Many advocates worry that the era of meaningful school reform is dead. One of the few Democratic candidates yet to speak on a specific policy, Kamala Harris has put forth increased teacher pay as her sole recommendation. Once an outspoken reformer, Cory Booker has remained silent on the issue since announcing his candidacy. Warren’s site is silent about it, while Bernie makes a few vague promises to improve schools.
Trump, too, has been apathetic on this issue. He campaigned on an ambitious promise to drastically reduce the size of the Department of Education and increase the scope of school choice. So far, Betsy DeVos, his education secretary, has managed to cut hundreds of repeat regulations and slipped some language in support of school choice into congressional budget bills—helpful but insufficient. This oversight is an unfortunate trend considering there are substantial reforms that are backed by both research efficacy and broader public approval.
Many perceive school choice to be an issue of religious liberty; Christian or Muslim parents should be free to send their children to a school that teaches their values. However, there are two more ideological reasons to support the movement. From a libertarian perspective, school choice is a simulated market system where schools compete for students and funding, thereby applying market pressure to improve results. From a progressive perspective, school choice is a matter of social justice; it promises to either improve the schools in failing urban neighborhoods or allow those students to pursue other opportunities.
Thus, this movement allies three disparate ideological factions: religious conservatives, libertarians, and progressives. Accordingly, support for universal public school vouchers, essentially a set dollar amount assigned to each kid that goes to whatever school they choose, sits right at 50 percent. Charter schools, notably, have a 65 percent approval rating.
School choice encourages innovation to meet the needs of any student, rich or poor, and to improve, rather than sabotage, urban schools.
Research shows that the pressure this funding structure places on schools increases student performance, saves money, and improves students’ mental health. While opponents rightly question the effect it will have on both segregation and already failing schools, research on voucher programs has shown no link between segregation and choice. Regarding the second concern, school choice would encourage innovation to meet the needs of any student, rich or poor, and thereby improve, rather than sabotage, urban schools.
Trump has already taken a few steps in the direction of school choice, but they aren’t enough. During his State of the Union address, he included a paltry 16-word statement on the issue. More substantively, his administration unveiled a plan for a donation-funded reserve that would be used to provide scholarships to elementary or secondary students. While this plan does provide more choice to individuals, it still leaves the current structure in place and thus aids a limited few.
De-Nationalize Common Core
Common Core is not a curriculum. It is not pedagogy. It is just a set of skills and content topics about which educators should teach. In 2010, the National Governor Association published the standards; then, Obama’s Race to the Top legislation provided grants to any state that adopted Common Core. This initiative functionally nationalized the standards and, when paired with the standardized tests of No Child Left Behind, made the Department of Education into a carrot-and-stick regulatory body. As such, in 2013, 83 percent of individuals supported Common Core, but that number has dropped to only 50 percent in six years.
The academic effects of Common Core have been negligible; states that adopted the standards with fidelity showed a marginal increase in reading scores. As a teacher myself, I can say that the standards are a nice benchmark to check, giving perspective when I find myself without inspiration, but they play little role in my day-to-day vocation. The real damage from Common Core comes from the financial strain it has placed on schools, as its implementation takes materials, personnel, and time.
With public support of some sort of national standards by which individual schools can be measured, Common Core still has some utility. More important than its abolition, then, is the removal of the incentives and consequences that are connected to it. This middle ground approach allows states to use or ignore the standards as they see fit, saving districts money while maintaining the utility of Common Core.
More Teacher Accountability and Merit-Based Pay
In my position, I observe many teachers; I have seen teachers watching March Madness during class and celebrating the pregnancy of a student. In most professions, if a worker isn’t up to par, they are promptly retrained. Then, if the problem persists, they're fired. For teachers, standardized tests are slandered and thus aren’t used to reflect on teacher performance. Administrative observations and review are methodical and ignored. All the while, unions keep most any teacher from removal. However, teacher compensation promises a way to incorporate genuine accountability into the system as unions lose power.
The current pay-scale that schools use is based on two things: years taught and credits earned. As such, longevity in the profession is incentivized without regard to the quality of instruction. Conversely, merit-based pay rewards higher salaries to teachers whose students show the greatest growth. As would be expected when student learning is incentivized, a review of studies by Vanderbilt found a “modest but statistically significant, positive effect on student learning.”
The country does not need another No Child Left Behind or Every Student Succeeds Act—package deals from Washington.
The Supreme Court made headway toward implementing this policy when it outlawed mandatory union dues in the 2018 case Janus v. AFSCME. Further legislative action, court cases, and executive leadership can continue to diminish the control unions have over public education, which will, in turn, open up room for policies that can hold teachers accountable, like merit-based pay.
A note of caution in review of this list: The country does not need another No Child Left Behind or Every Student Succeeds Act—package deals from Washington. No policy can be all-encompassing enough to address the needs of both the Appalachian farmer and the Chicago kid half a country away. Instead, the focus should be on deregulation, allowing states to implement these policies as they see fit, and not promotion of their efficacy from any politician’s bully pulpit.
Together these three goals—school choice, de-federalized standards, and limited union power—share two things in common: They would improve public schools and garner majority public support. Anyone who wants to win in 2020 would be wise to spend more time, speech, and tweets on them.