The promise of public education is that it prepares young people for life—and the commitments we have made to meet this aspiration have dramatically increased educational achievement and attainment. Kids today are performing well above where they were half a century ago and far more finish high school and go to college.
Nevertheless, our biggest education promises over the last seven decades often fall short for various reasons. Some are unrealistic. Some are underfunded. Some incur extreme resistance—either because those in the system just don’t like change or they disagree.
Integration was the great promise of the 1950s following the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education that ruled segregation illegal. Several decades of intentional integration followed, but in many places, it triggered White flight and led to other strategies to keep White children isolated from kids of color.
Today, with some notable and noble exceptions, schools are just as segregated as they were half a century ago, even as the student population is more diverse than ever. The latest strategy to segregate—secession—reveals White parents of means resisting integration. This tactic is gaining traction in the South and even in progressive bastions like the Upper West Side of Manhattan and suburban D.C.
In the 1960s, the federal government promised greater equity between high-income and low-income schools, through the Title I program. Today, schools serving low-income kids receive, on average, about $1,000 less per pupil than schools serving higher-income students. In my home state of Illinois, some wealthy districts spend three times as much per-pupil as some poor districts. But for Title I, the discrepancy would be even worse—but we remain far short of equity.
In the 1970s, the feds made another big promise by passing the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), mandating a “free and appropriate” education for all students with disabilities. IDEA also came with funding, but it was never enough to meet the full cost of the law’s requirements. Still, the system is infinitely more responsive today to students with disabilities because of IDEA.
In the 1980s, the Reagan administration pulled the national fire alarm about education with the publication of “A Nation at Risk,” but left it to succeeding administrations to quell the flames. A few curriculum wars also broke out and, as best I can tell, they have outlasted every other war in American history. Meanwhile, teachers today scour the internet for lesson plans and spend several hours each week designing curricula.
The 1990s brought the first wave of charter schools and a heightened focus on standards, though it would be another decade or two before either really took root. With help from the feds, schools connected to the internet, but the real promise of technology in the classroom would have to wait for the innovators and the teachers to catch up.
In the 2000s, the feds jumped back into the fray with the passage of No Child Left Behind, an update of the 1965 federal education law that brought us Title I funding. Under the law, the feds required testing and specified consequences for underperformance. With its push for transparency, NCLB forced tough conversations around racial and economic achievement gaps. The law also set a goal of universal proficiency by 2014.
Absent consistent, high standards, however, NCLB was something of a facade. States could set the bar wherever they chose and make only cosmetic efforts to improve schools. Parents also started voting with their feet, choosing charter schools and, more recently, homeschooling. While we didn’t meet the 2014 goal, or even get close, there were meaningful gains in student achievement.
Silicon Valley also got into the act with an array of tech-based education products and a push to differentiate instruction. It’s too soon to assess the impact of higher standards or increased technology but the bureaucracy is actively resisting both and shifting the debate back to funding equity amidst rising social and economic inequality.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Today, at the dawn of a new decade, the intellectual focus seems to have shifted from policy-driven accountability at the state and district level to school-level strategies. Maybe the 2020s will be the decade of small ideas instead of big ones. Maybe that’s a good thing.
At a minimum, before making any new promises, we should revisit the old ones and ask what is possible or sensible. Can we equalize funding between rich and poor kids and provide the needed support for students with disabilities? Can we set high standards and hold ourselves accountable for meeting them? Can we close achievement gaps? Can we give parents more and better options at scale? Can technology help teachers differentiate in the classroom? And can a more diverse school system finally produce more diverse schools?
The answer to all of these questions is yes—if we have the will to change. Do we?
Peter Cunningham is the founder of Education Post and serves on its board. He served as Assistant Secretary for communications and outreach in the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration’s first term. Prior to that he worked with Arne Duncan when he was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. Peter is affiliated with