Program, both within Tennessee and beyond. For example, he and I took the state plane to Washington and had lunch with Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers. Shanker was keener on finding ways to encourage and reward great teachers than were his Tennessee counterparts in the rival NEA. Shanker then invited Lamar to address the AFT’s annual convention in Los Angeles. (Flo Alexander said, “Be careful, son.”) Shanker, in introducing Lamar to union members, asked them, “If you can have master plumbers, why not master teachers?” Lamar’s speech drew a standing ovation from the union delegates.
Alexander traversed the state of Tennessee during his campaign for governor.
Lamar and his team spent many hours on public events, rallies, and lobbying legislators and those who might influence them. Most of the Better Schools Program was broadly popular, despite its hefty price tag, but the Master Teacher Program proved a heavy lift. The whole reform enterprise gained traction, however, from the coincidental fact that 1983 also saw the publication of the National Commission on Excellence in Education’s landmark report A Nation at Risk, which drew attention to the dire state of K–12 education in America and heralded an “imperative for educational reform” in its subtitle. Hard as it is today to recall such a time, it was also a period of bipartisan zeal for such reforms. The Clintons were overhauling education in Arkansas. Dick Riley and Jim Hunt were doing the same in the Carolinas, as was Tom Kean in New Jersey. Like Lamar, Florida’s Democratic governor Bob Graham was struggling—successfully, in the end—to create a merit-pay plan for the Sunshine State, and though he and Lamar engaged in a friendly rivalry to see who could get there first, Graham came to Nashville to urge a key state senator to vote for Lamar’s plan. Reagan came too, visiting Knoxville’s Farragut High School to voice his support for the Master Teacher Program and help legitimize the funding to pay for it.
While governor of Tennessee, Alexander appears with President Ronald Reagan at Farragut High School in Knoxville to discuss the report released by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, June 14, 1983.
After a lot more advocacy work, some compromising with the union, and summoning the legislature into special session, a mostly complete version of Alexander’s Better Schools plan was enacted in February 1984, along with a one-cent increase in Tennessee’s sales tax.
Lamar had much to be proud of but was already looking for more, and not just in Tennessee. He helped lead the Southern Regional Education Board into a pioneering use of data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, to generate state-level results, which had never been done before. He journeyed to Dallas to try to convince Ross Perot, who had been deeply involved in Texas education reform, to join him in a nationwide “better schools effort.” Perot demurred, telling Lamar that education reform was the “meanest, bloodiest, and most difficult thing I’ve ever done” and that he wanted no more of it. As chairman of the National Governors Association, Lamar persuaded that group to spend an entire year on a single topic, namely better schools, which ushered in what became a five-year Time for Results project that enlisted governors from many states.
Along the way, Lamar developed two lasting convictions about K–12 education. Within Tennessee, Lamar came to understand that, regardless of what the state might do, schools wouldn’t get much better unless their communities wanted them to, which often meant cultivating an appetite for change from outside the usual school establishment. This prompted him to travel the state to urge creation of what became “better schools task forces” in every one of Tennessee’s 127 districts. Lamar came to understand that public schools ultimately express the educational priorities, dreams, and capacities of their communities, and that, while state and federal governments—and other external forces—can influence, inspire, and assist in various ways, the quality of the school supply won’t improve unless there’s local demand for it.
Lamar expressed the second emerging conviction in 1986 when Education Week asked him what common thread ran through the seven task force reports that the National Governors Association’s “time for results” initiative had produced. “The governors,” he said
are ready for some old-fashioned horse-trading. We’ll regulate less, if schools and school districts will produce better results. The kind of horse-trading we’re talking about will change dramatically the way most American schools work. First, the governors want to help establish clear goals and better report cards, ways to measure what students know and can do. Then, we’re ready to give up a lot of state regulatory control—even to fight for changes in the law to make that happen—if schools and school districts will be accountable for the results.
These remarks reflected not only his single-minded focus on better results and a solid grasp of the need for standards, assessments, and accountability, but also his belief in a reform strategy that offers freedom and flexibility in return for outcomes. Don’t tell people how to run their schools; instead, insist that students learn more and hold the schools and those who run them responsible for delivering results.
As Lamar neared the end of his second term as governor and prepared to move his family to Australia for what turned into a six-month sabbatical, I was back in Washington working with Bill Bennett at the U.S. Department of Education. It was evident that NAEP needed an overhaul, if only to give states the achievement data that governors now craved but could not get in reliable fashion from either SAT and ACT scores or the minimum-competency tests their own schools typically used. We understood that any such overhaul would need bipartisan support; a proposal from the Reagan administration alone would not fly with a Congress that had a solid Democratic majority in the House and would soon have one in the Senate.
Our strategy, then, was to appoint a blue-ribbon “study group,” with distinguished members from both parties and from the education and ed-reform camps, and have it function—with foundation funding—largely outside the government itself. Lamar agreed to chair the group, if we enlisted someone else to do the heavy lifting. Fortunately, H. Thomas James, the just-retired president of the Spencer Foundation and former Stanford ed-school dean, was game to serve as vice chair and orchestrate the work.
We assembled a diverse group of educators, public servants (including Hillary Rodham Clinton, then first lady of Arkansas), business leaders, and academics. In March 1987—while Lamar was Down Under—the panel presented its report. Education Week termed it a plan for “a radically more ambitious and expensive version of the nation’s ‘report card’ on student achievement.” (It was Lamar who coined the nickname “nation’s report card” for NAEP. He has an instinct for the kind of language that works best in the public square.)
