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What Will It Take to Fix Public Education?

The last two presidents have introduced major education reform efforts. Are we making progress toward a better and more equitable education system? Yale Insights talked with former secretary of education John King, now president and CEO of the Education Trust, about the challenges that remain, and the impact of the Trump Administration.



On January 8, 2002, President George W. Bush traveled to Hamilton High School in Hamilton, Ohio, to sign the No Child Left Behind Act, a bipartisan bill (Senator Edward Kennedy was a co-sponsor) requiring, among other things, that states test students for proficiency in reading and math and track their progress. Schools that failed to reach their goals would be overhauled or even shut down.  

“No longer is it acceptable to hide poor performance,” Bush said. “[W]hen we find poor performance, a school will be given time and incentives and resources to correct their problems.… If, however, schools don’t perform, if, however, given the new resources, focused resources, they are unable to solve the problem of not educating their children, there must be real consequences.” 

Did No Child Left Behind make a difference? In 2015, Monty Neil of the anti-standardized testing group FairTest argued that while students made progress after the law was passed, it was slower than in the period before the law. And the No Child Left Behind was the focus of criticism for increasing federal control over schools and an emphasis on standardized testing. Its successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015, shifted power back to the states. 

President Barack Obama had his own signature education law: the grant program Race to the Top, originally part of the 2009 stimulus package, which offered funds to states that undertook various reforms, including expanding charter schools, adopting the Common Core curriculum standards, and reforming teacher evaluation. 

One study showed that Race to the Top had a dramatic effect on state practices: even states that didn’t receive the grants adopted reforms. But another said that the actual impact on outcomes were limited—and that there were overly high expectations given the scope of the reforms. “Heightened pressure on districts to produce impossible gains from an overly narrow policy agenda has made implementation difficult and often counterproductive,” wrote Elaine Weiss. 

Are we making progress toward a better and more equitable education system? And how will the Trump Administration’s policies alter the trajectory? Yale Insights talked with John King, the secretary of education in the latter years of the Obama administration, who is now president and CEO of the nonprofit Education Trust.


Q: The last two presidents have introduced major education reform efforts. Do you think we’re getting closer to a consensus on the systematic changes that are needed in education?

Well, I’d say we’ve made progress in some important areas over the last couple of decades. We have highest graduation from high school we’ve ever had as a country. Over the last eight years, we had a million African-American and Latino students go on to college. S0 there are signs of progress. 

That said, I’m very worried about the current moment. I think there’s a lack of a clear vision from the current administration, the Trump administration, about what direction education should head. And to the extent that they have an articulate vision, I think it’s actually counter to the interests of low-income students and students of color: a dismantling of federal protection of civil rights, a backing-away from the federal commitment to provide aid for students to go to higher education, and undermining of the public commitment to public schools.

That’s a departure. Over the last couple of decades, we’ve had a bipartisan consensus, whether it was in the Bush administration or the Obama administration, that the job of the Department of Education was to advance education equity and to protect student civil rights. The current administration is walking away from both of those things.

I don’t see that as a partisan issue. That’s about this administration and their priorities. Among the first things they did was to reduce civil rights protections for transgender students, to withdraw civil rights protections for victims of sexual assault on higher education campuses. They proposed a budget that cuts funding for students to go to higher education, eliminates all federal support for teacher professional development, and eliminates federal funding for after-school and summer programs.

Q: Some aspects of education reform have focused on improving performance in traditional public schools and others prioritize options like charter schools and private school vouchers. Do you think both of those are needed?

I distinguish between different types of school choice. The vast majority of kids are in traditional, district public schools. We’ve got to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to strengthen those schools and ensure their success. 

Then I think there is an important role that high-quality public charters can play if there’s rigorous oversight. And if you think about, say, Massachusetts or New York, there’s a high bar to get a charter, there’s rigorous supervision of the academics and operations of the schools and a willingness to close schools that are low-performing. So for me, those high-quality public charters can contribute as a laboratory for innovation and work in partnership with the broader traditional system.

There’s something very different going on in a place like Michigan, where you’ve got a proliferation of low-quality, for-profit charters run by for-profit companies. Their poorly regulated schools are allowed to continue operating that are doing a terrible job, that are taking advantage of students and families. That’s not what we need. And my view is that states that have those kinds of weak charter laws need to change them and move toward something like Massachusetts where there’s a high bar and meaningful accountability for charters.

