The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Federal Government VS Public Schools

Today’s source,”It’s time to Redefine the Federal Role in K-12 Education”, published in The Phi Delta Kappen in August 2018, presents mixed views of the quality of American education. In the article the author, Jack Tidal Jennings, strongly criticizes the current actions of  public school leaders and then includes responses from a number of public school people. Reading the article helped me to understand the views from both sides and form my own opinion about what needs to be done to improve schools and by whom.

P.S. Writing this piece and checking for errors took me several days to do. That’s why you didn’t receive it earlier. Over the coming week I will relax with my sister in Florida and not write a word. I need a break!


Last year Jack Jennings, the former president and CEO of the Center on Educational Policy from 1967 to 1994, decided to write a letter that questioned many of the actions of educational leaders in several states.  In that letter it was clear that he disliked much of what was happening currently and what he saw in the the new ESSA law that diminished government control of schools and gave more power to the states instead. What he wants now are new additions to the law that would make certain school actions required and others forbidden.

To help readers understand Jennings’ concerns and desires I needed to quote him directly several times. However, it would have been too much to repeat all his fears and desires.  What I’ve tried to do instead is to quote only his most significant statements–in the same order that he put them– that he believes must be included–and enforced– in the  ESSA law.

Here they are:

States will vary greatly in their goals for student achievement, their indicators of success, and their approach holding educators accountable and assisting underperforming schools.

The fact remains that ESSA rests on the same faulty foundation as NCLB

States will vary greatly in their goals for student achievement, their indicators of success and their approaches, holding educators accountable and assisting under- performing schools

When local leaders are unable or unwilling to provide all children’s needs federal policy makers have an obligation to become involved.

The fact remains that ESSA rests on the same faulty foundation as NCLB: the assumption that pressuring teachers and administrators raise test scores will lead to better instruction and greater learning for all students.

ESSA was enacted only two and a half years ago, but it’s not too soon to begin drafting new law.

When local leaders are unable or unwilling to provide formal children’s needs, federal policy makers have an obligation to become involved.

As the National Conference put it in a recent report,”The U.S. workforce, widely acknowledged to be the best educated in the world half a century ago, is now among the least well-educated in the world.”

Certainly, it (the federal government) should stay out of decisions that are best left to governors, state legislators, school boards, superintendents, and teachers, but when local leaders are unable or unwilling to provide for all children’s needs, federal policy makers have an obligation to become involved.

There is both a strong precedent and an urgent need for the federal government to continue to play an active roll in K-12 education.

No state has yet come close to ensuring that all young children enter school with the early math, literacy, and other skills that will allow them to succeed.

An equally pressing problem, which states have shown little ability to solve on there own, has to do with raising the quality of the teaching force.

If we were serious about teacher recruitment, quality, and retention, would we pay our teachers such meager wages?

Nor have states made sufficient progress on another critical priority for the nations’ schools: ensuring that the K-12 curriculum prepares students well for college, careers, and a civic life.

The Federal government can and should (as it has done many times before) support curricular improvement in literacy, math, science, civics, language learning, and other subject areas.

Finally, the funding of public education needs to be overhauled.

In short, I argue that federal education policy has important contributions to make in at least four key areas: pre school education, teacher quality, curriculum, and school funding.

Further, I recommend that the government adopt a fair and straightforward process to award grants and monitor states progress.

The federal government does indeed have a vital role to play in K-12 education, providing resources and leadership, solving problems that states are unable or unwilling to solve on their own.

As I see it, Congress’ best option is to undertake difficult but crucial reforms in exchange for more and unrestricted federal aid. Specifically, I propose that the next iteration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act provide grants to states.

First, to ensure the future prosperity and cohesion of our nation, we must help our students achieve at higher levels than in the past; second, our schools do not currently provide all students with equal opportunities to become well educated

We must get going, and fast!

Three Replies to Jennings

From Christopher Cross who is chairman of Four Point Education Partners, a distinguished senior fellow with the Education Commission of the States, and a consultant the Broad Foundation.

I agree with Jack that the federal government should make it a higher priority to support better research and data collection in K-112 education.

I disagree with the idea that the feds can or should get into the curriculum business.

Jack doesn’t address special education, but it is badly in need reform, and it should get more attention from federal policy makers. As Jack argues, K-12 education also has severe human capital issues that need attention.

The toughest issue is to rethink the ways in which we finance K-12 education.

Again, I don’t know that Washington should be involved in telling states and districts what to do, but this could be another place where it could be useful to create a federally sponsored commission to propose new funding models and issue a report to the nation.

From Daria Hall, Vice President for Partnerships and Engagement at The Education Trust.

Let’s not forget, the reason the federal government got involved in education was to serve as champion for the students being systematically overlooked and underserved by states and local communities.

The need for this role is no less urgent now than it was during the War on Poverty.  Every day in America, low-income children and children of color attend  schools where we spend less on their education, expect less of them, assign them to teachers who are ill-equipped to serve them, and fail to provide a supportive environment  for learning.

These inequities matter. They hinder mobility for individual students and families. And they erode the health of our collective economy, society, and democracy.

So any conversation about a revised federal role must start with attention to opportunity and achievement for low-income students and students of color. And it must be grounded in a commitment to action when any group of students is not getting the education they need and deserve.

Would more federal action on pre-school, teacher quality, curriculum, and funding be welcome? Absolutely.