It was a watershed moment, not just for NAEP but also for America’s capacity to monitor the performance of its K–12 system. As panel member Michael Kirst of Stanford said at a press conference introducing the report, “What is being discussed today wouldn’t even have been considered 20 years ago. Anyone who had proposed it would have been laughed out of the room.” Albert Shanker declared that strengthening NAEP was “one of the most important things we can accomplish in this round” of education reform.
The stickiest wicket was the recommendation that NAEP report “achievement in each of the fifty states and the District of Columbia,” which the panel termed “the single most important change” it was recommending. But the glacier of resistance to such reporting was already cracking, in no small part because Lamar and his fellow governors had applied heat to it. In the aftermath of A Nation at Risk, the only state-level data available from the Education Department came from Secretary Terrel H. Bell’s so-called wall chart, which relied on unrepresentative SAT and ACT scores. Yet the Southern Regional Education Board’s pilot program showed that NAEP could serve this purpose. The National Governors Association’s Time for Results project added to the demand. The Alexander-James panel pointed the way to an improved supply. Lamar had played a key role in nearly every phase of this shift.
He, however, was entering a couple of years in private life, writing, doing some college teaching, and raising his still-young family. He reemerged in 1988, when he became president of the University of Tennessee. Soon thereafter, he was drawn back into the national K–12 reform effort.
Zeal for Reform
In 1989, President George H. W. Bush convened an education “summit” in Charlottesville, Virginia, attended by 49 governors. The event produced a hugely ambitious set of national education goals to be achieved by the year 2000. Bush and his staff earnestly wanted an action plan to accompany these goals, but they weren’t getting much action from the Education Department, then headed by Lauro Cavazos, a reticent university president who was the first-ever cabinet member of Hispanic descent. So they created the President’s Education Policy Advisory Committee, known as PEPAC, led by Alcoa CEO and future Treasury secretary Paul O’Neill and including New Jersey’s Tom Kean, Xerox’s David Kearns, and Lamar, among others (myself included) who the White House hoped would put some wind in the sails of the man who had declared himself America’s first “education president.”
PEPAC did some of that—one meeting also afforded Bush a degree of “cover” on the day bombs started falling on Baghdad as part of Operation Desert Storm—but by the end of 1990, Cavazos was being shown the door. A week before Christmas, Bush nominated Lamar to take Cavazos’s place as secretary of education. Lamar soon began to formulate the action plan Bush craved. I was part of the team Lamar assembled—along with Kearns, Bruno Manno, and Scott Hamilton—to brainstorm what became America 2000.
Bush welcomed that plan, and in April 1991, the White House released it. As reported in Education Week,
President Bush and Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander last week unveiled an ambitious, unprecedented “education strategy” highlighted by proposals for “a new generation of American schools” and a national system of high-stakes achievement testing. “For the sake of the future, of our children, and our nation, we must transform America’s schools,” Mr. Bush told business leaders, governors, lawmakers, and educators at the White House last Thursday. “This isn’t really an announcement; it’s a launch,” Mr. Alexander told reporters. “It isn’t really a program; it’s a crusade.”
America 2000 kicked off the modern era of federal involvement with K–12 education reform. In contrast to a standard-issue government program, much of America 2000 was intended to take place in the private sector and voluntarily in hundreds of communities that would avail themselves of innovative school models and sundry other ideas and mechanisms for working toward the national education goals. Still, many observers came to see America 2000 as the start of a decade of heavy federal involvement, especially in combination with the National Education Goals Panel that emerged after Charlottesville, the revamped National Assessment, and a National Council on Education Standards and Testing that was congressionally chartered but largely appointed by Alexander. That decade would culminate in No Child Left Behind, followed by Race to the Top and the Common Core.
President George H.W. Bush and Alexander speak to the governors of Maine and Maryland on the phone about the American 2000 program on September 4, 1991.
The Democratic Congress had little stomach for the parts of the Bush-Alexander plan that called for legislation (including measures to boost school choice and further expand NAEP into “voluntary national tests”). The executive branch—and a host of private donors and education entrepreneurs—did their best, though, to advance the rest. Lamar’s Education Department and Lynne Cheney’s National Endowment for the Humanities made grants to organizations to develop national standards for core subjects. Much of that work was overseen by Diane Ravitch, then assistant secretary of education. As deputy secretary of education, David Kearns raised private money for the New American Schools Development Corporation, which in turn seeded a number of start-from-scratch school designs. And Lamar barnstormed the country with the president, appearing with both GOP and Democratic governors to promote their “crusade” in one state and community after another. Speaking in Columbus in November 1991, for example, Bush proudly declared that, seven months in, Ohio had just become the 25th state to “have enlisted in the revolution to reinvent American education by the dawn of the new century.”
Nor did their zeal for education reform stop there. With Minnesota and California having passed charter-school laws and Wisconsin having launched a small voucher program in Milwaukee, school choice was gaining momentum, and Bush and Lamar sought to add a federal nudge. So, in June 1992—with his reelection campaign underway—the president sent Congress a Lamar-designed “GI Bill for Children” that would provide federal funds to states and communities that wanted to make private-school scholarships (that is, vouchers) available to families. Lamar has revived, resubmitted, and promoted variations of this plan ever since, though resistance from teachers unions, their Democratic allies, and more than a few suburban Republicans has so far blocked all such moves.
By then, however, he was also beginning to see how difficult it was—and remains today—to sustain the distinction between “national” and “federal” and to maintain a workable barrier between voluntary and mandatory. He had long denounced the trend toward a de facto “national school board” that would usurp state and local control, but that trend was acquiring momentum.
