A conference held this week celebrating the 35th anniversary of the landmark “A Nation at Risk Report” hosted several former Secretaries of Education, advocates, and journalists to discuss education policy as it stands.
Panelists lamented the lack of innovation and opportunity in education. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice voiced her concern about the state of education. “No country can do more harm to the U.S. than we can do to ourselves if we don’t educate our children,” she told attendees. Former Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano agreed, calling education a “common good.”
Some panelists pointed to teacher pay as an area for improvement, noting that salaries are mismatched to all that teachers are being asked to do – and that teachers often have to take additional jobs to supplement their income. Foxx said she believes part of the problem is that the majority of K-12 teachers are women, while the majority of college professors – who are higher paid – are men. But a number noted that the quality of teachers is exceedingly important to ensuring students in all types of schools succeed.
Panelists like Richard Culatta also questioned the design of higher education curriculum, wondering whether students were being adequately served by their institutions. Culatta noted that many college professors see their jobs as passing on knowledge rather than preparing their students for jobs or helping them develop needed skills. Others – including former Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels – noted that higher education systems were designed to serve young people, while parents and working adults make up a large and growing portion of college students.
Despite the fact that the sponsoring organization for the conference – the Reagan Institute – is politically conservative, many panelists bucked the traditional party messaging. Rice told the audience that the current system has become an “opt out” system, where those with means can go to private schools and leave others stuck, which she called “wrong.”
This comes in distinct contrast to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ push for more “school choice” options like charters and private school vouchers. But Chairwoman of the Committee on Education and the Workforce Virginia Foxx (R-NC) said that changes and solutions from these issues should be driven from the State and local level – that the federal government expects “a lot” from schools and “we should think that through.” Higher education panelists talked about the importance of accountability for federal student aid at both the individual and the institutional level, despite the fact that the administration has long considered reworking accountability regulations.
But overall, panelists agreed there was work to be done. Speaking with former Secretary of Education Bill Bennett, DeVos emphasized the need for change. “The hardest challenge is trying to help people understand how much we need to change. We know that the forces of the status quo don’t want to do that,” she said.