Education Opinion

Memorandum to the President

By Chester E. Finn Jr., Bruno V. Manno & Diane Ravitch — January 24, 2001 8 min read
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Election Day revealed a politically divided America. It also suggested key elements of a unified education reform agenda. Both you and Vice President Al Gore focused relentlessly on the topic. Voters ranked it as the top domestic issue facing the country. In this area, at least, the mandate is clear: Do what it takes. Spend what it costs. But fix the schools. And start now. Here are seven principles to guide the way toward a new consensus:

  • Offer freedom in return for results. The only strings attached to federal dollars should be those that insist on demonstrable results, particularly stronger student achievement. Decisions about how to achieve those results—and how and where to spend the money—should be left to states, districts, schools, teachers, and parents.
  • Prevention beats remediation. Federal programs should focus on assisting children to succeed educationally the first time. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of compensatory services.
  • Power to the people. As in other important domains of American life, Washington should be wary of monopoly providers. Its role is to protect the interests of consumers—in this case, children and parents.
  • Fund children, not institutions. Uncle Sam’s obligation is to kids, especially disadvantaged youngsters, not to “the system.” By building programs atop this principle, you can foster innovative, diverse, and effective options.
  • Stop funding failure. Schools that fail to educate children shouldn’t receive federal dollars, and states should be accountable to Washington for ensuring that they do not. Federal programs that can’t demonstrate results based on rigorous evaluations should themselves be replaced by different strategies.
  • Inform, inform, inform. The federal government’s longest-running mandate is to provide timely, accurate information to parents and policymakers about what works and whether students are learning.
  • Use the bully pulpit to empower and inspire. Shine the spotlight of shame on those who allow the status quo to continue or place institutional interests first. Celebrate great teaching, promising practices, super schools, and individual education heroes. Remind parents that they are their children’s first and most important teachers.

What would those principles mean in practice? There’s no time like the present to find out. Besides your administration’s initiatives, most of the major federal K-12 programs are due (or overdue) for reauthorization. The next two years will likely be the busiest period of federal education policymaking since Lyndon B. Johnson’s day. Here’s how we think some of the big decisions should be framed.

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The 35-year-old goal of the ESEA is to reduce the achievement gap between poor and rich kids. For 35 years, however, that hasn’t happened, and it isn’t happening today. A fundamental overhaul is in order. Borrowing from your campaign promises and the Progressive Policy Institute’s proposal (also associated with Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut), we recommend that the ESEA’s 60-plus programs be consolidated into a half-dozen:

Helping children become proficient in English. Federal policy should accelerate English-language learning for non-English-speakers. States should set their own goals, which may be met using whatever instructional strategy the state or district finds most effective.

Raising teacher quality. Today’s many federal teacher programs should be redirected to boost teacher quality via new approaches to recruitment, certification, training, compensation, and deployment.

“We recommend that the ESEA’s 60-plus programs be consolidated into a half-dozen.”

Expanding school options. This grant will fund a wide range of education options for students: charter schools, magnet schools, parent report cards, and more.

Fostering innovations. Instead of new categorical initiatives promoting the latest nostrums for schools (for example, reducing class size, wiring classrooms), states will receive money for their own reform strategies—for whose results they will be accountable.

Demanding accountability. These funds by this grant may be used to create and maintain rigorous state academic standards, effective assessments, and workable accountability systems—and to combat the anti-standards backlash.

Boosting the achievement of disadvantaged children. The centerpiece Title I program needs a total overhaul. Our six recommendations are:

  • Make it an entitlement for poor kids. Every single disadvantaged child should receive Title I assistance, just as essentially all low-income college students receive Pell Grants.

  • Double the appropriation. Title I funding should be dramatically raised, so that these “K-12 Pell Grants” are worth at least $1,500 each.

  • Make it portable. Like Pell Grant recipients, Title I students should be able to attend the school or education provider of their choice, with states setting the limits on those choices, including charters, private schools, tutoring programs, and others. (This means that, on the contentious issue of school choice, Uncle Sam would be neutral, neither promoting nor hindering choice but deferring to states to set the ground rules.)

  • Stop funding failure. All state-approved Title I providers must participate in state tests and be held accountable for the academic value that they add to their pupils. Schools whose disadvantaged students do not make enough progress should be decertified, that is, may no longer receive federal dollars.

  • Empower schools to make decisions. Schools (and other Title I providers) should be allowed to spend federal funds as they see fit, so long as disadvantaged children end up learning more. This could include schoolwide reform strategies, pullout programs, placement of poor youngsters with the school’s best teachers, smaller classes, intensive early-reading interventions, and other programs. It’s up to them. Washington is agnostic as to method but insistent about results.

  • Hold states accountable for closing the achievement gap. If a state isn’t boosting the performance of its disadvantaged students and narrowing the rich-poor achievement gap, its administrative funds should be docked. If a state’s low-income students make significant progress, extra funds should flow as a reward.

The option of even greater freedom. Each of the six new ESEA programs would be the basis of “performance contracts” between individual states and the federal government. But interested, reform-minded states should be allowed even greater freedom: freedom to consolidate funds across programs into a single grant aimed at improving academic achievement for disadvantaged children. Consistent with the theory of charter schools, Uncle Sam would give states maximum flexibility in return for improved results. This is no block grant; it’s much more like a contract, one that changes Washington’s role from regulator to education investor, helping states and districts reach a common national goal: boosting academic achievement.

Research, statistics, assessment, and evaluation. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act is not the whole story. The federal education research effort has been sorely vexed for years. Today its woes— politicization, weak quality control, sluggishness, irrelevance—also beset education statistics, program evaluation, and the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The key reform: Build an impregnable firewall between these ancient but vital federal functions and Washington’s innumerable political activists and interest groups.

What is now the U.S. Department of Education’s office of educational research and improvement, or OERI, should be removed from the department and made an independent agency. Strict criteria also should be established for what constitutes sound research and program evaluation.

NAEP needs special attention if the “nation’s report card” is to meet today’s expectations. We recommend that:

  • The frequency of national and state assessments be increased so that results are produced at least every two years in key subjects.
  • NAEP results be gotten out much faster—within a few months of testing.
  • The federal treasury should bear the full costs of state participation.
  • School participation rates be improved by easing school burdens and rewarding participation.
  • NAEP’s independent governing board be given full authority over the entire program.

Head Start: From day care to preschool. Though it’s not (yet) in the Education Department, Head Start should be turned from a “child development” program into an education program. This includes uniform national learning standards, particularly in preliteracy; a well-crafted curriculum; and a dramatic change in teacher recruitment and compensation. The program also needs to be accountable for results. Before adding more money to this popular program, the administration and Congress should reform it to emphasize cognitive development and school readiness, ensuring that:

  • School-readiness standards are set for what Head Start participants are expected to learn.
  • A standard curriculum for preliteracy, numeracy, and problem-solving is designed for the program.
  • All Head Start teachers have at least a bachelor’s degree and be proficient in teaching young children.
  • Head Start teachers receive better pay, thus improving the chances of recruiting and keeping better teachers.
  • The program be transferred from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to the Education Department and coordinated closely with Title I.

America’s education system is evolving. Promising reforms are under way, with the states especially active change agents, joined by a number of local districts. The nation has reason to be cautiously optimistic that its schools are starting their long—and overdue— journey to the dual destinations of equal opportunity and high performance. The question for you and your new team is whether Washington will continue throwing sand in the gears of these promising developments—or, at long last, assist the work of those seeking to do right by children.

A version of this article appeared in the January 24, 2001 edition of Education Week as Memorandum to the President


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