The essential distinction seemed clear enough to Lamar. Testifying to the Senate in support of America 2000, he declared that “the federal role is to cause someone else to do it.” Though Washington’s role was “limited,” he wrote in the key America 2000 pamphlet, “that role will be played vigorously. Washington can help by setting standards, highlighting examples, contributing some funds, providing flexibility in return for accountability, and pushing and prodding—then pushing and prodding some more.” Top government officials would also deploy their education bully pulpits as best they could—ample precedent for this had been set during Bennett’s time as education secretary and, in somewhat different ways, by Ted Bell and Ronald Reagan. But Washington wouldn’t do the reforming itself. States and communities ultimately had to want to do it and would inevitably do it their own way, and some of them would do it poorly or not at all. That’s American federalism, at least in K–12 education. Save for civil rights protections, the national government had no business telling people how to run their schools, much less trying to force them to.
As Lamar would put it in a speech decades later, “A national issue is an urgent concern for the whole country. A federal issue is something Washington is in the best position to solve.”
One can argue that, at the outset, Alexander and Bush didn’t do a great job of emphasizing that distinction. As critic David Whitman reconstructed those events in a 2015 Brookings paper, “Lamar Alexander didn’t quite summon the federal government to the barricades. But he did say that America 2000 would require ‘major change in our 110,000 public and private schools, change in every American community, change in every American home, change in our attitude about learning.’ And he hit the road to proselytize for his America 2000 plan.”
Yet the line Lamar was trying to draw began to get crossed when the National Council on Education Standards and Testing that he had largely appointed—I was a member—issued its report in January 1992, just eight months after America 2000 was unveiled. Besides recommending national academic standards and a complex move toward national testing—all of which Lamar welcomed—the council framed a set of “school delivery” standards, that is, standards for school inputs and practices. Though the panel had signaled that states should do this for themselves as part of a comprehensive approach to reform, Congress had other ideas. Encouraged by teachers unions and others in the school establishment, the Democratic leadership in the House, in its own very different version of America 2000 legislation, reframed the council’s recommendations as federal “opportunity to learn” standards.
Lamar saw this move as an emerging “national school board that could make day-to-day school decisions on curriculum, discipline, teacher training, textbooks, and classroom materials.” This led him, in September 1992, to warn House minority leader Bob Michel that he would urge Bush to veto the measure if it retained these features. “Such decisions,” Lamar wrote, “belong with communities, parents, teachers, and local school boards. A federal recipe book dictating how to operate a local school does not make schools better.”
Weeks later, Bill Clinton beat Bush, and in early 1993, Lamar returned to Tennessee as his friend, former South Carolina governor Dick Riley, moved into the secretary’s office.
After that, the movement toward a “national school board” accelerated. Under Clinton, 1994’s Goals 2000 and Improving America’s Schools acts moved the federal government forcefully toward requiring states to set academic standards, administer regular assessments to every child, and work toward uniform national goals. Those goals had burgeoned from the six that had been set in Charlottesville, one of which identified five core subjects, to eight goals and nine subjects. Though the detailed mandates of No Child Left Behind were still seven years in the future, Lamar was alarmed by the direction Washington was taking. When he threw his hat into the ring for the 1996 GOP presidential nomination, he vowed that, as president, he would “let parents and teachers make decisions about education. I will abolish the Department of Education and then create a GI Bill for Kids so that parents won’t be forced to send their children to a bad school.”
Alexander waves to supporters in Milford, New Hampshire, during his presidential campaign, February 14, 1996.
He sought the presidency again in 2000 but bowed out after a poor showing in Iowa. After a year at the Harvard Kennedy School (as “professor of practice”), Lamar returned to politics, this time back in Tennessee, and in 2002, was handily elected to the U.S. Senate, taking the seat vacated by Fred Thompson.
Lamar’s interest in education had not waned. He immediately sought (and got) membership on the HELP Committee, where he would soon chair the subcommittee on children and families, which is responsible for education legislation. His maiden speech on the Senate floor explained the American History and Civics Education bill he was introducing. “It is time,” he said, “that we put the teaching of American history and civics back in its rightful place in our schools.” He approvingly recalled a 1988 forum at which Shanker answered the question “What is the rationale for the public school?” by saying, “The public school was created to teach immigrant children the three R’s and what it means to be an American with the hope that they would then go home and teach their parents.”
It was 18 months after 9/11, and Lamar’s appeal to American exceptionalism and patriotism was timely and understandable. His bill, however, was no “big government” measure. Intended to piggyback on a George W. Bush initiative at the National Endowment for the Humanities, it would authorize competitive grants to educational institutions to operate summer programs for history and civics teachers and for interested students. It was, in other words, entirely consistent with Lamar’s view that the federal role is to encourage, facilitate, and inspire.
When he entered the Senate, No Child Left Behind had been law for barely a year. Asked about NCLB during an interview for this article, Lamar wasn’t sure he would have voted for the bill had he been in Congress then. Bush, he noted, had been a fine “education governor” in Texas but was perhaps trying too hard to become “governor of the United States.” He also acknowledged, however, that the president might have talked him into supporting the bipartisan measure, despite its obvious “national school board” tendencies.
Meanwhile, there was other work to be done in the Senate, and not just on education. An avid outdoorsman with a particular fondness for the national parks, Lamar gave considerable attention to environmental issues. He also did a faithful job of tending the needs and interests of the Volunteer State, which returned him to Congress with wide majorities in 2008 and again in 2014. In his spare time—and occasionally at political events—he played the piano, at which he’s highly adept.
