Under previous administrations, K-12 policy segments of the State of the Union tended to focus on how the federal government would broadly shape the operation of public school systems in America. Last night, I thought that President Trump took a very different approach:
A good portion of the reaction to last night’s State of the Union is about a snubbed handshake and the tearing of a speech. While in recent years, the speech has certainly become a performative event full of partisan posturing, last night still signaled a subtle yet substantial shift in the presidential approach to K-12 education policy: President Trump indicated that his administration is more interested in incremental education measures than any administration in recent history.
Today is Constitution Day, a holiday commemorating the formation and signing of the U.S. Constitution on September 17, 1787 — 230 years ago. As “a nation of immigrants,” America’s national identity is largely tied to our founding documents, endowing the Constitution with a unique importance in American culture. However, many Americans know little about this document that we are supposed to support and defend.
Last week, the Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC) of the University of Pennsylvania released its Constitution Day Civics Survey, with dismal results. Only one in four respondents were able to name all three branches of government, a 12-point decline since 2011. Shockingly, 33 percent could not name a single branch.
The survey also asked respondents to identify which rights are guaranteed by the First Amendment. While nearly half (48 percent) were able to name “freedom of speech,” only 15 percent could name “freedom of religion.” Even fewer respondents identified the other rights (freedom of the press, right to petition, and right of assembly). Thirty-seven percent couldn’t name any.
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of APPC, expressed her concern: “Protecting the rights guaranteed by the Constitution presupposes that we know what they are. The fact that many don’t is worrisome.”
Perhaps, in prior years, this warning may have seemed overblown. But in the Trump era, amid a seemingly constant slew of anti-democratic rhetoric, it feels right on the nose. For example, when asked whether those who are in the country illegally have any rights under the Constitution, 53 percent of APPC’s respondents disagreed. In this context of widespread ignorance and misinformation, the United States has seen an uptick in hate crimes associated with the rise of President Trump, beginning in 2015, persisting into 2016 and 2017, and culminating in the violence of the “Unite the Right” rally of white nationalists in Charlottesville last month.
Luckily, some states are taking action to bolster the civic knowledge of their students. For example, over the past three years, 17 states have adopted a “citizenship test” requirement for high school students. In eight of those states, students must receive a passing score on the test to receive a high school diploma. The questions are drawn from the the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) naturalization civics test, which immigrants must pass to become legal U.S. citizens.
This is a good first step, but it is far from sufficient. The test is not designed to be a high school civic literacy exam. It sets a low bar, with basic multiple-choice questions that ask test-takers to identify one branch of the government, or know how many amendments have been made to the Constitution. The simplicity is reflected in the initial test results, with very high passage rates and few students failing to pass the test after repeated attempts.
However, such a test is only one tool available to policymakers. They can design and administer higher quality civics assessments; implement robust standards and curricula for civics instruction; and provide real-world, project-based opportunities for students to learn about government and civic engagement. For example, New Hampshire passed legislation in 2016 requiring a civics test. But, rather than simply implementing a citizenship test for high school students, the legislation allows for the creation of locally developed assessments that can include a broader range of questions. Additionally, the state created a recognition for students who pass the required test by authorizing school districts to issue civic competency certificates.
New Hampshire Senator Lou D’Allesandro, a former civics teacher who sponsored some of the state’s legislation, summarized the issue well: “We always complain, ‘people don’t know anything about the system, they don’t get involved, they don’t vote.’ Well, they don’t vote because they don’t understand the importance of voting and how meaningful it is to participate in the process.”
If America wants to protect our constitutional rights and democratic ideals, we must ensure that our next generation of citizens are knowledgeable and engaged. That starts in the classroom.
Earlier this week, Ivanka Trump got boos and jeers in Berlin when she called President Trump a “champion for supporting families” and an “empowerer” of women. This has been her line since the campaign trail, often accompanied by a deeply flawed child care plan.
If Ivanka wants to start making those talking points a reality, and maybe even get cheers from the early childhood community, she should talk to her father about home visiting programs.
In these programs, pregnant women and families with young children at-risk of poverty or other factors receive regular at-home visits designed to encourage healthy parenting, support maternal health and child development, and connect families with other services. Home visiting is growing, but currently these programs reach only about 5 percent of the over 3 million American infants and toddlers living in poverty.
Supporting home visiting programs sounds like something everyone can agree on, right? So why are they missing from Trump’s budget proposal and Ivanka’s “women and children” speeches?
