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Great Public Schools for Every Student by 2020, Executive Summary

The National Education Association has prepared this paper to jump-start a new conversation with federal leadership about the federal government’s role in accelerating public school improvement. We propose that a new balance be created in the partnership among federal, state, and local leaders and that we collectively commit to making every public school great by the year 2020.

Our public schools face huge challenges—and extraordinary opportunities. Americans agree that public schools should help prepare students with the knowledge and skills to participate fully in our democracy and to succeed in this dynamic 21st century world. Many of our public schools are remarkable and offer their students an excellent education.

But America’s students do not have equal access to high-quality public schools. Achievement gaps persist. Teacher turnover is particularly high in public schools serving poor and minority students. Expenditures for K—12 students vary wildly, resulting in disparities among schools. High school dropout rates, especially for Black and Hispanic students, aredisgraceful.

NEA recognizes that there are many out-of-school factors that affect student success, and frankly, the impact of those factors—from poverty to health care, the availability ofsummer opportunities for students, and the stability of housing—has been wrongly downplayed in the national dialogue about school improvement. We urge that socioeconomic factors be addressed as part of well-crafted and comprehensive strategies to improve educational opportunity for every student. For too many poor and minority children, “at risk” describes their fate and not simply their circumstances. We are convinced that by improving both children’s circumstances and their schools, we can change their fate.

Learning starts before elementary and continues after secondary school. NEA believes that federal leaders should look hard at how to support increased access to high-quality preK. Further along students’ learning lives, NEA values the essential role of the federal government in improving student access to higher education.

Our focus in this paper, however, is on the federal role for K—12 education. A federal role in education is as old as the nation and has evolved along with it. At times, the country’s leaders have astutely used the levers of federal authority to address the educational needs of the nation. At other times, federal actions have missed the mark and done harm.

The Developing Federal Role

The last century saw the federal government emphasizing guarantees of equity and opportunity, targeting assistance to students with unique needs, and supporting the nation’sdefense. The 1944 GI Bill sent nearly 8 million World War II veterans to college. The landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling shined a bright light on discrimination. The National Defense Education Act gave new support for teachers and students in the fields of science, engineering, and foreign languages. And in 1965, the Elementary and Secondary EducationAct (ESEA) took aim at inequity and directed resources to schools serving poor and minority children.

Congress codified a federal role in education when it established the U.S. Department of Education in 1980. This new department was to be the conscience that defended equalopportunity, a catalyst for state-led education improvement, and a center for quality research and best practices.

Despite the new federal role, problems beset many public schools. Funding remained inequitable. Networks to exchange best practices and other information were inefficient. And inspite of individual efforts, closing achievement gaps for poor and minority students remained the raw spot of the nation’s educational performance.

In December 2001, a bipartisan Congress passed the No Child Left Behind law (NCLB), which expanded dramatically the federal role in K—12 education. NEA applauded the law’s broad goals and its commitment to closing achievement gaps. We joined with other organizations in praise of the move to disaggregate data so that the performance of all groups of students, especially minority and poor children, is not swept under the rug. But NEA also has spoken out about the problems with this law. NCLB distorted earlier interpretations of the federal role (and arguably the Education Department’s mission) and disregarded the realities of school, district, and state implementation and practice. It required unrealistic  outcomes without supplying the requisite inputs. This law must be fundamentally overhauled. In It’s Time for a Change: NEA’s Positive Agenda for the ESEA Reauthorization, NEA presents our vision for great public schools and a set of criteria to guide reauthorization.

Now, federal leaders have an opportunity to take stock of this history, learn from it, and recalibrate the role of the federal government.

Schools, Districts, States: Engines of Public School Transformation

Schools, districts, and states—not the federal government—are the primary engines of public school transformation. Most of the leadership and responsibility for education appropriately rest at the state and local school district levels. Constitutionally, education is reserved to the states, and the majority of education funding is provided at the state level. In collaboration with districts, states frame the practice of public education by setting standards, developing assessments, requiring accountability practices, and disseminating data.

The inspiration for public school improvement comes from the school level and the actual work of faculty and staff with students. Experience in the classroom offers insight into the practices and programs that work. This experience and knowledge that school professionals bring deserve the respect and attention of local, state, and federal partners.

Many school, district, and state-level efforts are transforming public schools into high-quality learning centers. But we do not suggest for a moment that the status quo is acceptable. States and districts should move quickly and aggressively to recognize problems, including within their own systems, and build the expertise and political will to surmount the formidable obstacles to public school transformation. There are enormous educational and fiscal inequities among public schools. States and districts continue to struggle with how best to help low-performing students. Assessment and data systems are inadequate. High-quality professional development and professional pay for teachers and staff often is lacking.

To accelerate the pace of transformation, states and districts need collaborative partners to give support and resources. Well-designed federal policies should supply the balance of support necessary to deliver great educational programs for every student in our public schools.

Framework for a New Federal Role in Education: Great Public Schools for Every Student by 2020

We propose that the federal government set a goal that every student has a great public school by the year 2020. Achieving this requires collaboration, and the federal government should embrace its role as a supporter—not a micromanager—of state and district responsibilities. To reach the goal, we propose that the federal government start with a five-year initiative for public school improvement. This Transforming America’s Public Schools Initiative asks Congress to address six points.

