by NY Fellow Petria May

At this year’s Phyllis L. Kossoff Lecture on Education and Policy held at Teachers College Columbia University on October 13, I was fascinated to see that building education policy is not an event but a process.

Susan Fuhrman, president of Teachers College interviewed Christopher Eadley Jr., co-founder and president of the Opportunity Institute, a professor at the University of California Berkeley School of Law and senior education policy advisor to Hillary Clinton. Underscoring the non-partisan intent of the lecture, Ms. Fuhrman noted that Donald Trump’s campaign was invited but chose not to participate.

At the outset, Mr. Eadley emphasized Secretary Clinton’s longstanding commitment to education. “I’ve watched her interact with little kids and I can tell that the sparkle in their eye speaks to her soul.” He elaborated on his position, as policy advisor, with respect to several areas in education, a topic that many believe has suffered short shrift throughout this electoral season, one focused more on personal attack than the policies destined to affect all our lives in the years ahead.

Early Education

Mr. Eadley said that the “investments” in early education should be “more systemic, particularly for poor kids” and predicted “fierce opposition and fierce advocacy and leadership.” He highlighted “programmatic elements for which Secretary Clinton has special passion: Increase home visits for new mothers and toddlers. This makes a longer term difference for school readiness for kids.”

ESSA

In addressing the still fresh ESSA (“Every Student Succeeds Act”) legislation, he said, “Everyone agrees that the new legislation marks a substantial reduction in the muscularity of the federal role.” He maintained that there still remains a crucial role for the federal government. He believes that the federal role in this legislation is to assure equity and “create an infrastructure of evidence-based policy. It’s not just guesswork, intuition or political weathervanes. We are bringing ideas from around the country,” he said. He made clear that the federal government will facilitate the implementation of the legislation and use “bully pulpit activity” to create the best legislation.

U.S. Students Slipping on the World Stage

“If you ask Americans about their schools, in general, they think that American schools leave a lot to be desired. Are American schools succeeding or failing?” Ms. Fuhrman asked. 

“They are succeeding in many ways, but not enough,” Mr. Eadley responded. He noted “untenable” disparities in student outcomes. He finds that some of the disparities narrowed under “No Child Left Behind” but conceded, “The gaps remain a tragic insult to the best of our values.” The advisor stated that the country needs a sense of urgency regarding the quality of education. “We need high quality supports for districts and schools that are not performing up to our aspirations.” Mr. Eadley noted that there is “too much emphasis on making students and teachers accountable and not the people responsible for policy design.” He went on to say that there has been an under-investment in bringing about required changes, especially in poor school districts and added that the “much-discussed retreat from the Common Core is not happening.”

This was an important moment in the discussion. While effective teachers do not subscribe to the idea that educators should avoid hard work, teachers should find encouragement rather than roadblocks when choosing to serve in the toughest schools. Roadblocks include grading teachers, under state policies, based on test scores generated in one school year when the neediest students are often enter schools performing far below grade level or have serious obstacles outside of school that lead to low attendance rates.

Charter Schools

Mr. Eadley made clear his opinion that charter schools are “competing with, and not cooperating with, public schools.” He added that school districts should “close down charters that are not successful” and should furthermore “hold charters accountable for student success in the same way that we hold public schools accountable.”

Educating Immigrants

According to Mr. Eadley, this topic will be “one of the top five assignments” for the next education secretary. He noted the need for a “more comprehensive plan for immigrant integration elements at the federal and state levels.” I saw in this statement a policy opportunity for teachers to consider how they will improve educational outcomes for immigrant students.  

For anyone interested in education policy, this discussion was revelatory: Mr. Eadley demonstrated that many people decide on important policies and make recommendations to presidents. Any policy area (like education) must work in tandem with other and often competing policy concerns (example: parental leave) to create coherent structures across an entire presidential administration. This lecture provided an excellent lesson on how policy is built.

An Ed Voice Fellow, Petria May is a high school English teacher in Brooklyn, New York, a graduate student in education administration and former federal law clerk. She graduated from Columbia Law School with honors.

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