The Three Most Serious Problems for U.S. Public Education in 2023

The new year is a good time to stop and consider where our society stands in terms of its public priorities. During the first week of 2023, this blog will consider three overall problems of federal public education policy that undermine our public schools, their teachers, and our children. On Thursday, the topic will be serious concerns at the state level, with a focus on my state, Ohio.

In a wonderful post last week at Curmuducation, Peter Greene examined 11 different conditions that imperil public schooling as we begin 2023. Two of the threats to public schooling he identifies in the past year rise to a level of importance above all the others: “the Don’t Trust the Schools Movement” and “High Stakes Testing.”

I agree with Greene’s assessment, with one difference: He traces the “Don’t Trust the Schools Movement” in 2023 to the culture warriors who attack the teaching of so-called critical race theory, who won’t let teachers say “gay,” and who think teachers are somehow grooming children.  He’s right about that, but I think we should also remember that the culture war attacks are merely the most recent strand of a four-decades long attack that began in 1983 with the Ronald Reagan-era, A Nation at Risk report, which blamed the public schools for undermining America’s position in the world.

So… what do I believe are the three greatest perils facing public schooling as we begin 2023?

Peril #1: “High Stakes Testing” and the “Don’t Trust the Schools Movement ” are together being used to discredit America’s system of public education.

In 2001, Congress prescribed No Child Left Behind (NCLB) as the cure for A Nation at Risk‘s diagnosis of “failing” public schools. NCLB brought us high stakes school accountability as embodied in annual standardized testing along with punishments for the schools unable to raise test scores every year. The 2001, NCLB “solution” to our “failing” public schools was, of course, what Peter Greene calls this year’s second huge threat: “High Stakes Testing.” We need to remember that high states standardized testing is very much still with us. For decades now the press and the testing companies and the accountability hawks have bombarded society with the message that standardized test scores must stay on a perpetual upward trajectory. Even when a worldwide pandemic and consequent school closures temporarily disrupted the trajectory of ever rising scores, many people, therefore, came to fear that our children have “lost decades of improvement.”

But the damage of the annual high-stakes testing is deeper and more insidious in all the ways the testing undermines and discredits our public system of education.  Testing, with all of the drilling and narrowing what’s being taught, has undermined teaching. In NCLB, Congress also tied scores to teacher evaluation in a way that was shown to be unreliable. The federal government imposed sanctions like school reconstitution and mandatory charterization on public schools which struggled to raise scores. Thousands of students have been held back in third grade based on one test score even though there is evidence that being held back even once increases the probability that a student will drop out of school before graduating.  In the minds of the public, test scores now measure the quality of the school, the quality of the teachers, and the quality of each school district as the place to invest in a house. States are still required by the federal government to rank and rate the schools and to create school report cards that are published in the newspaper.

While some of the history of No Child Left Behind school accountability has faded in our memories, the “Don’t Trust the Schools Movement” is on a many levels still driven and entangled with “High Stakes Testing.”  And this year, as high stakes testing continues to undermine confidence in our schools and as the culture warriors and parents’ rights advocates clamor to discredit teachers, state legislators are feeling empowered to listen as EdChoice and the Heritage Foundation and the Goldwater Institute pressure them to redirect desperately needed tax dollars to privatized alternatives by growing voucher programs and expanding charter schools.

In the midst of all the controversy as we begin 2023, we’ve forgotten about a second peril.  This one is not part of Peter Greene’s list.

Peril #2:  Public Schools Across the United States remain alarmingly unequal.

First Focus on Children just released a new report: Big Ideas 2023, whose first chapter by constitutional scholar and author of Schoolhouse Burning, Derek Black proclaims the importance of Reclaiming the Federal Role in Education: educational equity. Black reminds us that much of today’s conversation about public schooling seems to have drifted away from the goals of the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act and one of the Department of Education’s primary programs, Title I:

“On most major measures, educational inequality is holding steady or on the rise. Achievement, segregation, and funding data all indicate that poor and minority students are receiving vastly unequal educational opportunities. For instance, predominantly minority schools receive about $2,000 less per student than predominantly white schools.  Even putting aside this inequality, overall government commitment to public education is receding. Since 2008, most states have substantially decreased school funding, some by more than 20%. The federal government has done little to stem the decline. Most disturbing, some states are currently taking steps to amend their state constitutions and make cuts to education even easier.”

