4 Key Education Concerns Every Presidential Candidate Needs to Consider

Jan 5, 2016 12:00:00 AM

by Patrick Riccards

By current count, there are no fewer than a dozen Republicans and three Democrats currently seeking their parties’ respective nominations for president of the United States. Those numbers will be winnowed down in the coming months, as early primaries and caucuses begin to select winners, but the attention on declared candidates and their policies and ideas for the future will remain in the spotlight. Unfortunately, if history is any indication, most of these presidential campaigns will give very little attention to the important topic of education. For decades, public opinion polls have shown us that it is simply not a topic that motivates voters in national elections. While specific issues such as the Common Core State Standards, student testing and college affordability may drive a specific subset of voters to the polls—particularly on primary days—ideas like these do not loom large in presidential races. They are not likely to be a focal point of debate this fall. But perhaps they should be. Whatever issue—the economy, national security, immigration, health care or jobs—captures the public attention during the presidential campaign, a strong education or lack thereof, should be at the center.

Education is a Non-Negotiable

As a nation, we are moving from a national, analog, industrial economy to a global, digital, information economy. In years past, roughly a third of young people could drop out of high school and enter the military or workforce, a third would move directly from high school graduation to employment and a third would go on to some form of postsecondary education. That era is over. Today, in this new information economy, postsecondary education is non-negotiable, whether it is a career certificate or a bachelor’s degree from a leading university, it is needed for success in 21st-century America. Those seeking to lead the United States must have a strong vision for the future of education in this country. They must see the value and power of our institutions, but also recognize the constant need to improve them. And they must demonstrate that education is central to our nation’s strength and its ongoing success. Whether Republican or Democrat, establishment candidate or outsider (or even Donald Trump), every presidential candidate visiting Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and the like in the coming weeks should consider four key issues regarding the future of education in the United States and how we ensure teaching and learning is based on our forward-looking needs, and not our backward-facing pasts. These issues move beyond red-meat issues such as Common Core or the role of teachers unions, which many candidates are happy to address. Instead, they focus on the role of education in our society.
  1. The proper federal/state dynamic when it comes to education policy. While the Common Core debate highlighted the issue of the federal role in local education matters and the recently passed Every Student Succeeds Act tipped power back to the states, it is unrealistic to say that education is solely a state/local issue. In higher education, for instance, regional accreditors oversee colleges and universities for an entire geographic region. K–12 efforts such as special education and Title I demand a federal role that ensures all students, regardless of location, receive an equal level of support. Here are some questions to consider:
    • Do you believe the federal government has a role in education?
    • Is it a very limited role, based on a discrete list of areas?
    • Is responsibility of setting policy for states to then implement and adjust based on their own needs?
    • Does the federal government have ultimate oversight on all things having to do with education?
  2. 21st-century education and real 21st-century learning. Education in the United States is modeled primarily after a “seat time” structure, based on amount of time spent on tasks. High school diplomas are earned after completing 12 grades of school (in addition to kindergarten). University degrees are typically granted after four years of coursework. A master's in business administration is typically earned after two years of study, while a law degree is secured after three years of classes. Some institutions are now experimenting with competency-based education, which awards degrees based on mastery of the subject matter. Others are using new digital delivery methods, such as massive open online courses (MOOCs). Still others are looking at blends of competency-based and traditional education, using methods like MOOCs and traditional classrooms to deliver it. And still others continue to look at hybrids of all of the above, in search of the right balance for today’s students. Digging further:
    • What role does technology play in 21st-century instruction?
    • Is a degree based on demonstrated mastery in the subject as valuable as a traditional postsecondary degree? Should it be?
    • What steps can we take to encourage traditional colleges and universities to innovate and explore new ways to better deliver education to today’s students?
    • How can we move competency-based thinking into K-12 education? Should we make such a shift?
  3. Accountability and how to effectively hold educational institutions, particularly colleges and universities, accountable. Over the past decade, there has been a national debate about the role of greater accountability in education. These discussions have largely focused on K–12 and public school districts, as test scores and other metrics are employed to hold schools and teachers accountable for student learning. With greater scrutiny on institutions of higher education, particularly proprietary colleges, accountability is now taking a more prominent role in higher education as well. As we place greater emphasis on college affordability and access, the two biggest barriers to keeping those that can benefit most from a postsecondary education from gaining one, we must ensure institutions are of sufficient quality. The quality of a college or university can no longer be determined based solely on inputs—acceptance rates, average SAT/ACT scores or GPAs. New thinking requires a focus on outcomes, such as four- or six-year graduation rates, gainful employment measures and other yardsticks of student accomplishment that point to institutional effectiveness. And to probe a little deeper:
    • Is accountability still a leading priority for our educational institutions?
    • Should we hold colleges and universities accountable for how well their students do after graduation?
    • Should grad rates, gainful employment numbers, and affordability be factored into accreditation discussions?
    • What steps should be taken against institutions that fail to graduate significant numbers of their students?
  4. The future of teacher education. The U.S. Department of Education is expected to release its final rules governing teacher education programs, including both traditional university-based programs and those, like Teach For America and various local teacher residency programs, that have developed independent of institutions of higher education. These proposed changes in policy would define the effectiveness of teacher education programs in terms of academic achievement by students in their graduates’ classrooms, employment outcomes for graduates, customer satisfaction from those hiring graduates, accreditation and flexibility to the states. For years, research has made clear that teachers are the single most important in-school influence on student learning and learning outcomes. Yet as enrollments in non-university-based teacher preparation programs expand, the nation still urgently needs more and better teachers for high-need schools and for subjects like the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math), as well as for students with particular needs, such as special education or English-language learning. Here are some questions to consider:
    • Should teacher education programs be evaluated, in part, based on student outcomes and how well students in their graduates’ classrooms do on state measures?
    • Can school districts have greater power in determining which teacher prep programs are successful?
    • How do we ensure that graduates of teacher ed programs remain educators for more than two or three years?
    • Are value-added measures (VAM) the most effective way to measure teacher effectiveness? If not, what is a more effective tool for quantitatively measuring teacher success?
  5. We Need a Clear Vision on the Future of Education

    Our changing economy and changing society requires an infrastructure that has adapted to the needs and realities of the 21st century. Today, education—from early childhood through postsecondary education—requires innovation, collaboration and a focus on outcomes. It is not enough to simply seek to “disrupt” current systems or to shift authority from one entity to another. Instead, the nation needs a clear vision of accountability, teacher preparation, modes of learning and expectations for all. Collectively, we must work to identify those areas of significant agreement, while highlighting those topics that may require additional discussion and exploration. This work is not limited to local communities or states or Congress. It requires leadership at all levels, particularly from those seeking the presidency. For more than a decade, we’ve seen the power of presidents who offer those strong visions. Whether through the bully pulpit or legislative action, whether we agree or disagree, presidents can impact policy at both the highest and most grassroots of levels. With public education affecting everything from home prices to tax coffers to social program costs, don’t voters deserve more than just knowing if a candidate is against common standards and for college education?  

Patrick Riccards

Patrick Riccards is the executive director of Best in the World Teachers. Patrick previously served as chief communications and strategy officer for the Woodrow Wilson Foundation and chief of staff to the National Reading Panel, as well as director of the federal Partnership for Reading Collaborative and the executive director of the Pennsylvania STEM Initiative. Patrick is the author of Why Kids Can’t Read: Continuing to Challenge the Status Quo in Education, as well as the award-winning book, Dadprovement , and the Eduflack blog .    

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