Past Experiences Offer Lessons for Biden Transition Team

By Richard M. Long

New administration should consider long-term strategies that will grow new leaders and effective programs

Transitions can be technical or aspirational, but they also need to be objective. Ninety percent of all students attend traditional public schools. Currently, many of those schools were underfunded even before the pandemic and current economic turmoil and being impacted by federal requirements that provide little in the way of useful information to improve schools. We need a federal engagement in education that is incorporating the lessons from 60 years of significant federal involvement in preK-12 policies.  

  1. Focus beyond the immediate. Many school need comprehensive solutions, especially related to racial justice that will take time to be effectively implemented.  The U.S. Department of Education can make a bigger impact by building 10-year plans to impact local schools. A key part of this implementation is understanding that the nation simply doesn’t have the number of teachers, administrators, or specialists, or the research or policy needed to make a significant difference right now. In the past each administration has attempted to make an immediate impact, but these efforts resulted in only marginal progress towards the goals of equity and quality.
    • Special education, English language learners, and programs for disadvantaged students were originally designed to work cohesively through the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. That coordination has not been achieved.  The practical impact is that many students in Title I and IDEA are reported on using definitions designed for each individual program.  
    • Build leadership training programs.

Since the political leadership is creating the education agenda, we need to reduce the negative impact of the constant shifting from one “brilliant” idea to another. One example is the programs that have been built under the guise that accountability by the federal or state governments impacts instruction is wrong.  The accountability provides information on past performance of the school, not on how individual students learn. These are two different types of measures.  For accountability, a better system would be a sampling system to measure overall functioning for a school, while for impacting instruction, a more nuanced process should be used.  The point is that the political/policy needs are different from the instructional needs and the decisions are not providing all the information that is needed to improve instruction.

Additionally, overcoming the racial injustice that is part of our culture is going to take leadership that is able to articulate the issues as well as to identify approaches that will make a difference. 

On the programmatic level, the U.S. Department of Education has put in place many different new programs; unfortunately, they have spent little time or money to ensure that educators have the training they need to ensure these programs succeed.

  1. Distinguish between short-term and long-term crisis. Federal funding during the economic and health emergencies are in fact two related problems that need to be treated independently. While both are contributing to the widening gap between those with resources and those who do not have resources; one is a crisis of immediate concern, while the economic impacts will be with us for years. Consider that:
  • Schools will need funds immediately for the costs of operating during the Covid-19 pandemic, particularly with the expected shortfall in state and local funds.
  • Federal support will then be needed to expand the ability of schools to increase their specialized services needed by students. Some of these longer-term needs, such as the ability for supporting the education of more school personnel (including teachers, administrators, counselors, psychologists and others) could be done with federally guaranteed bonds, loans, or other financial instruments that will provide long-term funds to institutions that have programs to produce new professionals.
  1. Ongoing professional development can have an immediate impact.  The education community has a good idea of what is needed to have more schools be successful, one such example can be found in the Learning First Alliance’s landmark report, “Elements of Success: 10 Million Speak on Schools that Work.” In this publication we found that almost every suggestion for school improvement includes providing educators with ongoing professional development.
  2. Revise the research programs.
  • Coordinate the work of NICHD, NSF, with USED’s research programs (IES, policy, and special education).
  • Engage with educators and policymakers about the research they need. Currently, most research agendas are constructed by researchers – this is, by its very nature, limiting the questions and issues that are explored as well as the utility of the findings.
  • Additionally, schools have created some unique programs to cope with the pandemic. Educators need research on what has worked well and why it has worked, and research on what could work better if done differently, in addition to what hasn’t worked.
  • School and district leaders need assessment tools that provide information on how the pandemic has affected learning. The accountability model of assessment provides information only if change is needed. The specifics of what and how to change are critical. Data has to be collected and meaning determined based on quantitative and qualitative techniques.
  1. Dissemination and consultation are critical.  Work with the education associations, especially on dissemination, as they are more engaged with grassroots educators who can use and appreciate the research efforts. Additionally, the associations are learning more from their members on what are emerging issues. 

On a bit of a different note, we need to also be aware that the public is a critical part of the education decision making system.  It is important that the Education Department consider initiating a media campaign aimed at encouraging public support and involvement in public schools.  The education community knows the need for comprehensive change, but efforts have been stymied by outsiders’ ideals of what school used to be. This perspective hampers many schools’ shifts to online, more personalized, and more project-based learning. If these concepts were better understood, the public would likely be more supportive of public schools.

Views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the endorsement of the Learning First Alliance or its board of directors.