On the education front, Lamar persisted in trying to enact several versions of the “GI Bill for Kids,” sometimes dubbed “Pell Grants for Kids.” He had become an ardent champion of school choice and of empowering parents rather than government agencies and education bureaucracies to make decisions about children’s schooling. He understood that, by attaching money to students, the original GI Bill had done much to make American higher education both great and diverse while meeting the variegated needs of millions. He insisted that a similar strategy would do much for K–12 education and the kids who depended on it. He had also become a charter-school enthusiast and favored federal aid to create more of them. (One of his final acts as education secretary was to write all the governors and urge them to check out what Minnesota had just done on the charter front.) He was a major backer of NAEP and, more generally, of high-quality education statistics and research. And as the U.S. senator with the greatest experience in this realm in the most varied roles, and one who continued to write and speak on the topic, he was increasingly looked to by Americans across the political spectrum as a source of wisdom about K–12 and higher education alike.
He was also increasingly alarmed about Uncle Sam’s heavy hand, evident in the NCLB waivers distributed by education secretary Margaret Spellings during George W. Bush’s second term, the Obama-Duncan Race to the Top initiative in 2009, and the battles over the Duncan-boosted Common Core academic standards. Lamar saw the country as having crossed the line that separated federal support and encouragement from a “national school board.” Increasingly, the feds were placing restrictions on what states and districts could do with their federal funding and what they must and could not do with their schools. Moreover, that funding was being deployed more and more forcefully—and in ever-larger sums—to induce specific changes in school practices and operations that someone in Washington thought desirable.
This was not just a problem of philosophy and principle for Chairman Alexander. It was also a mounting source of upset and rancor among educators and state and local leaders around the country. The Obama-Duncan push to link teacher evaluations to student scores was feeding an anti-testing backlash among parents, too. NCLB was long overdue for reauthorization, and its prescriptiveness had come to rankle education leaders and many local and state officials. Though it had done a fine job of exposing achievement gaps, its goals and timetables were jokes; its labeling of thousands of well-regarded schools as “in need of improvement” upset parents, teachers, and real estate agents alike; its choice provisions weren’t working; and its rigid sequence of interventions in troubled schools was not yielding the transformations it was meant to force. Race to the Top was winding down, and the Common Core, which had begun as a privately funded and voluntary initiative undertaken by governors and education chiefs, had become politicized after Secretary Duncan (in effect) made Race to the Top funding contingent on states embracing it. This converted the Common Core from something that states had been free to embrace or reject into something they’d be financially punished for spurning.
It was time, Lamar realized, to push the pendulum back toward state and local control of K–12 schooling. But, by then, this wasn’t just a conservative view. In 2012, when Lamar was the ranking Republican on a HELP committee led by Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin, the committee reported out a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that would return some authority to the states. But that measure failed and, by February 2013, when the new 113th Congress held its first hearing on the reauthorization of NCLB, discontent was widespread.
In his opening statement at the hearing, Lamar—as he has often done—framed the problem in folksy terms:
[T]he Secretary’s using of this waiver authority has gone much broader than that. It’s become a sort of Washington version of the old game children used to play called Mother, May I? . . . You say, ‘‘Mother, May I?’’ and then the mother says, ‘‘You may do thus and so,’’ and if you do the right thing, you get to do it, and if you don’t get to do it, you’re out of the game. So this is an example where the State might say, ‘‘Mother, may I create a teacher evaluation system,’’ and instead of saying yes or no, the Secretary says, ‘‘You may, but only if you wash your hands and practice the piano and do your homework and clean up the kitchen and rake the yard.’’ And you might say, ‘‘Well, Mother, that’s not what I asked to do,’’ and Mother would say, ‘‘Well, but that’s what you have to do if you want to go out and play.’’ So what happens is this simple waiver authority has turned into a conditional waiver, with the Secretary having more authority to make decisions that, in my view, should be made locally by State and local governments.
NCLB reauthorization didn’t make it through that divided Congress, either, but two years later, the GOP had a Senate majority, and Lamar was chairman of the HELP Committee. Within days of the 2014 election, his team was readying a bill to revamp ESEA to return authority to state and local control. By now, there was widespread support for such a move on both sides of the aisle, and Lamar and his staff were soon engaged in lengthy negotiations with committee Democrats, led by Senator Murray. In the end, they reached a rare outcome for the modern Congress: a bipartisan compromise. Democrats and their supporters insisted on retaining—indeed, augmenting—the many “transparency” requirements of NCLB, but Republicans restored to states almost all decisions about evaluating school performance and determining what, if anything, to do in cases where it was weak.
The bill passed, and in December 2015, President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act into law, calling its passage a “Christmas miracle.” As Education Week reported it, “President Barack Obama reversed course with the stroke of a pen Thursday, putting states and districts back at the wheel when it comes to teacher evaluation, standards, school turnarounds, and accountability, through a new iteration of the five-decade old Elementary and Secondary Education Act.”
President Barack Obama shakes hands with Alexander after signing the Every Student Succeeds Act into law on December 10, 2015.
From Lamar’s standpoint, the slide toward a “national school board” had been arrested, indeed substantially reversed. And for this accomplishment he was praised from many directions. The Wall Street Journal termed it “the largest devolution of federal control to the states in a quarter-century.” The National Governors Association conferred on Lamar its first James Madison Award, in recognition of work that “epitomizes the type of cooperative federalism the founding fathers envisioned and governors expect,” in the words of association chair and Utah governor Gary Herbert. More surprisingly, the National Education Association, which two decades earlier had condemned Governor Alexander’s Master Teacher Program, conferred on him and Senator Murray its 2016 Friend of Education Award. NEA president Lily Eskelsen Garcia stated that “they were instrumental not only in the passing of the critical K–12 federal education law, but they listened, they set the tone of bipartisan cooperation, and they got the job done on behalf of the nation’s students and educators.”
