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Is education reform dead?

A cubby lined with students backpacks.

A cubby lined with students backpacks. Credit: Newsday / Audrey C. Tiernan

One year into the Trump presidency, it’s hard to find serious conversation in Washington about education reform. In a January 16 speech at the American Enterprise Institute, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos declared: “Federal education reforms have not worked as hoped,” despite spending billions of dollars.

Under President Bush, the Department of Education stressed standards and testing for all students as cornerstones for improving schools. The Obama administration used federal funding to stimulate education reform; at one point providing more than $7 billion in funding to states.

Congress changed the federal role in December 2015 by passing Every Student Succeeds Act. State and local educators welcomed the relief from federal regulations, mandates and test-based accountability. While gaining greater flexibility to develop innovative ways to improve schools, states lost federal funding and political cover for education reform policies.

The funding loss is significant. In the first Trump administration budget, education funding for disadvantaged children is cut 12 percent. The 2018-19 budget will likely make deeper cuts.

According to a November 2017 report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, public funding for K-12 education “has declined dramatically in a number of states over the last decade.” The report cites 29 states that are spending less in 2015 per student than before the recession in 2008. There is little improvement in the last few years despite a robust economy. Most states are not able to replace lost federal funding.

State education agency capacity has also suffered. At a February 2017 hearing, New York State Education Commissioner Mary Ellen Elia called the state education department “the most staff-deprived education agency in the country.” Many other state leaders would echo that assessment.

Nevertheless, states have proposed very ambitious goals in the ESSA plans submitted to the Education Department. For example, states have committed to increase the four-year graduation rates (90 percent four-year graduation rate in Minnesota by 2020); dramatically increase the percentage of students who are proficient in English Language Arts and mathematics (75 percent proficiency in Rhode Island by 2025 and Kentucky by 2030); and close the achievement gap by reducing the number of non-proficient students by 50 percent (Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Indiana, Ohio).

However, a December 2017 review of 35 state ESSA plans by Bellwether Education Partners concluded that a major weakness is: “Goals that are largely untethered to the state’s long-term vision, historical performance or other objective benchmark.” In other words, states are proposing improvements in student performance that far exceed any levels they have been able to achieve in the past.

In the face of serious funding challenges, why would state leaders commit to education reforms that require unprecedented improvements in student proficiency levels? Are state education leaders setting themselves up for failure and blame by politicians and the public? Why not create more realistic, achievable goals?

First, political pressure for school improvement is growing at the state level. Governors want to compete for companies that will bring high-wage jobs and improve the economy. A poor performing K-12 system is a liability. An impressive plan for improving schools can help states make the case to future employers.

Second, a 2013 National Center for Education Statistics study found that most states define proficiency levels at what National Assessment of Education Progress calls basic. Since that time some states are making state proficiency standards higher. But proficiency levels vary from one state to another, potentially making achieving substantial student gains possible if levels are initially set low.

Finally, 80 percent of the state education commissioners have been on the job for three years or less. Assuming the turnover rate continues, almost none of these leaders will be on the job when the state is held accountable for achieving the ESSA goals. It’s easy to set ambitious goals for your successors.

Where does that leave the question: Is education reform dead?

The federal government has punted education reform to the states. Faced with diminished resources and leadership turnover, states will have to figure out how to sustain implementation of curriculum and instruction changes needed to meet the original ambitious ESSA performance goals. If they fail, state education leaders will once again redefine the goals and timelines. Then the term “education reform” may just fade away in the education policy conversation.

James A. Kadamus was New York State Deputy Commissioner of Education for 11 years and now is an education consultant and writer in Rhode Island. He wrote this for