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