THE BLOG
11/21/2016 04:25 pm ET Updated Nov 22, 2017

Trump, State Leaders Differ On School Reform

The 2016 elections are now behind us, but what remains is a divided country. Some people are very happy feeling that their voices finally were heard. Others are depressed believing that prejudice and divisiveness won.

These strongly held opinions will not fade soon. Thus, next year many issues will be decided in an atmosphere echoing the campaign's sharp disagreements. Education will likely be one of those topics.

President-elect Donald Trump says that education will improve by attracting more students into charter and private schools. Charter schools are public, semi-independent institutions with a mixed record of success. Also showing mixed results are government-subsidized tuition vouchers for private schools.

Trump would provide $20 billion of federal funds
for these dubious schemes. Since he does not want any new money for education, that $20 billion would come from funds local school districts now use for the education of children with disabilities and of children from low income families. The sparks will fly as Congress debates that proposal and its funding source.

Before battling begins, Trump and Congress should take a reality check by looking at what state legislators are saying is needed to improve American schools. No Time to Lose (August 2016) from the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) contains conclusions from an 18-month-study by these state officials of the educational systems of high performing countries. http://www.ncsl.org/documents/educ/EDU_International_final_v3.pdf

Their first conclusion is that "most (American) state education systems are falling dangerously behind the world ... leaving the United States overwhelmingly unprepared to succeed in the 21st century economy." They explain that "recent reforms have under-performed because of silver bullet strategies and piecemeal approaches" (emphasis added).

"In an effort to boost achievement for all students," they add, "policymakers have tried a number of approaches and passed a number of state and federal laws. These have included increasing funding, reducing class size, enhancing school choice, improving school technology and teacher quality, more testing and tougher test-based accountability. While some policies have had marginal success in some states or districts, success has not been as widespread as policymakers had hoped."

As American leaders were implementing these "silver bullets," high-performing countries were building "comprehensive systems that look drastically different from ours, leading them to the success that has eluded our states." Common elements seen by these state legislators in nearly every world-class education system included a strong early education system, a re-imagined and professionalized teacher workforce, robust career and technical education programs, and a comprehensive, aligned system of education. These elements are not found as consistently or as well-developed in the U.S. as they are in other countries.

These state leaders did not shy away from describing the difficult steps other nations took to have good schools, such as setting higher standards for new teachers while providing higher compensation and allocating the best teachers to the most challenged schools. They note: "Inversely, American students from the wealthiest communities are most likely to get the best teachers and the finest facilities." Simplistic remedies are nowhere to be found in this report.

No Time to Lose makes a lot of sense. Do we have the wisdom and courage to follow its recommendations? Will these state legislators maintain their interest, especially on a bi-partisan basis, in designing and implementing these elements to create a comprehensive system in their states?

If the new president declares that the latest silver bullet is to vastly expand charter and private schools, isn't he making the same mistake as others preceding him? Wouldn't it be better to have states re-invent themselves with comprehensive systems of improvement, rather than to force them to march to the beat of the same old song about how "only one change" will magically raise the quality of the schools?

Earlier this year in passing a new national education bill, the Republican Congress told President Obama that the federal government must get out of the way of the states. When they consider Trump's proposal, will they follow their own advice?

State legislators in No Time to Lose assert: "We will not be successful by allowing the federal government to set agendas and priorities."