On one hand, it is hard to imagine President Trump supporting any program that was a cornerstone of Hillary Clinton’s campaign promises in early childhood, not to mention the fact that federal home visiting grants were originally created as part of the Affordable Care Act. On the other hand, with a solid evidence base across multiple program models and geographies, home visiting has garnered praise and support from both sides of the aisle in recent House hearings and Senate briefings, and it’s the kind of cost-efficient preventative program that can save money in the long term.
While home visiting programs like these have been around for decades, when the federal Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting grant program (MIECHV) was established in 2010, it helped spread home visiting across the country. There are 18 home visiting models that meet federal evidence standards, and most of these allow for lots of variation, so home visiting programs can take many forms on the ground. Here are two examples:
Last summer, my Bellwether colleague Marnie Kaplan described the HIPPY program after Hillary Clinton touted it. HIPPY focuses on preschool-aged children, and offers families training and materials to support early literacy and language development in weekly home visits.
Another highly-rated program is Healthy Families America (HFA), which primarily serves families with infants (birth to 12 months), and focuses on preventing child abuse and neglect by encouraging nurturing parent-child relationships. Home visitors screen for child development and family risk factors, teach families about child development, promote health and nutrition, and help parents develop positive knowledge, skills, and attitudes towards parenting.
Home visiting programs are not a replacement for more intensive early care and education programs, like Head Start, but they can provide important supports for families in a cost-efficient and flexible way. Part of the beauty of home visiting programs is that they are locally-run and administered, and are flexible to a variety of community contexts — for example, training home visitors within rural communities can create jobs, ensure community-responsive services, and reach more people than a single brick-and-mortar social services site.
While the Trump administration has been quiet on these programs so far,hopefully the combination of strong evidence, local control, and cost-efficiency could protect programs from looming budget cuts, or even see them grow in the future. If Trump commits support and resources for programs that work for children and families, that could be something to applaud.
Title I is a $14 billion federal grant program aimed at supporting low-income students. For decades, Title I programs have been split into two categories: targeted programs, where funds exclusively support low-achieving students, and schoolwide programs, where funds can support schoolwide improvements more flexibly. Prior federal law restricted schoolwide programs to schools with more than 40 percent low-income students. Under ESSA, all states now have the power to waive the 40 percent requirement and allow schools with less concentrated poverty to implement schoolwide reforms using Title I funds. This new flexibility could make Title I programs more effective for disadvantaged students — if states step up and use their new power wisely. But, while the Obama-era regulations required states to explain how they would issue schoolwide Title I waivers, the new template issued yesterday by the Trump administration doesn’t ask states about this provision.
There are several upsides to the expansion of schoolwide programs. Schoolwide Title I programs require schools to perform a comprehensive needs assessment, while targeted programs do not. These needs assessments are designed to engage the whole school community, and use data to identify to key areas for improvement. In contrast, a common criticism of targeted Title I programs is that they encourage schools to implement small add-on programs, like tutoring, rather than addressing bigger issues that impact all students, like curriculum and teacher quality. Schoolwide programs also allow for Title I funds to be combined with other federal and state funding streams, amplifying the impact of multiple small funding streams and reducing administrative overhead.
But there are risks that come along with this flexibility. Title I’s convoluted funding formulas already give plenty of money to wealthy, large school districts, and unchecked flexibility in spending could further dilute the effects of Title I on its intended beneficiaries — low-income students. While combining multiple funding streams reduces administrative burdens, it can also remove guardrails to ensure that money is being spent responsibly and equitably. That is why state monitoring of school Title I plans and interim progress indicators are all even more important under ESSA.
In a few states, schools below 40 percent low-income students are already allowed to implement schoolwide Title I programs. Even before the passage of ESSA, the Education Flexibility Partnership Act (Ed-Flex) approved ten states for Title I flexibility beginning in 1999. More recently, several states used their No Child Left Behind Flexibility Waivers to allow for schoolwide Title I programs in their lowest performing schools.
The success of this new nationwide flexibility will depend on states taking an active role to monitor and assess schoolwide Title I programs — whether they are enacted at schools above or below the 40 percent threshold. Early drafts of ESSA state plans suggest that many states do not yet have a clear vision for this — and now they don’t even have to include details on Title I waivers in their state plans at all. Out of 15 draft ESSA state plans available online last week (all likely to be rewritten), nine states had very broad, non-specific language for how they would review requests to shift to a schoolwide Title I program.
Light oversight is no excuse for states to take it easy. States should not just rubber-stamp requests for flexibility when it comes to Title I when there is so much at stake for low-income students, and advocates should push for more specifics on how states will ensure Title I money is well-spent.
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, manypeopleknew.
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 leastproductiveever.
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.