Lamar didn’t stop there. The HELP Committee under his leadership churned out dozens of bills that made it into law, including a major overhaul of federal support for vocational education. In 2019, he undertook a heroic—though so far unsuccessful—effort to revamp and renew the Higher Education Act. In 2020, with the coronavirus pandemic sweeping the land, he became more engaged than ever in the health side of the committee’s portfolio.
Alexander, next to Secretary DeVos, holds up the Free Application for Federal Student Aid as students at the Sevier County High School in Tennessee watch. “There are still too many questions on this form,” Alexander says.
Over the decades, Lamar has often quoted a maxim of the late Alex Haley, author of Roots: “Find the good and praise it.” In reflecting on the course of K–12 education in the United States over his decades of involvement with it, Lamar tends to see the good and celebrate it. Yet, he also recognizes how limited are the gains the country has made so far, how implacable is the resistance to change, and how complacent (or oblivious) are many communities toward shortcomings in their schools and their children’s achievement. He’s keenly aware of the limits on what Washington can—and should—do to rectify this, the more so at a time of intense partisanship. But no change occurs without foresight, leadership and stick–to-it-iveness, whether at the federal, state, community, or school level. And as governor, leader of governors, university president, education secretary, senator, and skilled navigator through the shoals of power, Lamar Alexander has achieved much of lasting worth.
See a few urgent needs and develop a strategy to meet each of them. Then stick with it until at least half the people agree that it’s right. Not a bad definition of leadership. And a noteworthy, durable legacy for a great American education reformer.
Students leave their classroom at Dayton’s Immaculate Conception School in Dayton, Ohio. Immaculate Conception was able to increase its enrollment by 90 students in its first year of partnership with Seton Education.
Catholic schools have dealt with declining enrollment and rising costs since the 1960s, leading to widespread closures that were accelerated by the pandemic (See “In Pandemic, Private Schools Face Peril,” Features, Fall 2020). To help Catholic schools regain their financial footing, Seton Blended Learning Network, a program within the nonprofit organization Seton Education Partners, has teamed up with schools to promote blended learning and increase enrollment at a faster pace.
The main driver of Catholic schools’ present plight has been their human capital model. Historically, Catholic schools relied upon members of religious vocations, like priests and sisters, to teach students. They had the gravitas, the support of parents to teach large classes, and the religious commitment to take very low salaries. As religious vocations declined, Catholic schools had to turn to lay teachers and administrators, increasing costs and decreasing class sizes.
Small class sizes are now a feature of many Catholic schools across the country and a selling point for parents. The problem is that the smaller the class size, the higher the per-pupil expense, even when the salaries of the staff are well below those of the employees in most public schools. Particularly for schools that want to serve low-income populations, and even for schools that want to serve middle-class families, this makes the financial model problematic.
The Seton Network
Seton Education Partners is working with 14 Catholic schools around the country to change that equation. As Emily Gilbride, director of the network, said: “We will reduce their per-pupil operating costs.” In the schools where Seton works, it encourages classrooms to grow, often to an average of 30 students per class, up from 15. To cope with these additional students, classes are divided into two or three smaller instructional units that progress through the day in what Gilbride calls a “rotational small-group model.” While one group is working with the teacher, the others are on Chromebooks, working with computer-adaptive software like i-Read, Imagine Math, and Lexia Learning. Seton uses 14 different software platforms in all, depending on the school, grade, and student need.
A maximum of half the class is on computers at a time, so Seton partner schools need only a two-to-one ratio of children to Chromebooks, instead of the more costly and intensive one-to-one programs that many schools use. This model also requires little change to the physical structures of schools and classrooms. Usually, Seton just adds some tables along one classroom wall to serve as computer stations, plus some kidney-shaped tables for small-group work with teachers.
St. Joseph Catholic School in Cincinnati, Ohio, was able to grow to 282 students from 202 in its initial year of partnership. As most of those children participate in Ohio’s EdChoice school voucher program, each additional pupil represented $4,650 in new revenue for the school. All told, that meant almost $400,000 more coming into the school on an annual basis.
The most recent addition to the Seton portfolio, the Immaculate Conception School in Dayton, Ohio, was able to increase its enrollment by 90 students in its first year of partnership. Again, this means hundreds of thousands more dollars in revenue every year. For small Catholic schools, this is a massive swing in enrollment and revenue, and a massive opportunity to serve more students.
Moving to larger classes and blended learning hasn’t been easy, however. Both parents and teachers need convincing, and teachers need training and technical help. With respect to parents, Gilbride argues that focusing on personalization through computer-adaptive software is a big selling point. Also, schools don’t double their class sizes overnight. Usually, they add a few children per year, which cushions the shock, allowing parents to ease into the new model. The story for teachers is similar. By easing into the model, providing instructional coaches for the first two years of partnership, and focusing on the upside, Seton can win teachers over. If the partnership helps prevent a school from closing, it means that teachers keep their jobs.
“We want to place each child’s God-given potential at the forefront of what we’re doing,” Gilbride says, which helps focus both families and teachers on what is important.
