Education is a ladder. Rung by rung, it helps people reach places that would otherwise be an impossible climb.
It is not enough for those already prosperous to prosper. All Americans must have the opportunity to meaningfully participate in our nation’s growth, if it is to succeed. That has always been so but is even truer today, at a time when the fastest-growing occupations require education beyond high school.
And that is why now is the time for champions of public education to set aside the policy differences that have divided us over the past two decades and move forward, together, to defend and extend this fundamental American institution.
We don’t have to agree on every strategy or tactic. We won’t. But we can stop wasting energy on false dichotomies and disparaging rhetoric. We can stop questioning our natural allies’ intentions and fight side by side for the belief that every student in America has the right to a great public education.
The passage just over a year ago of the bipartisan Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, provides us an opportunity to begin our work together.
The top-down, one-size-fits-all approach of the No Child Left Behind law was a blunt tool, ill-suited to a task that called for nuance. ESSA, on the other hand, empowers local leaders to develop strategies that address their unique needs. But that doesn’t mean every district should go it alone without guardrails for protecting students’ civil rights, guidelines for implementing the law, or the good ideas forged and shown to work by others.
ESSA also calls for states to continue making college-and-career readiness their goal. We must be united in fighting efforts to water down those expectations and undercut progress when the work gets hard.
Just as important, we must invest in schools and teachers so they can help students meet those standards. Even successful strategies will fail without the funds to back them up—especially in schools and neighborhoods where change is most needed. Money is never the only answer, but it pays for science labs and school counselors, repairs leaky roofs, and makes high-quality preschool possible. Yet, in districts all across the country, students who need the most get the least. Federal funds can help, so we must put in place rules to ensure that those most in need get the help they deserve. However, even a modest proposal to do so has faced fierce opposition inside the beltway from many who ostensibly share the same values about education and equity.
It’s not liberty when the happenstance of birth binds a child to a life of limited possibilities."
We also must have the courage to hold ourselves accountable for students’ success. Without accountability, standards are meaningless and equity is a charade.
But accountability doesn’t force us to embrace “test and punish” policies based on redundant or poor-quality assessments; nor does it require us to simply “wish and hope,” with no tests and little insight into how, or whether, our children are learning.
We should make sure tests are better, fairer, and fewer, as President Barack Obama has called for. And we should help states develop accountability systems that are rich and varied—including measures such as chronic absenteeism, access to and success in advanced courses, and approaches to discipline that help students improve their behavior and achievement.
Let’s also set aside the false debate between allowing public charter schools and supporting traditional public schools. Our primary concern shouldn’t be the management structure of schools; it should be whether they serve all students well. We must demand that charter authorizers set a high bar for granting a charter, rigorously monitor academic and operational performance, and close charter schools that fail their students. At the same time, we must insist that district schools also provide a high-quality, well-rounded education for all their students.
And we must get beyond either exalting teachers as heroes who can single-handedly solve all education problems or castigating them for failing to do so. We should instead recognize that teaching is an incredibly difficult job, requiring dozens of decisions every hour. We can invest in teachers’ preparation and development at the same time that we welcome their expertise and leadership on the challenges they face and the issues that affect their students.
Teachers need more resources and the higher pay they surely deserve, particularly those serving the highest-need students. They also need the space and opportunity—the clinically rich preparation, the collaboration time, and the career pathways—to do what they joined the profession to do: help all children reach their full potential.
Finally, we must recognize that the growing diversity of our people is an asset, not a liability, and support diverse schools. Diversity helps more children succeed, broadens their perspectives, and prepares them for the global workforce. I am convinced the growing conflicts in this country over race, religion, and language would be profoundly reduced if our children learned and played alongside classmates who are different from themselves and if they encountered diverse teachers and leaders in their schools.
The light of opportunity shines more brightly and more widely today than it did eight years ago. Thanks to the hard work of teachers, leaders, students, families, policymakers, and advocates, the high school graduation rate is 83 percent, an all-time high; achievement gaps are closing; and the most recent college graduating class was the largest and most diverse in history.
But, too many students still don’t finish high school, and when they do, too many aren’t ready for college. The relationship between poverty and educational achievement in the United States is among the strongest in the world. This destroys hope. But we can restore hope by working to ensure all young people are well-prepared to complete a postsecondary degree or training program.
Some will argue equity conflicts with liberty. But it’s not liberty when the happenstance of birth binds a child to a life of limited possibilities. True liberty is being able to take our lives as far as our drive and talent allow.
The Pledge of Allegiance affirms that liberty and justice for all is an enduring and dual birthright. Preserving that birthright requires advocates of public education—including teachers, parents, business leaders, elected officials, and union leaders—to all be a part of the solution.
We must all press ahead, firm in the knowledge that when we pull others up, they do not pull us down. When the light of opportunity shines on those who lack it, it does not dim for those already in its glow.
A version of this article appeared in the January 18, 2017 edition of Education Week as A Dispatch From the Outgoing Education Secretary