Opinion
Federal Opinion

What If We Treated Public Education Like the Crisis It Is?

A former governor proposes an overhaul to the system
By Bev Perdue — April 22, 2022 5 min read
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I’ve spent decades in education. I’ve been a classroom teacher, a policymaker, and the governor of North Carolina. I founded an education nonprofit focused on innovation and I’m currently chairing the National Assessment Governing Board for the second time since the pandemic started.

From all this, I firmly believe our nation has an educational crisis on its hands. It’s never been more urgent to correct course and make education a national priority to prevent a disastrous loss of talent that will ensue if we don’t.

In a January survey, 55 percent of teachers say that the pandemic has prompted them to consider retiring or leaving the profession. While a mass exodus hasn’t taken place yet, more districts are reporting vacancies, and teacher burnout will impact students even if those teachers stay in the classroom. Investing in teachers is investing in students.

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Many children—especially children of color, children in poverty, and children from rural communities—are being left behind. Long-term reading and math trend scores show a clear, widening gap between highest- and lowest-performing students. Home and school broadband access are crucial to ensure a sound education, but 34 percent of Black households and 39 percent of Latinx households do not have a wired broadband connection. One in 3 Native Americans lack a broadband subscription, and 47 percent of those who live on tribal lands lack broadband availability. Incorporating equity into education is long overdue.

More than half of 2021 college graduates did not apply to an entry-level job in their field because they felt unqualified. More than 50 million Americans work in low-wage jobs with little chance to get the skills they need to get out of poverty, and three-quarters of employers say they can’t find people with the right skills. More than 1 in 16 workers—25 percent more than before the pandemic—will need to find a new job or learn new skills for their current jobs by 2030.

Because these are urgent problems, teachers and district and state education leaders across the country have been calling for changes to the system for years. Today, I add my own call to action.

Recently, I sent a white paper to U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona that calls for him to create a nonpartisan, stakeholder task force to examine what we’ve learned since the seminal education report A Nation at Risk in 1983; to redefine the purpose of education in our country; and to recommend actionable policy solutions for 2022 and beyond. Let me be clear—I understand the federal government cannot (and should not) supersede states’ rights to ensure each child has a sound public education. But I do believe the federal government has the imperative to ensure that education is a national priority, and right now, the data show it’s not. Our education system is not built to support all students, and now, we’re facing an alarming talent shortage that could cost our economy up to $1.7 trillion by 2030.

The federal government has the imperative to ensure that education is a national priority, and right now, the data show it’s not.

This task force, guided by Cardona, could offer guidance on how states could:

  • Incorporate equity throughout education policy, with a focus on policies that impact reading and math, so all students, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender identity, or ZIP code have the opportunity to succeed;
  • Evaluate how our nation values and invests in teachers and students;
  • Reassess how we use data to measure educational progress;
  • Articulate what students need to learn to be successful in the future; and
  • Invest in programs, such as preschool for all, that build the foundation for all children to read on grade level by grade 3.

Once the recommendations are ready, a final convening by President Joe Biden, together with Cardona, governors, and chief state school officers, would show a unified front. To add accountability, the secretary can and should set standards and expectations for use of federal funding that align with task force findings but still give states and districts options to design systems that work for them. We must also evaluate who is in the room. While researchers and policymakers should be part of this national reenvisioning, we must also include business leaders, parents, teachers, superintendents, board of education members, and governors, so stakeholders at all levels would be represented—from those who have children, to those who work with children, to those who make the policy decisions.

The task force should include people of different races, ethnicities, and cultural backgrounds and members of rural and urban communities to ensure that it truly represents the makeup of our nation. I’ve seen this model of inclusive, cooperative decisionmaking work in my state—a state that during the 2020 election was called a political “microcosm of America” in The Washington Post—and it can work at a national level.

The new direction must take into account momentous changes. For one, we know much more about how people learn than we did in the 1980s. But our current education system is not centered around the science of learning. It’s still centered around uniformity—a one-size-fits-all approach that is hurting our students.

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Additionally, the pandemic has reshaped how we work. It’s accelerated existing trends in remote work, e-commerce, and automation. It’s also impacted what workers expect from their employers—namely, more mobility, more flexibility, and more balance between work and life.

We need education policy that reflects our rapidly evolving workplaces and economy. We need lifelong learners who have the social and collaborative skills business leaders say they need from their workforce. We need graduates with the adaptability, creativity, and flexibility that will serve them well throughout their careers.

We must strive for a system that’s rooted in the science of learning and brain development—a whole-child approach that starts with reading and math as a foundation and recognizes that children need social and emotional skills to succeed.

And it is critical we act now, so our policies and systems support all students’ ability to thrive in this rapidly changing world. The nation was declared at risk 37 years ago with a landmark report. Some progress was made, but the challenges now seem to have overwhelmed our educational system. We simply cannot allow even another year to go by while our students struggle, our economy stagnates, and our nation lags.

This is beyond politics—this is our future.

A version of this article appeared in the May 11, 2022 edition of Education Week as What If We Treated Public Education Like the Crisis It Is?

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