Black explains that in 2015, Congress replaced the No Child Left Behind Act with the Every Student Succeeds Act, but he adds that in the 2015 version Congress did not improve the federal education law: “Congress simply stripped the federal government of regulatory power and vastly expanded state discretion. For the first time in 50 years, the federal government now lacks the ability to make prompt improvements in student achievement or to demand equal resources for low-income students… Congress can realign the Elementary and Secondary Education Act… with its historic mission of improving academic achievement and equity for low-income students, but it should also enact better mechanisms to achieve those goals. First, ESEA must increase federal investment in education. An increased federal investment is also necessary if states are to accept the second step: strict prohibitions on the unequal distribution of educational resources by states. The final step is to expand preschool education to all low-income students—a goal the Department of Education has pushed in recent years, but which states seemingly lack the capacity to reach alone.”

Derek Black reminds us that there is an urgent need for the federal government to reclaim and act on its traditional role as the guarantor of educational equity.  But equity cannot be achieved  by schools alone, which brings us to the third peril.

Peril #3: In 2022, Congress chose not to ameliorate child poverty.

Over a decade ago in a 2009 report, Lost Opportunity, the Schott Foundation for Public Education made a stunning effort to redefine what No Child Left Behind called “achievement gaps” and to shift our nation’s goal to closing children’s “opportunity gaps” not only at school but also in the whole of their lives.  What are all the factors that affect a child’s “Opportunity to Learn”?  Research demonstrates that child poverty itself creates perhaps the most serious of our society’s opportunity gaps.

Here is David Berliner, a retired professor of education and the former president of the American Educational Research Association: “(T)he big problems of American education are not in America’s schools. So, reforming the schools, as Jean Anyon once said, is like trying to clean the air on one side of a screen door. It cannot be done!  It’s neither this nation’s teachers nor its curriculum that impede the achievement of our children. The roots of America’s educational problems are in the numbers of Americans who live in poverty. America’s educational problems are predominantly in the numbers of kids and their families who are homeless; whose families have no access to Medicaid or other medical services.”

Professor of education at the University of Colorado and director of the National Education Policy Center, Kevin Welner adds: “Can schools balance our societal inequality? If that inequality is left unaddressed, along with the harm it does to children, can policymakers reasonably expect an outcome of rough equality through focusing instead on building a dazzling public school system…?” (Public Education, Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, p. 87)

While in 2021, as part of the American Rescue COVID relief bill, Congress temporarily expanded the Child Tax Credit, the expansion ended at the beginning of 2022. Then, last fall (2022) it appeared there was a chance that Congress would, as part of the year-end omnibus budget act, make the Child Tax Credit fully refundable, but the moment has now passed.

Writing for The New Republic, Grace Segers recounts what happened: “The implementation of the expanded child tax credit was akin to a social experiment in real time, with almost immediate results. During the six months it was in effect, the credit reached more than 60 million children in 36 million households. Due in large part to the expanded child tax credit, child poverty was cut nearly in half in 2021 compared to 2022, according to the Census Bureau. Food insufficiency also decreased significantly among families with children, dropping from a rate of 11 percent to 8.4 percent after the first monthly payment was distributed in July 2021.”

Segers continues: “The results of the credit’s expiration were as immediate as those of its implementation. January 2022 saw 3.7 million more children fall beneath the poverty line compared ‘to December 2021. That increase was particularly dramatic for Black and Latino children. Following the end of the expanded child tax credit, there was a 28 percent increase in the child poverty rate for Black children, and a 40 percent increase in the child poverty rate for Latino children from December 2021 to February 2022. The expiration of the expanded credit was also associated with a 25 percent increase in food insufficiency for families with children.”

Segers concludes that as the new Congress gets underway in January 2023 the chance for expanding the Child Tax Credit in the next couple of years is likely gone: “With Republicans taking control of the House in January, these final weeks of the year represented the last chance for the foreseeable future for the Democratic majority in both houses to reinstate the credit.”

With both chambers of Congress last year majority Democrat, 2022 was also probably the end of any chance in the immediate future to reduce reliance on mandated standardized testing accompanied by all of the high-stakes punishments for public schools or to shift attention back to the traditional role of the Department of Education—promoting educational equity at the federal level and incentivizing states to equalize their educational investment.

Like Peter Greene, I believe there are major threats to public schooling as we begin 2023. In this time when Congressional action is unlikely, the questions for those of us who support public education are:

  • how to keep on pushing to clear out the awful lingering policy around test-based school accountability;
  • how to keep on pushing back against widespread attacks on public education itself; and
  • how to keep on speaking for the needs of our society’s poorest children as well as for the needs of their public schools.

We need to remember the importance of protecting public education—our nation’s system of publicly funded, universally available, and publicly accountable schools. Public schools are the optimal institution for balancing the needs of each particular student and family with the community’s obligation to create a system that, by law, protects the rights of all students.

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