Post-Pandemic, Joe Biden Needs to Rethink His K-12 Education Plans

Post-Pandemic, Joe Biden Needs to Rethink His K-12 Education Plans
AP Photo/Craig Ruttle

The Covid-19 pandemic has shown people some real flaws in our public education systems. If Joe Biden is elected, will he fix them?

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Many school districts had trouble adapting to the sudden closure and were never able to deliver effective distance learning. Many parents were surprised how low schools’ expectations were and disappointed by the quality of education their children were receiving.

Different children had very different experiences with distance learning. Even more than usual, they will arrive at school next fall with different needs. Batch processing—teaching an entire classroom the same thing at the same pace—will work even worse than usual.

We need an education system that is adaptable, that meets all students where they are, that helps them move at a pace that works for them, and that has high expectations for all of them. As many schools have demonstrated, children rise to the expectations we set for them.

As we reopen schools, we shouldn’t simply restore the old public education system. We should aim higher and apply the lessons of the last four months to building a more flexible, resilient K-12 school system.

Unfortunately, it’s unlikely Biden’s education plan – written before the coronavirus appeared – can produce what we need. It would pour massive amounts of money into the old, centralized district model, offering no systemic change to the millions of low-income and minorities families who have been failed by the status quo. 

No doubt because he was courting the teachers unions, Biden’s plan never mentions the phrase “charter school.” Yet these public schools, which are freed from district bureaucracies, have demonstrated that they educate urban children far more effectively than district schools. By their fourth year in a charter, urban charter students learn 50 percent more every year than district students with similar demographics and past test scores, according to Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes.

Free from red tape and bureaucracy, charters are nimbler than district-operated schools. Recent surveys by the Center for Reinventing Public Education, at the University of Washington, show that charter management organizations transitioned to distance learning faster and more thoroughly this spring than districts did, on average. They were already more likely to use educational software and to deliver personalized learning, to help children move at their own pace.

It is sad that Biden, who worked with President Obama to create a “Race to the Top” in K-12 education that offered firm support for charters, has turned a cold shoulder to these innovative public schools. They have significant lessons to teach us about how to organize public education in the 21st century.

For one, they make it clear that we need to decentralize, giving school leaders (including teams of teachers in “teacher-powered” schools) authority to hire and fire, control their budgets, shift school schedules, and choose their teaching methods. They know what works for their students and teachers far better than central office bureaucrats do.

But more autonomy for schools is hardly a magic bullet. We also know from the charter sector that not every empowered school will succeed because effective education—particularly in the inner city—is not easy. So, we have to pair autonomy with accountability: If a school fails repeatedly and cannot right the ship, its leaders and teachers should be replaced by a new team. This is what our fastest improving urban school systems of recent decades—in New Orleans, Washington, D.C., Chicago, and Denver—have done.

We also need more diverse learning models. The pandemic has shown us once again that different kids flourish in different environments. Some loved distance learning; others hated it. Some longed for the arts and drama they were missing; others wanted more science, math, and technology.

In urban areas, where transportation can be provided, we should encourage a variety of school models, give parents good information about them, and let them choose schools that best fit their children. Taxpayers’ dollars should follow their choices, so the adults running schools know they have to deliver to get their funding. This is also what we see in New Orleans, D.C., Chicago, and Denver.

“President Biden will ensure that no child’s future is determined by their zip code, parents’ income, race, or disability,” Biden’s plan declares. Districts that assign children to schools based on where they live fail this test. The only way to deliver on Biden’s promise is to maximize school choice, with guidelines to ensure a mix of incomes in every school. (The Supreme Court has made it illegal to ensure a racial mix, but by mixing incomes, we almost always increase racial diversity.) Denver has several dozen schools that show how well this can work.

In sum, we need well-run school districts to steer our systems—to ensure they have the right mix of schools, that all types of students are finding opportunity, and that no group is losing out. But districts need to leave the rowing to those who manage schools.

Even if Biden could somehow build a coalition to support spending vast new sums on K-12 education during a time of immense deficits, his plan would not give us these kinds of school systems. Instead, we would simply put more money into the same old command-and-control systems, without sufficient variety, choice, or competition. Our principals and teachers would still feel disempowered, unable to deliver the quality they know their students deserve.

Centralized, rule-driven, bureaucratic monopolies worked well enough during the Industrial Era, when most graduates would go on to manual labor or stay home and raise kids. But global competition has raised the bar dramatically; today’s graduates must be able to do so much more to earn a decent living. Meanwhile the pace of change has accelerated, and computer technologies have made amazing things possible.

In the 21st century, success comes from decentralized networks of mission-driven organizations whose customers have choices, not from top-down bureaucracies.

Fortunately, Biden has ample opportunity to add what’s missing to his education plan. As the fall campaign begins in earnest, he should offer the nation a new vision for 21st century schools that are decentralized, autonomous, tailored to diverse learning needs, and strictly accountable for delivering high-quality education to all children.

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