And then there’s a whole other category of vouchers, which is using public money for students to go to private school, and to my mind, that is a mistake. We ought to have public dollars going to public schools with public accountability.

Q: When you have a state like Michigan in which you’ve got a lot of very poor charter schools, does that hurt a particular type of student more than others?

It has a disproportionate negative effect on low-income students and students of color. Many of those schools are concentrated in high-needs communities and, unfortunately, it’s really presenting a false choice to parents, a mirage, if you will, because they’re told, “Oh, come to this school, it will be different” or, “it will be better,” and actually it’s not. Ed Trust has an office in Michigan, where we have spent a long time trying to make the case to elected officials that they need to strengthen their charter law and charter accountability.

Unfortunately, there’s a very high level of spending by the for-profit charter industry and their supporters on political campaigns. And so far there’s not been a lot of traction to try to strengthen the charter oversight in Michigan. We see that problem in other states around the country, but at the same time we know there are models that work. We know that in Massachusetts, where there’s a high standard for charters, their Boston charters are some of the highest performing charters in the country, getting great outcomes for high-need students. So it’s possible to do chartering well, but it requires thoughtful leadership from governors and legislators. 

Q: What’s your view on how students should be evaluated?

Well, I think we have to have a holistic view. The goal ought to be to prepare students for success in college, in careers, and as citizens. So we want students to have the core academic skills, like English and math, but they also need the knowledge that you gain from science and social studies. They need the experiences that they have in art and music and physical education and health. They need that well-rounded education to be prepared to succeed at what’s next after high school. They also need to be prepared to be critical readers, critical thinkers, to debate ideas with their fellow citizens, to advocate for their ideas in a thoughtful, constructive way—all the tools that you need to be a good citizen.

In order to evaluate all of that, you need multiple measures; you can’t just look at test scores. Obviously you want students to gain reading and math skills, but you also need to look at what courses they’re taking. Are they taking a wide range of courses that will prepare them for success? Do they have access to things like AP courses or International Baccalaureate courses that will prepare them for college-level work? Do they acquire socio-emotional skills? Are they able to navigate when they have a conflict with a peer? Are they able to work collaboratively with peers to solve problems? 

So you want to look at grades; you want to look at teachers’ perceptions of students. You want to look at the work that they’re doing in class: is it rigorous, is it really preparing them for life after high school? And one of the challenges in education is, to have those kinds of multiple measures, you need very thoughtful leadership at every level—at state level, district level, and at the school level.

Q: How should we be evaluating teachers? 

I started out as a high school social studies teacher, and I thought a lot about this question of what’s the right evaluation method. I think the key is this: you want, as a teacher, to get feedback on how you’re doing and what’s happening in your classroom. Too often teaching can feel very isolated, where it’s just you and the students. It’s important to have systems in place where a mentor teacher, a master teacher, a principal, a department chair is in the classroom observing and giving feedback to teachers and having a continuous conversation about how to improve teaching. That should be a part of an evaluation system. 

But so too should be how students are doing, whether or not students are making progress. I know folks worry that that could be reduced to just looking at test scores. I think that would be a mistake, but we ought to ask, if you’re a seventh-grade math teacher, if students are making progress in seventh-grade math. 

Now, as we look at that, we have to take into consideration the skills the students brought with them to the classroom, the challenges they face outside of the classroom. But I think what you see in schools that are succeeding is that they have a thoughtful, multiple-measures approach to giving teachers feedback on how they’re doing and see it as a tool for continuous improvement to ensure that everybody is constantly learning.

Q: Do you think the core issue in improving schools is funding? Or are there separate systemic issues that need to be solved?

It varies a lot state to state, but the Education Trust has done extensive analysis of school spending, and what we see is that on average, districts serving low-income students are spending significantly less than more affluent districts across the country, about $1,200 less per student. And in some states, that can be $3,000 less, $5,000 less, $10,000 less per student for the highest-needs kids. We also see a gap around funding for communities that serve large numbers of students of color. Actually, the average gap nationally is larger for districts serving large numbers of students of color—it’s about $2,000 less than those districts that serve fewer students of color. 

