School & District Management Opinion

Toward a National Consensus

By Ellen Condliffe Lagemann — January 14, 2009 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Today the political tides have shifted, and so must the direction of American education.

Our education system is hemorrhaging people. Many students are not being taught the basics well. Even more are not being challenged intellectually. As a result of the perverse incentives embedded in the federal No Child Left Behind Act, they are drilled in reading and mathematics and deprived of the opportunity to discover the fascination of the double helix or the beauty of Shakespeare. They do not have time to study the U.S. Constitution. Because schools are dreary places, too many youngsters drop out. No Child Left Behind has compounded the problem by offering schools incentives to push those likely to fail out the door.

Then there is higher education. Since the late 1980s, access has been narrowing. The Reagan administration’s decision to shift federal financial-aid formulas from grants to loans has had a predictable effect: Fewer poor people and fewer African-Americans, Hispanics, and new immigrants can go to college. Those who do enroll tend to struggle heroically to pay their tuition and fees and, as a result, they drop in and out and take significantly longer to complete their degrees, if they complete them at all.

African-Americans are disadvantaged in other ways. The race achievement gap, which was narrowing until the late 1980s, is not narrowing today. Incarceration rates, especially for young African-American men, have climbed dramatically since 1986, and the 1994 Clinton crime bill deprived prisoners of Pell Grants. Soon thereafter, most college-in-prison programs were shut down, even though it is well documented that such programs are the best strategy we have to reduce recidivism.

What’s to be done? As part of his economic-recovery program, President Barack Obama must invest in education. Before doing that, however, he needs to mobilize a national conversation about a fundamental redesign of public education. Without a new consensus about our priorities, it will be impossible to coordinate the local, state, and federal efforts that will be needed to use new resources well.

To develop such a consensus, President Obama should appoint a commission to frame for debate at least these three issues:

When and for Whom. For whom should we provide public education? When should children begin school? Is Geoffrey Canada’s idea of a “baby college” for new parents, the first step in his Harlem Children’s Zone network of education and social programs in New York City, something that should be made available to all? At the other end of the spectrum, when should public education end? Should there be recurrent cycles of professional development and job training for adults, who now are likely to have at least several different careers over their lives?

Where. Where should we invest public education funds? In schools and colleges, of course, but what about including radio, television, and the Internet as well? If these media were turned to more deliberate educational use, might the vast majority of Americans who are not enrolled in school or college be better able to continue their education?

Funding. How should federal aid to education be distributed? Currently, most K-12 aid is channeled through state and local education agencies, while a significant amount of federal aid for higher education goes directly to students through Pell Grants. These grants were a significant innovation when they began in 1972, since they transferred aid from institutions to students enrolled in college. Following that trajectory, perhaps we should now establish educational bank accounts for each young person beyond the age of compulsory education. The money in such funds could be spent for college, job training, or study in prison. It could offer a second chance to young people who have not done well in school or have been pushed out. It could offer new hope to the disproportionately large number of African-American youths for whom the boredom and stultifying routines of prison preclude opportunities to acquire the knowledge and skills that could turn their lives around.

President Obama wants to unify the country and bridge partisan divisions. Debating and working through differences about public education could clarify what kind of newly unified society we want to become. Mr. Obama has also said that he wants to involve all of us in governing this great nation. Mobilizing a national conversation about education could do that. The essential elements of our public education system were invented in the 19th century. Surely it is past time to rethink the shape and boundaries of that system. Let the people decide who should be educated, where, how, and at whose expense.

With the 2008 election, we began to rebuild the civic infrastructure that has been eroded by secret executive actions and campaigns of misinformation. Challenging everyone to become involved in fundamentally redesigning public education is the logical next step.

Related Tags:

A version of this article appeared in the January 21, 2009 edition of Education Week as Toward a National Consensus


English-Language Learners Webinar Helping English-Learners Through Improved Parent Outreach: Strategies That Work
Communicating with families is key to helping students thrive – and that’s become even more apparent during a pandemic that’s upended student well-being and forced constant logistical changes in schools. Educators should pay particular attention
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Mathematics Webinar
Addressing Unfinished Learning in Math: Providing Tutoring at Scale
Most states as well as the federal government have landed on tutoring as a key strategy to address unfinished learning from the pandemic. Take math, for example. Studies have found that students lost more ground
Content provided by Yup Math Tutoring
Classroom Technology Webinar Building Better Blended Learning in K-12 Schools
The pandemic and the increasing use of technology in K-12 education it prompted has added renewed energy to the blended learning movement as most students are now learning in school buildings (and will likely continue

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management Q&A School Libraries and Controversial Books: Tips From the Front Lines
A top school librarian explains how districts can prepare for possible challenges to student reading materials and build trust with parents.
6 min read
Image of library shelves of books.
School & District Management Opinion ‘This Is Not What We Signed Up For’: A Principal’s Plea for More Support
School leaders are playing the role of health-care experts, social workers, mask enforcers, and more. It’s taking a serious toll.
Kristen St. Germain
3 min read
Illustration of a professional woman walking a tightrope.
Laura Baker/Education Week and uzenzen/iStock/Getty
School & District Management Letter to the Editor Educators Must Look to History When They Advocate for Changes
Educators and policymakers must be aware of the history of ideas when making changes in education, says this letter to the editor.
1 min read
Illustration of an open laptop receiving an email.
School & District Management Letter to the Editor Reconsidering Causes of Principal Burnout
The state and federal governments are asking us to implement policies that often go against our beliefs, says this letter to the editor.
1 min read
Illustration of an open laptop receiving an email.