Education in National Politics
The federal government plays a role in governing public school systems. Interestingly, federal aid does not amount to very much in comparison to state budget appropriations. Nevertheless, the oversight of Congress and the executive branch shows that the federal government maintains a vested interest in ensuring public school performance in the twenty-first century. As this paper will demonstrate, the role of the federal government, though limited in relative financial terms, remains powerful, if often conflicted and controversial.
Keywords Education Reform; No Child Left Behind; Performance-Based Incentives; Standardized Testing; Unfunded Mandate
One of the longest-standing political issues in the history of mankind has been education. Going as far back as the days of ancient Greece, governmental leaders have viewed the need for scholastic achievement as paramount to the survival of any society. As Aristotle wisely proffered, "All who have meditated on the art of governing mankind have been convinced that the fate of empires depends on the education of youth."
Indeed, the importance of education to a society cannot be overstated. An educated public means a stronger workforce and a more powerful economy. Advances in research and science, industrial entrepreneurship, and even the arts and humanities all owe their progress to the classroom.
For this reason, governments dedicate a considerable portion of yearly budgets to ensuring that children receive the best possible education. They understand that education is one of the most pressing, yet daunting, of the political issues they face. Public education, after all, involves millions of children and their families. The idea that American public schools could falter and fail to adequately prepare students for a world that depends on high technology and advanced science for everyday life is a fear that remains latent in any leader.
For this reason, each leader on each level feels it is incumbent upon government to take a keen interest in student performance. There are a variety of methods employed to ensure that schools are meeting the needs of their students, including surveys, performance-based incentives, and standardized testing. Each of these courses of action has proven popular as part of overall "education reform" programs. At the same time, each has also generated political controversy.
Regardless of the form of response to perceived school shortcomings, the issue's broad-reaching implications make education a high priority. Education is not simply a matter of grades and classes. Each public school district employs hundreds, if not thousands, of people. It is difficult to tell, sometimes, who is in charge, as superintendents answer to school boards and other local officials. Oversight and the application of regulations come from the states as well. States are also the ones who appropriate the majority of aid to local school systems to supplement local revenues.
Even the federal government plays a role in governing public school systems. Interestingly, federal aid does not amount to very much in comparison to state budget appropriations. Nevertheless, the oversight of Congress and the executive branch shows that the federal government maintains a vested interest in ensuring public school performance in the twenty-first century. As this paper will demonstrate, the role of the federal government, though limited in relative financial terms, remains powerful, if often conflicted and controversial.
In 1983, the US Department of Education's National Commission on Excellence in Education released a report known as A Nation at Risk, which painted an alarming picture of the state of public education in the United States. The authors condemned what they saw as a "unilateral educational disarmament," and called on leaders to take critical steps to supply the resources necessary to ensure that each American student not just achieves academic success, but that the country as a whole would regain the mantle of an intellectual world leader (US Department of Education, 1995). Among the recommendations made by that group would be mandates that each school system's students become fully competent in basic skills like reading, writing, mathematics, and foreign languages. The primary tool of enforcement would be standardized testing, which would be used to help gauge student performance in each of these subject areas.
A Nation at Risk set off a national debate and lit the fire behind a nationwide call for reform of what many believed to be an increasingly broken-down public education system. President Ronald Reagan and his successor, George H. W. Bush, sought the establishment of (and ultimately the means to achieve) broad performance goals for schools. Bush's 1991 "America 2000" proposal, which was not adopted by Congress, even called for a voluntary system of standardized tests. Still, no true reform had taken place by this time, despite national fervor over this issue.
In 1994, however, the call to arms resulted in major change. President Bill Clinton signed the Improving America's Schools Act, requiring states to create and implement their own content and performance standards for K-12 schools. It also set timelines for states to establish those benchmarks. Unfortunately, the act, which was in fact a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, did not enforce those deadlines. The American Federation of Teachers noted that three years later, only 17 states had clear standards in English, math, social studies, and science (Rudalevige, 2003).
The Improving America's Schools Act, which demanded changes to curricula and school operations (such as classroom size and teacher qualifications), was at best tepidly received. Some feared that the increased federal and state controls required would remove teacher autonomy and thus drive away educators from underperforming schools (particularly those in poor neighborhoods), where standards would be hardest to meet. Concerns also circulated that administrators would be unable and even unwilling to use additional resources to shrink classroom sizes to meet the new standards.
However, a major study of teacher and administrator behavior as a reaction to the act's impositions, which was conducted over a seven-year period, showed the opposite reaction. Contrary to prevalent fears, teachers did not overwhelmingly leave schools that had large populations of low-income and minority students (the school districts that were likely to fail to reach such new standards). They were, however, receiving more hours for professional development than they were before the law's passage. The survey results also showed that classroom sizes were being reduced, indicating that administrators found ways to comply with the new regulations wherever possible (Viadero, 2007).
Did the Improving America's Schools Act of 1994 truly effect change among school systems? The findings of the aforementioned study do not necessarily indicate that the answer is a definitive "yes." Rather, they suggest that the new requirements and standards imposed on schools did have an impact on teacher and administrator attitudes concerning student performance. The nature of this impact is somewhat vague, as the study focused on teacher and administrator responses to certain survey questions. At best, it is safe to...
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