I believe in that vision of a free and dynamic nation, but it only works if it’s coupled with fair opportunity.
|Margaret Spellings||Former President|
|UNIVERSITY OF NORTH CAROLINA SYSTEM|
Margaret Spellings is a senior advisor for the Dallas-based, Texas 2036, a non-partisan policy organization aimed at building a cross-state coalition to tackle the state’s long-term challenges and ensure it remains the best place to live and work through and beyond its bicentennial in 2036.
In January 2019, Spellings stepped down as president of the University of North Carolina after leading the 17-institution system into a new chapter focused on improved student outcomes, data-driven decision making and increased accountability.
Previously, Spellings served as secretary of education and chief domestic policy advisor under President George W. Bush, as president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, as president of the George W. Bush Presidential Center and in numerous political and policy roles in Texas.
Last year, the investigative reporters at ProPublica produced a searing string of articles on inequality in American schools.
They chronicled deep racial disparities in access to Advanced Placement classes in Charlottesville, Virginia. They highlighted proficiency gaps in reading and math between Native American and white students in Wolf Point, Montana. And they delved into differences in how students are disciplined across the country, with low-income and minority students far more likely to be suspended from school.
These stories resonate so powerfully because they strike at the heart of what education is supposed to deliver — fairness. The fundamental calling of public education is to provide a fair shot at the American dream for every person in this vast country.
“We live in a society that welcomes individual initiative, celebrates personal achievement and promises prosperity to those who work hard and contribute.”
When we see persistent patterns of inequity — one group of students systematically falling behind another or one group of students granted opportunities denied to another — it threatens not just our schools but the whole promise of America. People will respect the rules and abide by the outcomes of an open and fair competition. But the foundations of our politics and our civic life simply won’t hold if people come to believe, to borrow a contemporary phrase, that “the system is rigged.”
If we close our eyes to the disparities in our classrooms, if we resign ourselves to different standards for children of different backgrounds, then we give fuel to every cynic who sees our institutions as broken and the promise of the American dream as out of reach.
Over the past 30 years, the nation has undergone a profound shift in how it views education. Together, we lifted ourselves up to new ideas of high standards and strong accountability for schools. But as we look around the landscape of American education today, it’s clear we are beginning a retreat and abandonment of those ideals in favor of an easier, more expedient path that shrugs off troubling data and tolerates unequal opportunity. We’ve become comfortable advocating the very best for our own kids while suggesting alternative, less-rigorous and less-promising routes for others.
Honest data must guide our education policies. All of the reporting I cited above — and countless other examples across the country — depends on it. Reliable, publicly available information on student performance, school funding, and long-range outcomes is crucial in spotlighting and addressing our deepest educational challenges.
When President George H.W. Bush convened a national education summit with the nation’s governors in 1989, everyone recognized that making education a national concern would mean adopting shared goals and standard measurements. “The first step in restructuring our education system is to build a broad-based consensus around a defined set of national education goals,” read the group’s statement. “We must establish clear measures of performance and then issue annual report cards on the progress of students, schools, the states, and the federal government.”
We take that system of national reporting for granted today, but it took vision and political will to make it happen. Presidents, governors and congressional leaders from both parties, across nearly three decades, understood that accountability and transparency is foundational to progress.
They understood that we needed the data to see the problem and policy that compelled action to solve what was wrong. And they understood that there must be a national approach. You can’t aspire to equality of opportunity if education remains a disconnected patchwork of standards and goals.
“You can’t aspire to equality of opportunity if education remains a disconnected patchwork of standards and goals.”
Unfortunately, we’re reverting back to that patchwork. Without strong national leadership to nurture the broad-based consensus that past administrations have forged, it becomes too easy for state and local policymakers to bow to pressure to loosen standards and turn a blind eye to disparities. It’s much easier to rail against interference from Washington than it is to honestly confront the problems that real accountability can reveal.
It takes courage to look squarely at our deepest challenges. In Charlottesville, after the data-driven ProPublica story shined a spotlight on the lack of opportunity for minority students, the school district responded with admirable openness. “Our primary response should be to listen and learn from the central truth of this article,” Superintendent Rosa Adkins wrote in a letter to students and parents. “We have not made consistent or satisfactory progress for all our students.”
If education stands for anything, it’s the ideal that knowledge and information are the baseline requirements for a free society and individual prosperity. I’m a deep believer that a sound education leads to better economic prospects for individuals, that a better-educated workforce makes for a more competitive country and that our schools and universities are the wellspring of American innovation and growth.
But the core logic of public schools remains exactly as James Madison explained in 1822. “A people who mean to be their own governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives,” he wrote, praising a plan for statewide public schools in Kentucky.
We need to apply that Madisonian truth to public education itself by arming ourselves with the knowledge of what’s working and what’s not, where opportunity thrives and where it doesn’t, whose children are encouraged and whose are neglected. The American dream is a national vision, and upholding it will take a national commitment.