But it must be grounded in a commitment to prioritizing the needs and interests of historically underserved students. Experience is clear that without a specific equity, even the best-intentioned policy advances can end up exacerbating disparities.

And it must come alongside meaningful accountability for the outcomes of all groups of students, and the expectation of meaningful action when schools or districts underserve any student group. Evidence from schools and systems that are making the most progress for all groups of students demonstrates that this progress happens when targeted resources and meaningful accountability go hand in hand.

We can do this all: Prioritize historically underserved students, maintain—and indeed improve—accountability for results, and expand opportunity for the students who most need it.  No federal law should do any less.

From Joanne Yatvin, a retired teacher and school principal who still reads and writes about American education.

You have certainly covered a wide range of the expectations of Congress for our public schools and their failure to meet them. From my view, as a long term educator and the parent of four children who are now successful adults, I disagree with most of your concerns.  In fact, I disagree almost totally with your beliefs about the weaknesses in American public education and your desire for certain changes. (The one place where I agree strongly with you is that teachers are under paid.)

Although I am aware of long-standing problems in many schools, I see them as the product of family poverty, insufficient school funding, continuing changes in school operations, unrealistic expectations for student learning, and the foolish belief that all schools should be alike. (I could name more problems, but I’m sure you can already see my views.)

What I think the Federal government should be doing–instead of making judgements based on students test scores–is get to know schools around the country and their needs, then help those schools that need success attain it.

A Final Word From Jack Jennings 

As noted by Theresa Alban, superintendent of Maryland’s Frederick County Public Schools, my purpose in writing this article was to stimulate a much-needed and long overdue discussion about Washington, DC’s role in school improvement. Because the major federal education reforms of the last three decades have not shown the progress we need, and because the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) provides little in the way of a course correction, it’s time to take hard looks at our fundamental principles to determine how best to proceed.

Kristin Amundson, from the National Association of State Boards of Education, believes that the states are moving ahead on their own under Essa and that there is no need for significant new federal action on K-12 education. I disagree. I suspect that in the coming years, most states will simply fine tune their accountability systems and mount no major efforts to improve their schools.






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Our Schools Need More Vigor Not Rigor

As I promised, I am beginning to write this blog once more. Since some readers may be new and others not familiar with my beliefs about education, I am starting with a dose of my basic philosophy of what schools should be and do. Although I published this essay when I began this blog I have revised it, and for me at least, it is timeless.

Though my years in the classroom are long past, at heart I am still a cranky old English teacher who bristles at some of the neologisms that have crept into our language but don’t belong there. I make it a point never to tack “ly” onto ordinal number words such as “third” or say “myself” when I mean “I” or “me.” And I never use “access” or “impact” as verbs because I consider them still to be only nouns.*  Even so, I remain politely quiet when others commit grammatical transgressions. I figure they will learn what is right or continue to mark themselves as dummies.

But there is one word I dislike so intensely when used to express what education should be that I can’t remain silent under any circumstances: “rigor”. Part of my reaction is emotional, having learned that “rigor” is properly paired with “mortis.”

My other reactions are logical, stemming from the literal meanings of rigor: harshness, severity, strictness, inflexibility and immobility. None of those qualities are what I want for students at any level. And, although I don’t believe that the politicians, scholars or media commentators –who use the word rigor so freely– really want them either, I still reproach them for using rigor to characterize educational excellence.

Rigor has been used incorrectly to promote the idea that American students need advanced course work, complex texts, and longer school days in order to be ready for college or the workplace. But, so far, the rigorous practices included in school reform plans have not raised test scores or improved high school graduation rates. Since I believe it is time for a better word and a better concept to drive American education to a higher level, I recommend “vigor.” My dictionary says it means “active physical or mental force or strength; healthy growth; intensity, force or energy.” And my mental association is to all the Latin-based words related to the word “life”. How much better our schools would be if they provided classroom activities throbbing with energy, growth and life. Although school buildings have walls, they should not separate students from vigorous learning.

To learn, students need first-hand experiences with real-world problems–not only in math and science, but also in civics and nutrition-, knowledge garnered from multiple sources–not only from textbooks and the internet, but also from talking to people of all ages and backgrounds. They also need a variety of useful skills: at least a taste of those of farmers, craftsmen, mechanics, athletes, business managers, and sales workers. Instead of aiming for higher test scores, a vigorous school would care more about what students do with what they have been taught.

At all grade levels a school should foster activities that allow students to demonstrate their learning in real contexts, such as serving in the school lunchroom, checking out books in the library, organizing playground games for younger students or reading to them, making items to sell at a school store, creating a school vegetable garden, painting murals in the hallways, adopting a nearby road for clearing its trash quarterly, and school recycling of re-usable materials, such as cardboard milk containers.

Schools should also encourage students to use their abilities and interests beyond the classroom and beyond traditional extra-curricular activities. They should have opportunities to create a musical group, write and perform poetry or drama, draw and post political cartoons and humorous comic strips, make artistic or informational videos, and work with adults on community projects. As a result of the vigor that those activities exemplify, there will come the intellectual intensity, precision, critical alertness, expertise and integrity that the critics of education are actually calling for when they misuse the word “rigor.” These habits of mind, body and spirit are the true fruit of educational excellence. In the end, vigor in our schools is the evidence of life, while rigor is the sign of early death.


*If you don’t believe me, look it up


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