Young lives. Old problems. New solutions.
In this 2014 file photo, homeless children living at a hotel file onto a bus to get to school in Springfield, Mo. That year the city embarked on an initiative to get at least 90 percent of entering kindergarteners 'ready to learn.'
Dean Curtis/The Springfield News-Leader/AP/File
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Four steps to improve US schools that (almost) everyone supports

A path to progress

Public school champions and school choice advocates agree that educators should prepare students for careers, intervene early, look beyond test scores, and focus on the neediest schools. Part 3 of 3.

The early days of the Trump administration have made clear that strong disagreements over school choice probably won’t be resolved anytime soon. But when it comes to setting an agenda for what public education should do to prepare the rising generation for the future, there are some broad areas of consensus.

The agreements don’t always extend to how to tackle that challenge, however. As experimentation continues and communities debate priorities, that how can get very contentious. That’s at least partly because many Americans are passionate about education and the change it can bring in children’s lives.

 “Education has been the mechanism for upward mobility for a very long time in the US … and that promise provides a lot of the glue that has held our pluralistic democracy together,” says Richard Murnane, an economist at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, Mass.

Even in the face of substantial income inequality, people aren’t too bothered if they feel their children have a decent chance to rise to the top, he says. As people start to doubt that opportunity is as widespread as it should be, however, it can be “deeply disturbing to a great many Americans.”

Yet there’s a lot of hope for what education can accomplish. Here are four areas where relative consensus is leading people forward:

1. Prepare kids for college and careers, but not necessarily in that order.

The “college for all” mantra pushed many states to raise their education standards to better prepare students for the fact that a high school education often isn’t enough these days for long-term success. (Some 65 percent of jobs are expected to require a postsecondary credential by 2020.) The new consensus is that students need to be “college and career ready.”

“It shouldn’t be either college or career…. There’s a new movement afoot … to say everybody should be trained in a specific set of skills, but that … shouldn’t be aimed just at the less advantaged, nor should it preclude the possibility of a traditional four-year B.A. degree,” says Isabel Sawhill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

In part it’s a pushback to the narrow focus on math and reading tests under the former federal accountability law No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Declines in student participation in elective courses nationwide, especially in applied technical education, showed “the poverty of focusing on academics only … and losing the practical application of learning,” says Shaun Dougherty, an education policy professor at the University of Connecticut Neag School of Education in Storrs. “To be a good college student, employee, citizen, you have to have a broader appreciation for why what you are studying might matter.”

At Capital City Public Charter School in Washington, “expeditionary learning” engages students in research that takes their learning deeper and connects it to something in the community. Juanita, a senior immersed in a capstone project about the emotional effects of foster care, says she wants to study education and social work in college. Capital City “is preparing us for everything,” she says.

Erica Myrtle-Holmes, a military veteran who has enrolled six children in the school, says it’s readying them to compete globally. “They don’t just think inside of a box. They have knowledge and are able to expand on it,” she says. At another high school in the city that two of her children attended for a year, she says, students were mostly asked to sit and memorize materials.

“When they took out the skills that they could have used to get a job, … that was the biggest mistake that the public schools made,” Ms. Myrtle-Holmes says, recalling how some of her friends were prepared to become nurses right after high school. “Everybody doesn’t want to go to college,” at least not right away. She’d like to see more skilled apprenticeships.

Career and technical education has bipartisan support. Republicans are attracted to it because it forges ties with the business community and works well with school-choice policies, while Democrats see it offering stronger routes to opportunity for less-advantaged students, Professor Dougherty says.

States such as California, Illinois, Missouri, and New York have joined the Pathways to Prosperity Network as they work to ensure students can earn credentials that are valued in the labor market.

In New York City, for instance, students at Pathways in Technology Early College High School (P-TECH) earn a diploma and an associate’s degree at the same time. IBM and the City University of New York helped develop the school, and now it’s being replicated statewide.

2. Learning starts early

Giving young children a strong foundation to prepare for school is a growing priority for Republicans and Democrats alike. Over the past five years, state funding for prekindergarten has risen 47 percent, with the majority of states increasing their investments, the Education Commission of the States reports

Research continues to show why people expect a good return on those investments. Students in North Carolina who attended state-funded early education had better test scores and were less likely to need special-education services in third, fourth, and fifth grade than peers who hadn’t attended, a recent Duke University study found. 