1. Support the profession of teaching as a desired and complex field of study and practice.

Teaching is a true profession. While respecting state and district responsibilities, federal policy should support teachers at every stage of their development, from promoting high standards for entry into the profession, to high-quality professional development for teachers and paraeducators, and supporting research and resources that help educators obtain additional skills and knowledge and contribute to improved teaching practices.

A teacher’s working conditions are their students’ learning conditions, and federal support should be directed to public schools in disrepair or in need of basic resources. The federal government should collaborate with states to articulate meaningful policies that help attract, support, and retain qualified teachers and paraeducators to high-poverty and hard-to-staff schools. In addition, federal grants to states should aim to develop effective ways to prepare teachers, such as with residency programs; encourage partnerships among schools, colleges and other organizations to advance teacher quality; and support models that attract and retain diverse and talented teachers to the profession.

2. Federal guarantee for the sustained funding of Title I and IDEA and for special needs populations.

The federal government should remedy the fact that Title I and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) have never received the federal funding that the original laws promised. The federal government should close the gap between its commitment and the actual funding so that shortfalls disappear. The federal government should commit additional resources to meet the needs of special populations of students, including English Language Learner students. In addition, the federal government should increase monitoring to make sure funds are used for their intended purpose.  

3. Equal access to educational services and supports.

The federal government should require states, as part of their application for federal education funds under ESEA, to develop “Adequacy and Equity Plans.” Through these plans, states will demonstrate where there are disparities among districts and schools in educational tools and services, as well as opportunities and resources. The plans will outline steps underway or planned to remedy the disparities.

Because states already must submit applications to the Education Department to receive funds, the plans will be an additional component, not a whole new program. The Education Department will include as part of its monitoring process a review of whether states are meeting the provisions of the plans. The design of federal approval and monitoring should be one that sensibly supports adjustments and flexibility as states pursue their goals and work toward eliminating disparities, without ever losing sight of the fact that the richest country in the world can provide every student with a quality education.

4. Support state-led public school transformation through authentic accountability that is publicly transparent.

The federal government should use ESEA and other federal programs as mechanisms to induce states to devise comprehensive accountability systems that use multiple measures. Such systems should support efforts to guarantee that every student has access to a rich and comprehensive curriculum. These state systems should evaluate school quality and assess student learning in order to close achievement and opportunity gaps among groups of students. States should continue to report data on a disaggregated basis to the Education Department and to the public. The design team for these evaluation systems should include practicing educators to help ensure that the system can yield clear and useful results.

The input components of state accountability plans should encompass the conditions that ideally should be present for every student to succeed, such as students’ access to pre-kindergarten; to dental, vision, and other health care; to reasonable class size; and to safe facilities. NEA has highlighted these and other examples of conditions of success in its Positive Agenda.  

5. Establish high-quality educational research and development as essential to educational improvement.

Currently, federal funds allotted for education research account for just 0.9 percent of the federal education investment. The federal government should quadruple the amount of R&D money in education.

The federal government also should decouple the current Institute for Educational Sciences (IES) from the Education Department and create an independent new National Institute of Educational Research (NIER), similar to the relationship of the National Institutes of Health to the Department of Health and Human Services, or as a separate agency altogether, such as the National Science Foundation. Such a move, with proper legislative safeguards, would help to remove NIER from political interference and foster high-quality research carried out by well-regarded professionals.

Working in partnership with regional laboratories, state and local governments, and national organizations and with input from classroom educators, NIER would disseminate best practice models to improve instruction and support locally based R&D.

6. Support innovation and best practices to accelerate statebased improvement efforts and improve student learning based on proven teaching strategies and programs grounded in sound teaching and learning research.

The Education Department should expand its services as a clearinghouse for best practices to help educators better teach their students and to help develop strong school leadership.

In addition, the federal government should:

  • Continue the commitment to participate in international assessments, such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS)
  • Devote financial support to improving teacher preparation programs  
  • Expand the Blue Ribbon Schools program to disseminate information about model schools, districts and states, especially those that close achievement gaps
  • Bring stakeholders together on a regular basis to highlight best practices in education so that transformative ideas germinate and take hold in other sites across the country


NEA Commitment

NEA believes the federal government has a vital role to play in advancing the quality of the nation’s public schools. Federal leaders can help forge a new partnership with state and local authorities, parents and civic organizations, social service agencies and businesses, and NEA and our affiliates. Collectively, we can shape a type of American Renaissance in our public schools that will prepare our students to succeed as democratic citizens in a global economy.

NEA commits to:

  • supporting a White House Summit on Education
  • creating models for state-based educational improvement
  • developing a new framework for accountability systems that support authentic student learning
  • clearly representing our members’ insights and views to advance policy that works in the classroom and school,
  • and fostering a constructive relationship with U.S. Department of Education leadership.

In a world of promise and uncertainty, students should develop a deep appreciation of our liberties and acquire the wide range of skills it will take to realize the American Dream. NEA and our affiliates already have begun work to transform our public schools. We are ready to contribute ideas, give aggressive support, and help unleash the creative energies that will create great public schools for every student in America.