So we do have a gap in terms of resources coming in, but it’s not just about money; it’s also how you use the money. And we know that, sadly, in many places, the dollars aren’t getting to the highest needs, even within a district. And then once they get to the school level, the question is, are they being spent on teachers and teacher professional development, and things that are going to serve students directly, or are they being spent on central office needs that actually aren’t serving students? So we’ve got to make sure they have more resources for the highest-needs kids, but we’ve also got to make sure that the resources are well-used.

Q: Does it make it significantly harder that so much of the decisions are made on the local level or the state level when you’re trying to create a change across the country?

It’s certainly a challenge. You want to try to balance local leadership with common goals. And you want, as a country, to be able to say, look, you may choose different books to read in class, you may choose different experiments to do in science, but we need all students to have the fundamental skills that they’ll need for success in college and careers and we ought to all be able to agree that all schools should be focused on those skills. Even that can be politically challenging. 

We also know that from a funding standpoint, having funding decided mostly on the local level can actually create greater inequality, particularly when you’re relying on local property taxes. You’ll have a very wealthy community that’s spending dramatically more than a neighboring community that has many more low-income families. One of the ways to get around that is to have the state or the federal government account for a larger share of funding so that you can have an equalizing role. That was the original goal of Title I funding at the federal level—to try to get resources to the highest-needs kids. 

The other challenge we see is around race and income diversity or isolation. And sadly, in many states, Connecticut included, you have very sharp divisions along race and class lines between districts and so kids may go to school and never see someone different from them. That is a significant problem. We know there are places that are trying to solve that. Hartford, Connecticut, for example, has, because of a court decision, a very extensive effort to get kids from Hartford to go out to suburban schools and suburban kids to come to Hartford schools. And they’ve designed programs that will attract folks across community lines, programs that focus on Montessori or art or early college programs. We can do better, but we need leadership around that. 

Q: Are you seeing concrete results from programs like Hartford?

What we know is that low-income students who have the opportunity to go to schools that serve a mixed-income population do better academically. And we also know that all students in schools that are socioeconomically and racially diverse gain additional skills outside the purely academic skills around how to work with peers, cross-racial understanding, empathy.

So, yes, we are seeing those results. The sad thing is, it’s not fast enough; it’s not happening at enough places. We in the Obama administration had proposed a $120 million grant program to school diversity initiatives around the country. We couldn’t get Congress to fund it. We had a small planning grant program that we created at the Education Department that was one of the first things the Trump administration undid when they came into office. So we’re going backwards at the federal level, but there’s a lot of energy around school diversity initiatives at the community level. And that’s where we’re seeing progress around the country.

Q: Do you think the education system should aim to send as many people to college as possible? Should we think of it as being necessary for everyone or should we find ways to prepare students for a wider range of careers?

What’s clear is that everybody going into the 21st-century economy needs some level of post-secondary training. That may be a four-year degree. It could also be a two-year community college degree, or it could be some meaningful career credential that actually leads to a job that provides a family-sustaining wage. But there are very, very few jobs that are going to provide that family-sustaining wage that don’t require some level of post-secondary training. My view is, we have a public responsibility to make sure folks have access to those post-secondary training opportunities. That’s why the Pell Grant program is so important, because it provides funding for low-income students to be able to pursue higher education.

We also need to do a better job in the connection between high school and post-secondary opportunities. A lot of times students leave high school unclear on what they’re going to do and where they should go. We can do a much better job having students have college experiences while in high school and then prepare them to transition into meaningful post-secondary career training. 

Q: What’s the one policy change you would made to help students of color and students in poverty, if you had to choose one thing?

There’s no one single silver bullet for sure, but one of the highest return investments we know we can make as a country is in early learning. We know, for example, that high quality pre-K can have an eight-to-one, nine-to-one return on investment. President Obama proposed something called Preschool for All, which would have gotten us toward universal access to quality pre-K for low- and middle-income four-year olds. That’s something we ought to do because if we can give kids a good foundation, that puts them in a better place to succeed in K-12 and to go on to college.

But I have a long list of policy changes I would want to make. I think, fundamentally, we haven’t made that commitment as a country, at the federal level, state level, or local level, to ensuring equitable opportunity for low-income students and students of color. And if we made that commitment, then there’s a series of policy changes that would flow from that.

Visit edtrust.org to learn more about the Education Trust. Follow John B. King Jr. on Twitter: @JohnBKing.

President and CEO, The Education Trust