Special Report
Accountability Opinion

Maintaining the Federal Role in Accountability

By Margaret Spellings — January 09, 2012 4 min read
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The political season is upon us, so we are hearing political promises dealing with the education of our children, from abolishing the U.S. Department of Education to increasing spending for teachers and classrooms. These perennial debates often miss the issues really plaguing our schools and our country: the need to dramatically improve achievement for all—especially our poor and minority students.

Central to improving education in America is understanding how it is organized and funded. We have a highly decentralized, complex system: 50 states with more than 14,000 school districts and with varying governance structures. When we consider taxpayer dollars collected at different rates and different levels, the complexity grows.

The federal government’s contribution is historically at less than 10 cents of every dollar spent on K-12 education and is dwarfed by state and local revenues. As such, local school districts and states, which provide the bulk of funding, are in the driver’s seat. They make decisions about what and how students are taught and manage the day-to-day operations of schools. And rightly so, as they bear most of the cost and are closest to our children.

While a decentralized system affords citizens the chance to engage in education directly, it’s not without its challenges and weaknesses. Local systems must balance the demands of multiple constituencies, including school boards, teachers, and their unions, parent groups, the business community, and, of course, students. This dynamic often forces school administrators to invest time and energy managing political fires and refereeing single-issue debates divorced from the realities of our classrooms and the students in them. Issues such as bus routes and school lunches can dominate community debates. Caught in the middle are policymakers, who are held accountable for results. Most are trying to do the right thing, but the battles seem to rage on.

In my travels to other countries with education and political leaders, I have been impressed not only by their commitment to improve student achievement and ensure students have the skills and knowledge to be productive and successful, but also by the dedication among the students themselves. They’re firing on all cylinders.

No Child Left Behind and its emphasis on standards, assessment, and accountability provided us with a way to know which students are succeeding and which are falling short. That's why we must continue to measure—because what gets measured gets done."

Unfortunately, I don’t always see the same resolve in my ongoing travels around the United States. Students in other countries continue to outperform our kids on international tests of math and reading. Half of our minority students don’t graduate from high school on time. And millions of students move through the system without having mastered basic reading and math skills.

Education in America has always been viewed as the great equalizer. We have long been committed to public education for all, without regard to an individual’s race, disability, or immigrant status. As a leader among nations in providing access to education, we continue to face one of our greatest challenges in ensuring a high-quality education for every single student.

As the achievement gap between low-income and minority students and their other peers has widened, we have failed to keep faith with our historical commitment and lapsed in instilling this great faith in each generation. While America’s top-performing students continue to compete with our international peers, more and more of our low-income and minority students are ill-prepared to compete globally. In short, we need to pick up the pace on their behalf. Other nations are moving with far more agility in their centralized systems and determination to position their people to compete in today’s dynamic and global marketplace.

See Also

Additional Commentaries From Quality Counts 2012:

A decade ago, Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act. With its passage, the nation took a giant step forward in the quest for greater accountability for taxpayer dollars invested on behalf of students. Since that time, we’ve become weary of the federal government spending billions of dollars with little to show for it. No Child Left Behind and its emphasis on standards, assessment, and accountability provided us with a way to know which students are succeeding and which are falling short.

That’s why we must continue to measure—because what gets measured gets done. Data and information are critical if we are to develop effective strategies. The fact is, we have begun to see improvements, but we need to do more, and we need to raise our sense of urgency and accelerate our progress.

As I look back on my travels and assess our current political landscape, I believe we can learn a few things from other countries that have successful education systems. I believe that the federal government should play a discrete and powerful role in maintaining accountability, that it is time for us to get serious as individuals about putting our education system back on track, and that our focus must not be deterred by the main issue of improving the system for all students. America has a long history of strength and perseverance, and I have no doubt that we will come together to be a world leader in educational achievement again.

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