Tag Archives: Congress

Donald Trump’s Election is a “Sputnik Moment” for Civics Education

Last week, the American Enterprise Institute hosted an event discussing the failings of civics education in America. The panelists referred to the dismal state of civics literacy as a “Sputnik moment” – a reference to when the Soviet Union successfully launched the world’s first satellite in 1957, stirring the United States to create the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and dramatically increase its space exploration efforts.

Nothing illustrates this comparison better than the election of Donald Trump. As Trump has demonstrated time and time again, he knows little about governing or policy – instead relying on divisive rhetoric and petulant Twitter tantrums. His most recent gaffe: at a White House convening of the nation’s governors, Trump said that “nobody knew health care could be so complicated.” As it turns out, many people knew.

However, if Trump can name all three branches of government, that alone would put him ahead of nearly three quarters of Americans. According to a 2016 survey conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, only 26 percent of respondents could name all three branches, and 31 percent could not name a single one.

Data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) also show poor results. In 2014 – the most recent NAEP civics assessment – only 23 percent of eighth grade students scored at or above the proficient level. The same is true of older students getting ready to vote. In 2010, when NAEP last tested high school seniors, only 24 percent scored at or above the proficient level. Neither of these results has changed significantly since 1998.

At the same time, faith in many of America’s institutions are at historic lows – even before Trump’s election. And it’s likely that his constant attacks on various institutions will only serve to worsen these numbers. This crisis of confidence only feeds into the growing level of polarization, making it nearly impossible to govern effectively. It’s no wonder that recent congresses have been arguably some of the least productive ever.

Confidence in Institutions

Despite these difficulties, the American people seem well aware of the problem at hand. According to the 2016 PDK poll of the public’s attitudes toward the public schools, 82 percent of Americans believe preparing students to be good citizens is very or extremely important. At the same time, only 33 percent think the public schools in their communities are doing that job very or extremely well.

So what is to be done? Continue reading

An Expanded Federal Role in School Choice? No Thanks.

In yet another illustration of his selective embrace of conservative precepts, President-Elect Trump has proposed an expanded federal role in school choice. His nomination of Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education, a long-time leader in the school choice movement, reaffirms this campaign commitment and foreshadows a difficult choice for Republicans in Congress.

Betsy DeVos

On the one hand, DeVos could use the purse strings of the U.S. Department of Education (USED) to significantly expand the school options available to families. On the other hand, a federal role in another area of education policy – traditionally (and constitutionally) reserved for the states – asks conservative school choice proponents to swallow a bitter pill. The new administration will need congressional Republicans to support its ambitions for school choice, but they should not sacrifice federalism on the altar of school choice.

No matter how carefully designed or who is at the helm, introducing a federal role in national school choice policies is a Pandora’s box. Some believe it would be possible to walk the line. Former Bellwether partner and current AEI resident fellow Andy Smarick recently suggested federal policymakers could use the existing federal Charter Schools Program (CSP) as a model for supporting school choice without a wanton expansion of the federal role.

The CSP is probably the best example of how USED has supported the growth of the charter sector and the closest proxy for a parallel federal investment in school choice. But it’s important not to romanticize it. Along with other high-profile federal grant programs (e.g. Race to the Top, Teacher Incentive Fund, Investing in Innovation), the CSP grant has allowed the federal government to weigh in on questions previously reserved for state and local policymakers.

Continue reading

Don’t Ask if Head Start “Works” – That’s Not the Right Question

Head Start is an $8.5 billion federal program, which means everyone loves asking if it “works.” But that’s a useless question.

We know Head Start produces positive outcomes. There’s a substantial body of evidence showing that Head Start improves children’s learning at school entry. Other research shows that Head Start children are more likely to graduate high school and have better adult outcomes than children who did not. And a growing body of research shows that high-quality preschool programs can produce long-lasting gains in children’s school and life outcomes.

But critics of Head Start cite the same studies I just did to make the opposite argument. They have valid points. Not every Head Start program is high quality, for example, so some programs don’t produce these positive gains for students. And the Head Start Impact Study showed that Head Start’s positive effect on test scores fades as children enter the elementary grades.

Both critics and proponents of Head Start are right – which is why the “Does it work?” question is so useless. We already know the answer, and it’s not a clean yes or no. Taken all together, the available evidence shows that Head Start is a valuable program that can get better. Given, instead of asking if Head Start works, we should be asking a better question: How can policymakers and practitioners make Head Start better for children and families?

That’s the question Sara Mead and I – along with Results for America, the Volcker Alliance, and the National Head Start Association – try to answer in our new report, Moneyball for Head Start. We worked with these organizations to develop a vision for improving Head Start outcomes through data, evidence, and evaluation.

Specifically, we call on local grantees, federal policymakers, the research community, and the philanthropic sector to reimagine Head Start’s continuous improvement efforts.

Local grantees: All Head Start grantees need systems of data collection and analysis that support data-informed, evidence-based continuous improvement, leading to better results for children and families.