Seton’s partnership is a multiyear agreement with schools to help get blended-learning programs up and running and to support schools as they transition to operating the programs independently. Seton fundraises for the startup costs of the transition, which can range from $600,000 for a small school to $850,000 for a larger one. This money goes toward purchasing hardware and software, upgrading servers and wiring, and hiring an instructional coach for teachers. After that, schools pay a fee to the network to continue to participate. Seton says its bulk purchasing of software licenses, which are then made available to network schools, saves participating schools more than they pay in network fees. Software licenses are expensive.
For the Seton model to work, however, several stars need to align. There must be leadership in the school willing to do something different. There must be someone who understands the need to increase revenue at a faster rate than expenses. There must be teachers and parents willing to buy in. The model requires not only a shift to blended learning, but a school culture centered on doing something different to balance the budget and educate children. Not every school has this kind of leadership or community.
What Can We Learn from Seton Network Schools?
Blended learning is not for everyone, but Gilbride offers two lessons that apply to private and public schools alike.
First, schools looking to try blended learning need not plan for one-to-one student-to-device ratios. The one-to-one phenomenon has swept the nation, and schools have been purchasing huge numbers of tablets and Chromebooks to meet demand. These devices require updates to servers and routers and sometimes even electrical wiring in schools. Tablets must be maintained, and they require tech support, and the higher the number of these devices is, the higher those associated costs are. Yes, if class sizes are increasing or other changes are being made, then the fact that children are getting their very own computers or tablets can help blunt criticism. But blunting criticism in the short term is not worth the trade-off in the long term.
Gilbride argues that a two-to-one ratio is better. Her primary argument is that it “allows teachers to teach.” Rather than having students constantly glued to devices, students use devices at some times and don’t use them at others. There’s time for traditional instruction or small-group work and time to work with adaptive software. This structure allows teachers and software to do what they each do best.
Two-to-one is also undeniably cheaper. Buying, supporting, and maintaining half the number of devices of a one-to-one program can represent serious cost savings. For schools with very narrow margins in their budgets, this can be a gamechanger. There are still substantial startup costs, though, and Seton needs to do fundraising on the front end to make the transition.
Second, Gilbride encourages schools to start small. The software itself need not cost much. Numerous free, high-quality software programs have many of the features of the software that Seton and other blended-learning providers use. They are not as fully articulated as the paid programs, but they can give schools a rough idea of what teachers and students will be able to do if they switch to a blended model. Examples include ISL, No Red Ink, and, perhaps most famously, Khan Academy.
Transitioning to a blended model is a huge shift for students, teachers, leaders, and parents. It is not something that should be done lightly or quickly. It can go wrong, as some schools learned with attempts to shift instruction rapidly online amid the pandemic. Schools curious about the approach can try blended learning with these free tools in a single classroom or grade to see how the model works, rather than scale up to the entire school immediately. Teachers and principals can dip their toes in the water and see what the temperature is. Do teachers like the model? Are children responding to it? What are the practical concerns, such as infrastructure upgrades, schedule changes, and so on? In short, is this something worth trying on a larger scale? Only after a successful pilot program will schools need to make the large investments in equipment and training to move entirely to a blended model.
These lessons apply beyond blended learning. Any decision to use technology should focus on the problem that technology is trying to solve. No matter what the technology of tomorrow will be, starting with small pilot programs is a wise first step for schools. Also, thinking about how students can share resources, instead of requiring one device for every child, can be a way to save costs.
Blended learning is not just for schools facing fiscal difficulty or on the verge of closure. It can also be of use to rural schools that have difficulty recruiting teachers for higher level math and science courses and that wish to provide challenging coursework for more advanced students. Blended learning can change more than just the economics of a school; it can also change the quality of the education a school provides.
The president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, Mike Petrilli, joins Paul E. Peterson to discuss the results of the 2020 presidential election, and what it could mean for education in the United States.
Although we had the option of selecting hybrid learning at our children’s school, my wife and I elected remote learning for our three children; a third grader, a kindergartener, and a preschooler. We decided to minimize the risk of any of our children catching Covid-19.
While we are all-in on supporting our students during this point in their education journey, balancing full-time work and the myriad of Zoom calls throughout the day and assisting with schoolwork is no walk in the park. As an educator, I recognize that this is not easy for my colleagues in the classroom, either.
Having spent time on both sides of the divide, I have empathy for all parties. Maybe because I work in education, I am privy to conversations amongst educators who struggle with parents who may not appear to be the most active or invested in their child(ren)’s education. I used to feel that way, particularly prior to becoming a father.
Since I’ve had children, however, I recognize the strain on parents grasping for more time, where there is none, to spend with their children absent the constraints of mandatory obligations such as work or school. This may be a shock to some folks, but remote learning isn’t necessarily the most fun. For some families, it is actually stressful, particularly families with younger students.
Some families may be less technologically savvy. Others may be without the Wi-Fi speed to make the remote learning experience seamless; some may be without Wi-Fi altogether. Some students may be less engaged because they are in front of a computer or chromebook as opposed to in a classroom.
This isn’t to say that parents with middle and/or high school students have it any easier. However, their challenges are different.
Thankfully, there are some things that teachers and school leaders can do to ease the tension felt by parents and students who are doing the best to make the best out of a situation beyond their control and not of their own making.
Limit online meetings to no more than two per day; or limit meeting times to 30 minutes a meeting. My 3rd grader has four to five zoom meetings a day. By the 3rd meeting, he’s spent, and so are his classmates. Maybe it’s because the meetings are 45 minutes to an hour long. I’m not opposed to multiple daily meetings, but the time limit should be reasonable. Four to five meetings 45 minutes to an hour may sound good in theory, but it’s not practical. Either schedule four to five meetings for 20 to 30 minutes or have two to three (best if only two) meetings for an hour. Their screen time is already maxed; no need to exhaust them to the point of disengagement. With younger students, especially, sometimes less is more.
