Of That

Brandt Redd on Education, Technology, Energy, and Trust

10 November 2016

What I Would Tell Donald Trump about Education

I never thought Donald Trump would survive the first primary much less gain the nomination. By the time we reached the general election I gave up making predictions because, where Trump is concerned, I was always wrong. I don't expect this post to ever make it to the Trump transition team. But I could be wrong about that as well. Regardless, I hope it will help some of you in the community.

The Trump Policy Page on Education is pretty spare. During the campaigns, Trump spoke very little about education policy. In the primaries he made a few anti-Common Core remarks that seemed requisite of all Republican candidates. But those quotes date back to February. Mike Pence has been a strong advocate for school choice and that's reflected in the policy page. Their goal is to "provide school choice to every one of the 11 million school aged children living in poverty."

On the prospect that Trump's education strategy is still nascent, here's what I would tell him if I were asked:

Leave Standards to the States

The No Child Left Behind act required states to set educational achievement standards and measure the degree to which students meet those standards. It's successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) was passed in December 2015 with broad bipartisan support. ESSA maintains the emphasis on standards and accountability while returning responsibility to states to decide how to address underperforming schools.

Contrary to popular belief, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are not a federal mandate. They were created in a state-led cooperative effort with support from private foundations. The Obama Administration's, Race to the Top grants encouraged adoption of common standards among states without specifying any particular set. Those grants have mostly expired and there is no continuing federal support for the CCSS.

So, for Trump to eliminate the Common Core or to substitute other standards in their place would constitute more federal meddling in education, not less. Leave the development of standards to the states. Some will choose to collaborate on the CCSS, others will go their own way. We're in the third year of Common Core deployment. Within one or two more years we'll know whether it's been effective.

Ensure Title I Funds Really Benefit Economically Disadvantaged Students

This is a gnarly problem loaded with unintended consequences. Title I of ESSA (which is the latest reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act) provides extra funding to schools and districts with a high proportion of children from low-income families. The goal is to close the achievement gap by offering more resources to schools that serve children with greater needs.

Unfortunately, as Marguerite Roza observed in Educational Economics the greater the distance between funding decisions and the students, the less effective they are at achieving the intended result. All too often, Title I funds are balanced by other funds being directed toward more mainstream schools and the most challenged schools remain with the fewest funds.

The Trump Campaign's proposal is to have specific money allocated to each economically disadvantaged child and for that money to move with the child to whatever school they choose. It's a promising strategy because it ties the funding decisions directly to the child but the concept won't work if there aren't good quality schools available for parents and their children to choose from.

Base Strategic Initiatives on Reliable Evidence

The theory behind the No Child Left Behind Act was to measure success and incentivize improvement. It's an approach that has worked in other domains but education has proven to be more challenging. That's because we still don't have a good model for effectively educating all students, at scale while preserving initiative, creativity, the arts, and joy.

We're making progress. And there's a growing body of evidence supporting some key strategies. They include:

Choose a Secretary of Education Who Understands the Landscape

Education doesn't need another shakeup right now. There are a lot of experiments underway that will yield great insights into what works. Some of these are at statewide scale like the competency-based New Hampshire High School Transformation or the Rhode Island Education Action Plan. Others are at district or school scale. We are rapidly learning what works and US Ed can shine a light on successful programs.

The Secretary of Education should have an optimistic outlook for US Education. They should have spoken at iNACOL, Educause, and SXSWEdu. They should know the education leaders at the Gates, Hewlett, and Dell foundations. Most of all, they have a humble attitude about the challenges ahead and the limited but important role of the federal government in US education.