Springfield, home to 160,000 people within the rural Ozarks region of Missouri, is one example of a community not waiting on the federal government, or even the state, to forge ahead with a commitment to its toddlers.

After a hard-hitting series in the local newspaper opened people’s eyes to the impact of growing poverty, leaders from the city, schools, businesses, and faith groups came together to figure out how to support children. In 2014, they launched the Every Child Promise initiative with a series of pilot projects aimed at getting at least 90 percent of entering kindergarteners “ready to learn.”

One of the pilots is a needs-based preschool scholarship. This year it serves nearly 100 students. Families participate in a home-visiting program called Parents as Teachers, the children have to meet attendance goals, and the preschools are given assistance to meet quality benchmarks.

Behavioral and social-emotional measures before and after participation have shown about an 18 percent improvement in readiness overall. More than 6 in 10 participants have made statistically significant gains, the initiative reports.

The hope is to eventually scale up the pilot programs that work to serve all the children whose incomes would qualify them (currently about 1,300 a year).

Dana Carroll, the initiative’s “child advocate,” says she can see several possibilities for sustainable funding to develop locally over the next few years, perhaps in some form of modest tax increase. Meanwhile, local businesses, philanthropists, and others are footing the bill, because they see it as an investment in the city’s future workforce.

“The community says, ‘If this is what’s good for kids, we’ll figure it out….’ We don’t have a lot of money, but we have really pulled together. There’s momentum toward making a difference,” she says.

3. Don’t measure schools (or kids, or teachers) only by test scores

By a large bipartisan vote, Congress approved the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) to replace NCLB in December 2015. ESSA embodies the majority view that school quality should be overseen primarily by the states, not the federal government, and that schools shouldn’t be measured so heavily by test scores.

States “haven’t had to complete [an accountability] plan this comprehensive for at least 15 years,” so many of them are hosting rich public conversations “about what they want to value in a school,” says Chris Minnich, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers.  

Among the factors states are considering giving weight to: chronic absenteeism, discipline rates, student surveys of school climate, progress closing achievement gaps, and physical fitness measures.

Teacher quality will likely continue to be a high priority, as well. “There is some consensus in the research community that teachers matter hugely, but we don’t quite know what makes a good teacher. We know it after the fact, but we can’t predict it,” Ms. Sawhill says.

A lot of experimentation is going on with how to attract, train, evaluate, and retain good teachers, and how to build career ladders to enable them to move up professionally but stay in the classroom.

High-needs schools should work together, regardless of their status as privately run public charters or district-run traditional public schools, “to learn from those that have a strong instructional strategy, and to leverage that to push for better teacher quality,” says Kenneth Wong, an education policy professor at Brown University in Rhode Island.

In the digital age, he and other education policy experts say, “the role of the teacher has to change from delivery of information to one of coach.”

4. Concentrate more support around schools that need the most help

NCLB laid bare some stark achievement gaps and what then-President George W. Bush referred to as the “soft bigotry of low expectations.”

Since then, high school graduation rates have risen substantially. But raising standards and holding schools accountable haven’t been sufficient to move the needle very far on racial and socioeconomic gaps. Many advocates and researchers say that’s largely because minority students still don't have enough access to good schools.

“We should have the same expectations for everybody…. However, it’s … unrealistic to imagine that simply by raising the bar only, we can get everybody to [that point],” says Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor of the history of education at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

States need to ask: “What are we going to do with the schools that need our help? Will we spend another five to 10 years admiring the problem, or really do something about it?” Mr. Minnich says.

A longstanding belief that giving school districts more money won’t really result in academic improvements for low-income kids has been challenged by recent research that is convincing many policymakers that money really does matter.

For example, for low-income children, a 22 percent increase in per-pupil spending for 12 years could eliminate the education gap between poor and nonpoor families, according to a study published in 2015 by Kirabo Jackson, a labor economist who researches education at Northwestern University, and two co-researchers. It also found that such spending has effects on students’ later earnings as adults. 

“We’ve learned how to improve high-poverty schools a great deal … but it takes a lot of money” and the right combination of  “accountability and support,” Professor Murnane says.

Part 1: Robust school choice and strong public schools – can US have both?

Part 2: Three myths holding back America's public schools