Leave a 60 to 90 minute window open in the middle of the day open for lunch and recess. There’s no imperative to maintain a remote lunch and recess schedule similar to an in-person one built around school building logistics such as limited cafeteria seating or playground space. Students are home. Like it or not, they’re eating and snacking according to their own schedule— or that of their working parents. If a parent is working from home and takes lunch at 12:30 p.m., it makes sense for students to take it then also. It makes less sense to schedule a zoom at that time.
Pre-record lessons for kindergarteners and preschoolers and limit meetings to two days a week. I get the desire to make school as normal as possible for the youngest students—to keep the experience authentic to the building. But it is not. It’s also presumptuous to not provide a laptop or chromebook to those students and then expect that they’re able to participate in scheduled Zoom meetings. A safer move is for teachers to create lessons on videos or their own YouTube page wherey parents can access lessons at their disposal (within a reasonable timespan to turn in work). This would support parents who cannot focus on remote learning for long periods of time during the day and can do so best when off the clock. This strategy also helps older students also. Zoom meetings can be used for assessing student learning from those pre-recorded lessons.
Preload laptops/chromebooks or USB drives with course texts and/or assignments. There is work that students should handwrite. However, there are assignments and texts that should be offered electronically that minimizes the materials students (and parents) are responsible for. If pdfs are made fillable documents (which they can be), it makes transmission of these documents from students to teachers a bit easier and safer compared to taking pictures of work and emailing it.
Reserve one day a week for students to get caught up on work they’ve missed during the week. A goal of all school districts should be that no student falls behind on their work. More than ever, these times require that grace be offered to educators, students and parents alike. This is a great opportunity to provide it to parents and students.
These tactics won’t make remote learning perfect, but they can help parents, students, and educators journey through the school year with compassion and common sense.
Rann Miller is a PhD candidate at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. He spent six years teaching in charter schools in Camden, New Jersey. He is the creator, writer, and editor of the Official Urban Education Mixtape Blog.
In D.C. education circles, President-elect Biden’s electoral victory has spawned a hot new guessing game: Who will be the next secretary of education? I’ll tell you upfront, I have no idea. And, this year in particular, I can assure you that the Biden transition team doesn’t much care what I think.
I will offer one insight, for what it’s worth. It’s pretty clear that any Biden nominee is going to require the backing of the NEA and AFT. Meanwhile, assuming Republicans claim at least one of the two Georgia Senate seats (and that’s the way to bet), any nominee is also going to require some GOP support. Although bipartisan support for a secretary of education-designee was once a norm, Democrats voted unanimously against Betsy DeVos in 2017—setting a new precedent. The upshot is that the eventual nominee will have to fit a relatively narrow political window (which could yield some surprising developments).
But, rather than talk politics or prognostication, I want to focus on something else here. As I notedover at Forbes the other day, I’ve enjoyed a front-row seat for the tenures of the past five secretaries of education—from Rod Paige to DeVos. I’ve had the opportunity to observe their strengths, limitations, and experiences, and I’ve concluded there are a half-dozen traits that President-elect Biden should seek in his choice:
A willingness to put students first. Of course, everybody says they’ll put students first (talk about a layup). But the reality is that Washington is swarming with organizations that represent influential institutions, systems, and employees. There can be great pressure to focus on the care and feeding of these groups. For better or worse, and even when it annoys allies or powerful interests, the secretary needs to be the one steadfastly bringing the focus back to the students in our nation’s schools and colleges. This is essential, particularly at a time when Covid has left so many students and families feeling like their needs are being treated as an afterthought.
A broad knowledge of education. The Department of Education’s brief covers pretty much the whole of American education, ranging from special education to college affordability to monitoring educational performance. While Washington plays a much larger financial role in higher education than in K-12 schooling, the secretary’s public role has more often emphasized K-12. A secretary with a broader familiarity with the broad expanse of education has a leg up in setting priorities, asking the right questions, and anticipating challenges.
An understanding of the federal role. Some awareness of the breadth of education can be invaluable. But it’s also vital to appreciate that Washington doesn’t run America’s schools or colleges. In our federal system, short of the occasional major legislation, Washington’s role is frequently a matter of modest executive actions, high-profile commissions, and the bully pulpit. By themselves, these things rarely yield dramatic change—such movement requires broad coalitions and state-level leadership. A secretary benefits immensely from understanding this dynamic and knowing how to navigate it.
A respect for data. The Department of Education houses the Institute of Education Sciences and is charged with supporting research and reporting on the nation’s schools and colleges. That means, especially in the time of Covid, that the secretary should be a champion of transparency and rigorous evidence. This can be tougher than it sounds since what some regard as “following the evidence” can strike others as thinly-disguised partisanship. Concerning Covid, for instance, while teachers’ unions have argued that a respect for science requires emphasizing public-health challenges, Republicans have tended to focus on the evidence suggesting that reopening has generally proven safe.
An ability to transcend divides. President-elect Biden has spoken powerfully and laudably in recent days of his desire to be a unifying leader, promising to work “as hard for those who didn’t vote for me as those who did” and calling for “this grim era of demonization . . . to end here and now.” And, generally speaking, a secretary of education also benefits from a willingness to speak inclusively and work across the aisle. This is particularly true given that the disagreements on many educational questions—charter schooling, accountability, or college affordability, for instance—don’t always map neatly onto familiar political divides.