Federal oversight: The Office of Head Start (OHS), within the Administration for Children and Families of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, needs a stronger accountability and performance measurement system. This would allows federal officials to identify and disseminate effective practices of high-performing grantees, identify and intervene in low-performing grantees, and support continuous improvement across Head Start as a whole.

Research and evaluation: Federal policymakers and the philanthropic sector need to support research that builds the knowledge base of what works in Head Start and informs changes in program design and policies. This will require increasing funding for Head Start research, demonstration, and evaluation from less than 0.25 percent of total federal appropriations to 1 percent, and those funds should focus on research that builds knowledge to help grantees improve their quality and outcomes.

Philanthropy and the private sector: The philanthropic sector, universities and other research institutions, and the private sector should help build grantee capacity and support the development, evaluation, and dissemination of promising practices.

Fully realizing this vision will require a multi-year commitment. There are steps, however, that Congress and the administration can take to make progress towards these goals. In the paper, we propose several recommendations for federal policy. Taken together, these actions can support Head Start grantees in using data, evidence, and evaluation to improve results for children and families.

The Hand-off of a Lifetime for Native American Students

This is the first post from our newest team member, Senior Advisor Allison Crean Davis.

Inasmuch as an hour and a half can sufficiently examine an issue that exemplifies “a long history of broken promises” (per Chairman John Kline), last Thursday’s Committee on Education and the Workforce hearing on Native American schools provided a public mea culpa from a government that has consistently failed to provide quality education for Native American students. While the hearing, entitled “Examining the Federal Government’s Mismanagement of Native American Schools,” allowed us a peek into the challenges at hand and emphasized hope moving forward, nagging questions remain.

First, let’s talk about what was clear. There were an abundance of grim words used to describe the longstanding status of Indian education: “bungling bureaucracy,” “bleakest outcomes,” and “individual and national economic tragedy.” As cited during the hearing, approximately 93% of Native children attend traditional public schools and 7% attend schools run by the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE), part of the Department of Interior. Within the public schools, only 69% of Native American children graduate high school. For those in BIE schools, the number is barely 50%. There is a long list of BIE school facility issues documented over a decade ago and still being addressed, which includes heating problems, gas leaks, buckling floors, and popping circuit breakers. There are also the problems of mobility: students and families move frequently, there have been 33 BIE Directors in the past 36 years, and a heap of restructuring attempts has left educators in the system chasing moving targets.

The jury’s out on what’s required to provide adequate financial support for schools serving Native American students both on reservations and in our towns. At first blush, BIE schools have the highest per-student spending in the country at over $20,000 per year. That’s nearly double the national average. Then how is it possible that there are crumbling walls in these schools? As BIE Director Charles Roessel suggested, some of these schools are so remote they have to allocate their own resources to areas typically covered by city and town infrastructure, such as water and fire safety. We also know that funding formulas for rural education may not sufficiently address these additional and necessary supports.

It is indisputable that change is needed. Generations of Native American students have failed to thrive academically within the public school and BIE systems. The consensus during last week’s hearing was that this change needs to address a fundamental yet long neglected concern: the need to better integrate the rich history, languages, and cultures of Native American students into the educational content and process to bolster a stronger sense of identity. How to do so? Transfer control for the education of these children to their tribes. Continue reading

Let’s Make a Deal: The ESEA Compromise Congress Should Make

Just like your favorite sitcom, Congressional Democrats and Republicans have been engaged in a will they/won’t they relationship for eight years over reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Could the 114th Congress be the season where they finally get together? That’s what some ardent, right-leaning ESEA watchers (like Fordham’s Mike Petrilli and AEI’s Rick Hess) are hoping, given their general fandom of Senator Lamar Alexander’s current approach. But despite hopes for consensus, Alexander’s draft bill actually makes it harder to reconcile the largest issue on the table: the federal role in education.

Let me explain. New hope for an ESEA compromise isn’t just driven by ideology. On the policy surface, it also appears that the stage could be set for a deal. Everyone agrees on a more limited set of federal requirements than NCLB. For example, both political right and left think that states (not the feds) should play a starring role in creating school rating systems based on performance, graduation rates, and other measures; identifying low-performing schools; and designing and implementing interventions to improve them.

Further bolstering the mood? The annual testing plot-twist nobody everybody saw coming appears to be a mere diversion to create fresh conflict between the major players, instead of recycling storylines from past seasons (see: the 112th Congress “Should teacher evaluations be mandated?” and the 113th “Should Title I funding be portable?”). In predictable fashion, the annual testing drama seems likely to be resolved mid-season. There are just too many key political players (e.g. Kline, Murray, Boehner, Duncan), civil rights organizations, business groups, and state leaders defending annual testing for Alexander to open the grade-span testing floodgates.

Thus, old conflicts are set to re-emerge in the coming episodes of the reauthorization drama. And none looms larger than “What is the appropriate federal role?” It’s the “We were on a break!” conflict driving the entire ESEA reauthorization plot. Continue reading