I give education policy experts kudos for is their ability to keep humming along despite being largely ignored on the federal stage. School administrators, teachers groups, foundations, think tanks, research institutions, etc., are the places where you will find the next big ideas on education. Eventually the lawmakers catch up.
I'm collecting ideas on the next big topics in education--stuff the administration will be dealing with in one form or another. I'll start off the discussion with a few of my own.
*Digital Learning. "Ed Tech" is a big deal in Silicon Valley these days, which means there will be more and more products on the market to help teachers teach and students learn. Online campus learning is becoming a central feature of colleges and universities. Regardless of worriers who fear such innovations will replace the traditional classroom, high-tech learning is here to stay. The only question is, what form will it take?
*Common Core State Standards. With 46 states on board with the skills that kids should possess before they graduate from high school, the big question in the next year will be about implementation. How to translate the basic concepts of vocabulary, reading comprehension, logical writing, fractions, geometry, and probability into curricula and assessments will occupy the best education planners for years. Teachers, school districts, and states will have to work closely together to build this learning environment or the standards will begin to look like pipe dreams.
*School Choice. The new wave of parent-based education organizations shows that the PTA is no longer the only player in the school debates. With the help of these advocacy groups, parents are agitating for more control over where their kids go to school. They want alternatives to the bad schools. That means that the old charter school and school voucher movements aren't going away. But it also means that there will be new conversations about how to ensure that good schools are available to all kids, perhaps through new types of funding allocations or public-private partnerships. Blame Education Secretary Arne Duncan for making so much noise over the last four years about failing schools. Now no one wants to enroll their kids in them.
What other big education topics will surface for the next administration? Am I on target with my choices? What barriers will educators face in Congress? In the states? In their districts? How will the advocacy movements impact the debates? Who are the big players? What can we look forward to?
What are the big education topics that will surface for the next four years? In truth, we can expect more of the same. Little has changed. We have the same President, the same Secretary of Education, the same basic Congress, and the same national power dynamics shaping the larger discourse. So we’ll likely continue to see a great reliance on test-based accountability systems and on various policies rooted in school choice mechanisms.
For more than a decade, politics have pointed toward one direction and evidence has pointed toward another. Policy has heeded the politics and shunned the evidence. We can hope this will change, but we shouldn’t expect it.
Yet we should also acknowledge that President Obama has stressed how important evidence is to him. So what would a research-based shift in policy look like? At the most basic level, it would involve a multi-level understanding of accountability. Yes, schools and teachers and students should be accountable. But so should those with greater power and authority.
A third-grade teacher doesn’t have the power to ensure that her students received high-quality preschool four years earlier. Nor does she have the power to determine class size at her school or to find funding for repairs to the school’s heating or air-conditioning system. In fact, teachers generally have no authority over resource levels at their schools. That’s the job of politicians and other policy makers – the same people who have set up rigid systems to hold OTHER people accountable.
Fundamentally, what research evidence tells us about education is that students learn when they have opportunities to learn. The richer the opportunities, the better the outcomes. That’s why a charter school (or a neighborhood school or a private school) with extra resources is likely to yield better outcomes than a charter school (etc.) operating with ‘normal’ or reduced resources. That’s why Obamacare and the improving economy will probably do more to increase education results than the major initiatives that have come out of the Dept. of Education. Sound health care and jobs for one’s parents are more crucial for providing opportunities to learn than is changing governance structures in an ineffectual attempt at school turn-around.
Having said that, there are two policies that the Dept. of Education has pursued, that can be strengthened in the second term, and that hold potential to meaningfully increase opportunities to learn: Promise Neighborhoods and the Early Learning Challenge. The former approach is soundly grounded in decades of research, although outcome evaluations of the specific new programs have yet to establish their efficacy. The administration would be wise to continue these programs and the related research. The latter approach – expansion of high-quality early childhood education – has long been understood by researchers as among the best ways to increase children’s academic and life-chances outcomes, with economic benefits far exceeding the costs.
The administration has been given a second chance. It can use the next four years to develop these and additional efforts to address the roots of national problems, focusing on approaches such as integration of housing and schooling, safe and opportunity-rich communities, jobs programs and after-school programs, as well as school-level policies such as high-quality and sustained teacher-induction programs. I have indeed heard Secretary Duncan speak more and more of opportunities to learn. If his guide star does become opportunity to learn, not just measurement and accountability or school choice, the administration will be able to look back in 2016 and point to genuine progress.