A thick skin. It’s safe to predict that the next secretary of education won’t face the same unrelenting hostility that greeted Betsy DeVos in 2016. (Recall that DeVos was harshly criticized for all manner of offenses, real and imagined, from the day her nomination was announced.) But it’s also a surety that the next secretary will encounter tough-minded criticism. The ability to shake it off, resist the temptation to lash out at critics, and keep moving forward is part of the job.
I can’t claim much insight into who will fill the secretary of education’s office come early 2021, but I am confident that a nominee who embodies these traits will be best equipped for the demands of the role.
A professor of Education Policy at the University of Arkansas, Patrick J. Wolf, joins Paul E. Peterson to discuss Wolf’s new research, which explores the funding inequities between charter and traditional schools in 18 cities across the country.
The report, “Charter School Funding: Inequity Surges in the Cities,” by Wolf, Corey A. DeAngelis, Larry D. Maloney and Jay F. May, is available now.
In the run-up to the election, attention to civics education especially emphasized participation. As a once-upon-a time high school civics teacher, I believe this to be a very good thing.
But it’s not the only thing.
Civics education should certainly encourage participation: voting, volunteering, attending rallies, and all the rest. But, in one sense, this is the easy stuff. Telling students to pick their favorite candidate or cause and support them is important but also pretty intuitive. Free nations also rely on norms and habits of mind that are less intuitive. Civics education needs to focus on these too—precisely because they’re less obvious. I want to touch on three in particular: the conviction that laws should be uniformly applied, an appreciation for checks and balances, and the confidence that victories and defeats are never final.
Laws which apply to some must apply to all. The expectation that laws should be applied uniformly—and that leaders will be subject to the same laws as everyone else—is integral to a healthy democracy. The expectation that those in power will live under the laws they make can temper the urge to wield authority in punitive ways, especially when lawmakers contemplate a day when they’re no longer in power. The notion that laws are universal lends them legitimacy and encourages citizens to abide by them. When laws are applied unevenly or unfairly, as in the case of criminal-justice practices illuminated by this summer’s protests, it calls their validity into question. This is doubly true when public officials seem to apply different standards to their friends and their foes. In an era when public officials on both the left and right offer plentiful examples of flagrant hypocrisy and double standards, it’s vitally important that students learn that democratic government is about principle as well as power.
Checks and balances ensure that elections are not winner-takes-all. Elected officials in the U.S. are checked by the design of Congress, competing branches of government, constitutional strictures, federalism, and more. The very structure of our government pre-empts cries of despotism and dampens the impulse to deny the legitimacy of elections when it seems that everything is on the line. For all the concerns about the depredations of the Trump administration, its ability to significantly alter policy on immigration, health care, spending, and much else has been sharply curtailed by these arrangements. Imagine how much more desperate, furious, and violent our divisions would be right now if voters were convinced that Trump could unilaterally outlaw abortion or Biden could start his tenure by ordering the police to start confiscating handguns. Of course, when one supports those in power, constraints can seem frustrating—even illegitimate. But students should understand that the same “anti-democratic” impediments they’re tempted to bemoan may, under other circumstances, seem like an invaluable defense against the forces of malice.
Citizens can be confident that democratic defeats are never final. Modern democracies require free citizens to honor many rules, regulations, and laws they may find objectionable even as they seek to change them That citizens do so with little coercion and a lot of cooperation is essential to civic health and community well-being. Citizens are far more amenable to this arrangement when they can have faith that their concerns will be heard, that wrongs will have the opportunity to be righted, and that officials they oppose will not be in power forever. That assurance reassures those citizens frustrated by certain governmental policies or practices to channel their anger into peaceful protest and political mobilization. They will only do so, however, if sufficiently confident that the rules are fair, that officials will accept defeat gracefully, and that power will change hands peacefully. Absent those things, civic cooperation and peaceful protest start to feel like a sucker’s game. The more some citizens feel they’ll never have a chance to win, the greater the chance they’ll start to bridle at the civic compact.
A participation-centric approach to civics education is insufficient because it emphasizes what citizens must do to get their way but slights the reality that we frequently won’t get our way—and can even give students the sense that it’s somehow illegitimate when we don’t. In a nation as sprawling, dynamic, and diverse as ours, it’s a sure thing that many citizens won’t get their way—even when everyone is engaged and operating in good faith. Civics education must help students understand this reality and the safeguards that protect us when we don’t get our way.
Civics education can do much better on that score. Over the years, for instance, I’ve talked to plenty of teachers who decried Republican “obstruction” during President Obama’s tenure only to celebrate Democratic “resistance” during President Trump’s. That’s a dangerous habit. The value of checks and balances ought to be understood independent of particular agendas and policy prescriptions. Otherwise, it’s a recipe for increasingly unconstrained aggression. Consider how the Democratic Senate’s 2013 decision to end the filibuster of judicial nominees fueled Republican outrage and led to predictable consequences when the GOP retook the Senate, while Republican maneuverings, in turn, have fueled promises of Democratic retaliation. This is how destructive cycles are born.
We must teach students that the habits and institutions of democratic government are important in their own right, not only when they advance their political preferences. Quite frankly, however the elections turn out, I don’t expect to be thrilled. But that’s OK. Democratic government doesn’t mean that we can expect to be happy with our elected officials or public policy. It does mean that we can have faith that the reach of the state will be limited, that our rights will be protected, and that the practical consequences of an election result go only so far.
Political participation is a very good thing, but it’s not the only important thing. A momentous election is a propitious time to remember that.