2020 candidates have the chance to embrace smarter education policies

2020 candidates have the chance to embrace smarter education policies
© Greg Nash

Education policy is far too important to be based on campaign trail strategy rather than in a classroom. Because education enables our kids to lead happy, prosperous, and productive lives, education is always a top issue for voters. It therefore presents a golden opportunity for presidential contenders trying to break out of a very crowded Democratic field. The candidates could set themselves apart from the pack by getting past the party line sound bites and instead embracing common sense strategies that will make our educational system work for all kids today. Parents, teachers, and employers want real change, not a continued reliance on the old classroom models ineffective in educating modern students.

When Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenSanders supporters cry foul over Working Families endorsement of Warren California poll: Biden, Sanders lead Democratic field; Harris takes fifth Kamala Harris calls for new investigation into Kavanaugh allegations MORE calls for universal pre-kindergarten, she endorses a 19th century concept of early education. When Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders supporters cry foul over Working Families endorsement of Warren California poll: Biden, Sanders lead Democratic field; Harris takes fifth Kamala Harris calls for new investigation into Kavanaugh allegations MORE talks about free college tuition, they are reinforcing a system that is failing to deliver degrees that translate to advanced education and skills. Instead of clinging to the past, the United States needs a complete redesign that favors adaptive education and competency measures. These reforms depend on progress in the use and application of technology.

The growth of artificial intelligence technology is heavily impacting education in China and other countries we compete with. But in the United States, our system remains fixed on a process and delivery that is largely the same as it was at the time of the Civil War. Our ability to make our students truly global, flexible, and forward thinking will depend on getting away from our misplaced fixation on space and place.

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In a society where students and employees want the flexibility to work seamlessly from anywhere, interacting one on one online with knowledge and data at their fingertips, why are we giving airtime to outdated notions of education? Studies show that what we are doing now is simply not working at all levels of the educational system. Our national report card finds that two-thirds of our eighth graders are below proficiency in math and more than three-quarters of them are below proficiency in civics.

Students entering college are not prepared to succeed, with many of them needing remedial education. High schools graduate functionally illiterate students, forcing them and their families to spend an estimated more than $1 billion a year on remedial college classes. It is no surprise poorly prepared kids do not do well in college. Just 58 percent of students who started college in 2012 had earned a degree by 2018. At two year community colleges and four year for profit schools, completion rates fall actually below 40 percent. Students who drop out of college can find themselves owing thousands of dollars in loan debt, without a degree in hand that can help them land a good job to make the payments.

Remaking our educational system to better serve students can improve those troubling statistics. Let us start with educational freedom, which can provide critical resources to families to select the best learning venue for their kids. That same freedom is in our charter schools, and families recognize this, as more than one million students sit on waiting lists to get in. Across the country, study after study shows that students in schools of choice excel compared to students in comparable district schools.

Research on Chicago schools in 2017 found that charter students not only scored higher on standardized tests than traditional school students but also did significantly better on a range of outcomes after secondary school including college enrollment and persistence. In the District of Columbia, charters were 67 percent more cost effective in 2015 than their traditional counterparts in providing positive learning outcomes.

Across eight cities examined by university researchers, private school choice programs outperformed traditional public schools in every productivity and testing metric while remaining more cost effective. Politicians like Senator Sanders, who has proposed a moratorium on federal funding for public charter schools, are making a mistake to side with adults who are afraid of change rather than the kids who need it.

Other changes could include more education based on employers and the inclusion of early education in workplaces to serve the kids of employees. The Democrats want funding to come through government agencies, but this is a major impediment to integrating child care and schools into our places of business. Those funds should come to the people, through their employers, in the form of education accounts to buy the services they will utilize. The top down banter of the candidates on education shows they lack critical understanding of the changing world. It is time for them to go back to school and learn how to expand opportunity and innovation.

Jeanne Allen is chief executive officer of the Center for Education Reform.