Six Unifying Education Policy Ideas for 2017


Polarization was the theme of 2016, and we’d be kidding ourselves to think that will be much different in 2017. Still, there has rarely been more need for new ideas that people can begin to come together around, especially in education. Here are six to start us off. What are yours?

1. High expectations for students with unique needs
An important case being heard by the U.S. Supreme Court on Jan 11, Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, is being supported by civil rights groups and school choice advocates alike. “Endrew” argues for a higher academic bar for special education services. Students with IEPs and other unique needs deserve our best entrepreneurial ideas, high expectations, and options. This, if any cause, should be free of partisan and other ideological divisions. An outdated notion of special education policy has ensured that kids get services prescribed but not that what’s prescribed leads to the maximum learning a child is capable of. An upcoming rewrite of IDEA is an opportune time to demonstrate bipartisan support for the idea that children with unique learning needs deserve better.

2. Unrestricted access to rigorous instruction
In the rush to expand its reach, “personalized learning” has become whatever anyone wants it to be (and therefore at risk of losing its brand and potential). Yet, there is something important and compelling, even unifying, in the idea that no student should be held back from accessing challenging curriculum and that every student should be adequately supported in achieving to their highest possible level. Access to rigor as an unrestricted right should be something that parents and educators fight for, whether it’s called “personalized” or not and whether it’s available from teachers inside the building or not.

3. Better-informed parents
Conservatives are spending a lot of time fighting against the idea that school choice needs more regulation. Liberals are fearful that the feds will give up on enforcement of civil rights and ignore discrimination in enrollment, course access, expulsion, etc. We can all agree, however, that students, markets, and regulators benefit from better-informed parents. ESSA presents a crucial opportunity to help parents navigate their choices and advocate for better schools. The feds could do more. This is important, low-hanging fruit.

4. Highly strategic state policy and more effective SEAs
Like it or not, the action in education policy will be at the state level for at least the next few years. As states develop their initial ESSA plans, most informed observers agree that only a handful will do much more than check the box on federal requirements (e.g., state’s duty to act when localities consistently ignore failing schools or groups of children who have no good options). But we can’t afford to tread water. While we need strong intervention plans for our lowest-performing 5 percent of schools, the even bigger challenge may be improving the other 95 percent. States will not succeed if they don’t get serious about improving their talent pipelines, and get more strategic about how to treat school districts as the front lines on quality assurance and how to treat schools as problem-solving organizations. Everyone who cares about U.S. student competitiveness should care about this, and states will need a lot of help and not-so-gentle prodding.

5. Excellence in career training and a more productive use of the senior year
We seemed to have reached the day of reckoning with “college for all.” Even “no excuses” schools are starting to wonder if preparation for 4-year colleges is enough or even right for all students. We can’t give up on high expectations, but we need to make more options available for students who know they want to pursue a career track or skill and thus don’t want or need a 4-year college. It’s a common challenge that crosses district and charter lines, urban and rural. It’s a challenge in serious need of innovation and policy attention. It’s a perfect uniter.

6. Competitive strategies for school districts
School districts have never really been a monopoly. They have always lost (or gained) enrollment to (or from) suburbs and private schools. Charter schooling has only accelerated those enrollment shifts. Yet district enrollment losses are much more acute these days and charter schools are usually implicated in the backlash around enrollment losses and school closures. Districts must be able to mount effective strategies to try to win enrollment back or downsize without harming students. The business community, charter school advocates, school districts, and teachers unions could come together in interesting ways to address this issue. Who’s game?

No one should be Pollyanna-ish about the potential for these ideas to bring new alliances together, but we won’t make progress on education if we keep pushing our same old ideas. Let’s make 2017 the year for inventiveness, evidence, and humility.

—Robin J. Lake

Robin J. Lake is the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington.

This post originally appeared on The Lens.

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