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Five Questions Every Presidential Candidate Needs to Answer About Education

Forget accountability. This time around, the candidates need to address inequality.

Standards-based teaching, high-stakes testing and value-added methods of teacher evaluation haven't worked. What do the presidential candidates plan to do about it? (Image: Student test via Shutterstock)

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Since the early 1980s, education platforms have been essential to political campaigns for governorships and the presidency, with education policy increasingly defining elected officials’ political legacies. With the passing of No Child Left Behind in 2001, education legislation shifted even further to national prominence, as NCLB came to represent the “power” of bi-partisan commitments to education reform.

In the 2016 presidential election, education may once again emerge as a major point of debate, in part because of Jeb Bush’s legacy in Florida and in part because of the lingering political controversies around Common Core.

Yet in addressing education issues candidates are likely to remain trapped inside the failed accountability mindset for reforming schools – one that privileges “standards” and “tests” as the central means of closing the infamous achievement gap. But there are better ways to approach what plagues us. Instead of focusing merely on “accountability,” presidential candidates should be challenged first to confront and then address the tremendous social and educational inequities that plague our public schools.

Here, then, are five questions about education reform every candidate should have to answer, and a few words about why these questions matter.

Question #1: Since public schools often reflect the racialand class inequities of the communities they serve, how will you work to ensure that the U.S. puts an end to the two-tiered educational system currently available to children – one preferred educational experience for privileged children and another worse educational experience for disadvantaged children?

Although some presidential candidates have raised concerns about two Americas, we have yet to confront our two education systems.

Notably, as we have passed the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board, both U.S. public schools and charter schools represent a return to segregated education. Although NCLB linked accountability to closing the achievement gap, black, brown, and high-poverty students along with English language learners and special needs students are often segregated, and as a result receive reduced educations targeting significantly and even exclusively test-prep.

Question #2: While state and national leaders in education have repeatedly noted the importance of teacher quality – while also misrepresenting that importance – increasing standards-based teaching, high-stakes testing and value-added methods of teacher evaluation, along with the dismantling unions, have de-professionalized teaching and discouraged young people from entering the field. How will you work to return professionalism and autonomy to teachers?

The teacher quality debate is the latest phase of accountability linked to test scores that started with school and student accountability in the 1980s and ’90s. While everyone can agree that teacher quality is important, the real issues are how we measure that impact and how we separate teacher and even school quality effects from the much larger and more powerful impact of out-of-school factors – that account for about 60% to 86% of measurable student learning.

The misguided focus on teacher quality – linking evaluations significantly to test scores – has begun to have a negative impact on teacher quality, precisely because such measures de-professionalize educators. Teachers typically want autonomy, administrative and parental support, and conditions (such as appropriate materials and smaller class sizes) that increase their professionalism and effectiveness – not raises.

Question #3: Discipline policies are also inequitable for some students, particularly black and Latino kids. How will you ensure fair and humane disciplinary policies in schools for all children?

Under the Obama administration, the Office of Civil Rights has exposed significant inequities of discipline outcomes for black and brown students. In many ways, schools are beginning the school-to-prison pipeline through expulsions and suspensions, beginning as early as pre-kindergarten.

For example, according to the report from the Office of Civil Rights, black students are 18% of the school population, but “35% of students suspended once, 46% of those suspended more than once, and 39% of students expelled.” Over 70% of students arrested or moved into the legal system are Hispanic or black.

Question #4: Since the era of high-stakes accountability initiated in the early 1980s has not, in fact, closed the achievement gap, can you commit to ending accountability-based education reform, including a significant reduction in high-stakes testing, and then detail reform based on equity of opportunities for all students?

Andre Perry, former founding dean of urban education at Davenport University, has noted that accountability has failed educational equity because “having the ability to compare performances among groups hasn’t brought educational justice to black and brown students.”

More useful models do exist. The National Education Policy Center has called for identifying and recognizing school reform that addresses equity for all students through their Schools of Opportunity project. This model shifts the focus on reform away from narrow measures, test data and punitive policies and toward creating the opportunities that affluent students tend to have but poor and racial minorities are denied, including access to experienced and certified teachers, rich and diverse courses, small class sizes, and well-funded safe schools.

Question #5: While the discourse of education reform has claimed that ZIP code is not destiny, the coincidence of any child’s birth is actually a powerful indicator or her future. How will you address the many social inequities due to race, class and gender that inhibit children from succeeding in school and in life?

The evidence is overwhelming that educational attainment is not the game-changer political leaders claim. While greater educational attainment helps gain advantages for people within their race, great inequities still exist among races. For example, blacks with some college have about the same employment opportunities as white high school dropouts, and women of color have the lowest wages at all education levels. Without addressing social inequities, our educational reform attempts are doomed to fail, and the promise of education as the great equalizer will continue to be a great lie.

The five questions above pose two important challenges for candidates. First, they require the candidates either to acknowledge the evidence or face the real danger of simply ignoring the truth. Second, they challenge candidates to step outside the comfort of the old but failed ways of reforming education, in order to rethink how and what schools should be, and what we can do to bring those kinds of educational environments into existence.

Currently, the U.S. has a growing gap between the impoverished and the wealthy – especially along racial lines – and most fail to recognize that over 80% of people living in poverty are from vulnerable populations: children, the elderly, the disabled, students, and the working poor. When then-candidate Barack Obama offered his message of hope and change, advocates for social justice and public education, I believe, had those vulnerable populations in their minds and hearts. Yet President Obama’s education agenda has turned out to be indistinguishable from George W. Bush’s in both its commitments and its negative consequences.

As the 2016 election approaches, the larger question may be: Is there a political leader with the courage to face reality and stand up for our vulnerable populations, in defense of our public institutions?