Eight years ago, America was facing one of the worst economic crises in our history. An optimistic young president swept into office and set to work rebuilding and renewing America’s promise that everyone, no matter who they are, deserves a chance to succeed.
Our public school system has always been fundamental to that promise.
Three weeks into the new administration, President Obama signed a law providing $100 billion in additional funding for education. While most of that money went to states to protect teaching jobs, support low-income and special needs students, and provide college grants, $5 billion was set aside to drive reform and innovation, and another $3 billion for turning around our lowest-performing schools. President Obama also made a number of significant investments over the course of his tenure, including increasing funding for Pell Grants by more than $50 billion and increasing investments in early childhood programs by more than $6 billion.
Today, much has changed for the better in American education. Others can decide how much change is due to our efforts, but America’s progress since 2008 is undeniable: Most states have higher learning standards and better assessments. We have more children in early learning programs. We have more high-quality school options available. We have countless examples of evidence-based innovation to learn from. Students enjoy greater protections from violence, discrimination, and inequity thanks to an invigorated Office of Civil Rights. Many more students have high-speed internet access. Test scores for the lower grades are up. We have cut “dropout factories” with unacceptably low graduation rates by 40%, and the nation’s high school graduation rate is at an all-time high of 83%. We have more young people in college and more college graduates from low-income families. Many of our community colleges are better aligned to the needs of local employers. All colleges—public, private, and for-profit—face more pressure to graduate their students instead of merely enrolling them and allowing them to drop out.
But, this is no “mission accomplished” moment. We still have many unmet challenges: Too many children show up in kindergarten behind their peers due to a lack of access to pre-K programs and other factors. Too many young people are still trapped in underperforming schools. Too many schools lack the needed resources to serve the growing low-income population. We still disproportionately suspend and expel students of color. Inequality persists in funding and access to rigorous college prep courses. High school test scores are mostly flat and many high school graduates are not ready for college or careers. We don’t do nearly enough to prepare young people in high school to go straight to work, if that’s what they want to do; and too many college students and graduates are struggling with student debt while too many low-income students are priced out of college altogether.
Congress and the President have helped lay a foundation to address some of these issues. We have a new federal education law that makes needed and important changes. For the first time, states must adopt challenging academic standards that are aligned with college entry requirements and career-ready standards, so it’s unlikely that states can retreat. The new law also acknowledges that learning starts at birth, and encourages investment in early learning programs.
The law moves us away from accountability based on a single test score to one based on multiple factors, like graduation rates. I have often said that the prior version of the law, known as No Child Left Behind, was “loose on goals but tight on means,” because it didn’t demand high standards and it was too prescriptive about how to improve. The new law flips that around and gives states more flexibility to implement reform and accountability.
Now it falls to the next administration to maintain a high bar, continue the progress, and stay focused on our national goals. These four goals are neither Democratic or Republican, left or right, liberal or conservative: 1) Leading the world in early childhood education; 2) Boosting high school graduation rates to 90% and beyond; 3) Making sure 100% of high school graduates are truly college and career-ready; and 4) Leading the world in college completion.
While state and local governments will always play the predominant role in education, the new administration needs to understand the historic role that the federal government has played in driving equity, and promoting excellence and innovation.
Thanks to the federal government, we have a world-class system of public universities. Thanks to the G.I. Bill, we won the peace after World War II. Thanks to the federal government, millions of low-income students can go to college.
Thanks to the Supreme Court, segregation in public schools is no longer the law of the land. Thanks to the federal government, America protects the rights of students with disabilities and it dedicates funds for English-language learners, and homeless, migrant, and rural students.
Parents don’t care all that much which level of government pays for education, makes the rules, or holds the system accountable. They just want what’s best for their kids—and that’s what we should all want.
It’s a new day in Washington, and change can be perilous or promising. The perils are obvious: a retreat from accountability, an unwillingness to defend the most vulnerable, and a divided country that no longer views education as a shared opportunity to lift all boats. Instead, education is rationed to those with the means to acquire it—rather than extended to all those with the talent and the will to gain the most from it.
The promise, on the other hand, is infinite—a world where every child has the opportunity to rise from nothing to something, to fulfill his or her destiny and to realize the American dream. If we want to reduce income inequality and increase social mobility, the only way to do that is to give every child a world class education. It’s the best investment we can make.
As a citizen of the greatest country in the world, I always root for the success of those who serve, regardless of political affiliation. But, let’s remember that success in education is measured not by laws or rules, courtroom battles, political campaigns, or the size of the federal footprint, but by student outcomes.
Let’s keep our eyes on the prize.
Arne Duncan served as the United States Secretary of Education from 2009-2016. He is currently a managing partner at Emerson Collective. TalkPoverty presents this series in collaboration with the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality.