low income

You Can Call It a 'Lost Decade,' But I See a Lot of Good Things Happening

The spin never stops when it comes to education and it goes into overdrive with the close of a decade. Amidst all the hype of a lost decade and the need for humility from education reformers, I see a glass way more than half full.

We're Making Progress

A decade ago many states had low standards. Today, most of them have high standards and aligned tests, which means we’re asking more of kids and teachers and getting a more accurate read on where we are gaining and where we aren’t. Despite some pushback on the Common Core standards, they’re here and they ain’t going anywhere.

A decade ago, there wasn’t much in the way of organized parent voices for improving schools. Today, there are a lot of parents speaking out and demanding quality education for their kids. Some want choice. Some don’t. Either way, the power is shifting to parents.


Students are speaking out as well. Their deft use of social media has elevated their voices in many important debates, from gun violence and bullying to gender and sexuality issues and the need for more social and emotional support. The kids are alright and the more that they drive the debate the better off we will be.

A decade ago, teachers in many states were quietly laboring at sub-standard wages. That has already changed in some states and is starting to change in others as teachers have demanded better pay and broader investments in non-teaching staff to deal with an increasingly challenged population of students. 

The idea of radically boosting education investment is moving into the political mainstream, at least on the left. Let’s hope it takes. The best defense is offense and if it was up to me, we would transfer a large share of the federal defense budget into education.

A decade ago, there was broad consensus that federal prescriptions for improving schools didn’t work very well. Today, we have the opposite of one-size-fits-all where states pretty much do what they want.


No doubt, accountability has been abandoned from the left and the right, but transparency remains which, combined with the growing pressure from parents and advocates, creates its own kind of accountability. I will go this far: Accountability, for all its flaws, beats the absence of accountability. Hopefully, we will get better at it in the coming years.

Today, there’s a robust fourth estate focused on education and while I have called out an anti-reform tilt now and then, for the most part, a day doesn’t go by that somebody, somewhere doesn’t publish something amazing about education. If you want to know who is doing it right, you can easily find it with a little Google search, thanks to the media.

A decade ago, few people were talking about inequity in school discipline. Now everyone is talking about it thanks to the release of data showing kids of color and students with disabilities are disproportionately suspended and expelled. The predictable backlash to restorative justice and other discipline reforms does not change the fact that schools are reflecting more deeply on their troubled role in feeding the criminal justice system and many are doing something about it, including hiring more teachers of color.

As for the data on student outcomes, you can cherry-pick what you like. We know more kids are graduating high school than a decade ago. We know more of them are going to college. Both are good outcomes. 

Recent international tests show that most other countries declined while we didn’t. That’s a good sign, I think. Scores on NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) have been flat. That’s not a good sign, but given that we’re serving more kids in poverty today and more diverse students than ever before, holding our own isn’t so bad.

State tests show we have yet to close achievement gaps and many millions of low-income kids are not learning to read very well. Apparently, we are not very good at teaching kids to read and there’s little agreement on the best method. Some say phonics. Some say knowledge. I say both and I wonder why anyone would think differently.

There's Hope In the Work We Still Need to Do

We’re also not closing opportunity and poverty gaps and as long as some kids show up in kindergarten three years behind other kids, we will have a school system that is always playing catch-up. More investments in birth to five and early learning would help along with a society-wide effort to reduce income inequality.

Looking ahead, will the integration debate go anywhere meaningful? I hope so, but I have my doubts. There’s still a lot of racism in this country and it’s not confined to the right. You easily find it in bastions of progressive politics. Either way, it’s an important conversation.


There’s much more I can point to that gives me hope—whether it’s the smart use of technology, the trend toward differentiating education or the push toward more career and technical education. I hope more schools adopt the child-centered Montessori approach but I’m equally supportive of the more discipline-focused schools that are generating game-changing results. Parents know their kids. Give them options.

Despite the countless injustices committed every day in America’s schools, in classrooms across America, young minds are engaged and good things are happening, and that’s something to smile about. We just need more of the latter and less of the former and as long as we are not afraid of the truth, there is hope.

Peter Cunningham
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 Whiteboard ...

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