POST-ELECTION SERIES: An Optimistic Outlook for Education (But It’s Complicated) - An Interview with Paul Reville

November 19, 2020

By Julie Allen

A conversation with Paul Reville, the Francis Keppel Professor of Practice of Educational Policy and Administration at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is also the Founder and Director of TheEducation Redesign Lab and served as Secretary of Education for the Commonwealth of Massachusettsunder Governor Deval Patrick.

Julie Allen: Professor Reville, thank you for making the time to discuss the future of education under the administration of President-elect, Joe Biden.

Before we discuss the future, how would you characterize the education legacy of the Trump administration and Secretary of Education DeVos?

Paul Reville: We are obviously at a turning point moment in America generally, and in public education specifically. As we look in the rearview mirror, we see a Republican administration that did not make much of a mark on education. The administration came into office de-emphasizing education. The Republican Party does not support a major federal role in education and, in general, favors school choice. But there are deep divisions even within the Republican Party. For example, in many rural communities, Republicans do not favor choice because schools are the main stabilizing institution in their communities and they do not want to draw support away from them. On the other hand, there are ideologically motivated Republicans who believe in the free market theory of education. The number one agenda item within the Trump administration, a massive expansion of school choice, just hasn't happened. But in some areas, the administration has had an effect, changing the sexual harassment guidelines on university campuses, inveighing against anything related to racial justice or diversity, equity, and inclusion from the bully pulpit, and making a number of ideological arguments for a more conventional Western civilization curriculum, but the federal government has no control over curriculum. Certainly, they did not take the lead on helping schools deal with the pandemic, other than saying “go back to school” without putting in place the necessary supports and guidelines to do that.

Allen: Looking forward, what key federal education policy changes can we expect from the Biden administration, particularly in the early days of 2021?

Reville: Number one, we will have a President who's going to be an education President -- he enunciated that right after the election. President-elect Biden is married to an educator (a community college professor) who will continue to practice as an educator during his administration. The Biden platform articulated a pro-education, pro-human capital approach. So, I expect education will be a signature element of what he does. Education was not much talked about during the campaign because Democrats themselves have significant differences about what needs to be done in education. And overall, I think the Biden administration is going to be highly constrained by the economy. Since Congress is divided, you can't count on getting congressional approval for initiatives that President-elect Biden has in mind. He's going to begin with pandemic relief to states and localities, and relief to schools, giving them what they need to put in place -- the infrastructure, PPE and capital improvements that will make it possible for schools to reopen as safely and broadly as possible. And there is enough interest in Republican quarters for some relief to states that I'd expect that's where he will focus initially -- on pandemic relief and reopening schools in alignment with his pandemic taskforce.

Allen: Given that public education policy under our federalist system is primarily a matter for state and local control, is there a meaningful opportunity for the new administration to effect systemic change in K-12 education?

Reville: There's no question that the federal government can have a potent impact on public education. The Obama administration exercised influence on education policy, and the first law that the second President Bush passed was the No Child Left Behind Act, which had a significant impact on education. While it's true that the federal government provides only 8% of the money spent on education -- a small minority share -- it's still large enough that no state wants to walk away from it. Cleverly, the federal government gets states to commit to significant policy shifts on pretty short money. While I don't expect massive increases in federal aid to move that 8% figure up, the Biden platform has promised to triple Title I funding for schools, make early childhood education for three- and four-year olds free, forgive student loan debt and make community college free -- really large-ticket items that the Biden administration has promised as they come into office. Of course, all of these things will require Congressional approval. The bully pulpit, the voice and influence that a President and his cabinet can have on particular areas of policy and public consciousness, is crucially important. When President-elect Biden takes office, he will be talking about education, focusing the public's attention on education and the need to invest in our young people as the best bet to secure the future of this nation's economy and democracy.

Allen: Given that 8% figure, what should the priorities for federal spending be? Is it just a matter of spending more or is there an opportunity to spend smarter?

Reville: Usually it’s not about how much money we spend, but how we spend it that makes a big difference. Money, like time, in education doesn't confer superior performance by itself. There is no clear production function in education, but there are equity issues -- we need to have fair funding in our schools. My own notion is that we need to provide schools funding that takes into account the needs of their students. More money is needed to give economically disadvantaged students a quality education than for affluent students. When held up to that standard, U.S. public education funding is tilted the wrong way. In terms of spending priorities, we should look at evidence of what works. We know, for example, that early childhood education has an enormous return on investment. The states are in no position to do it on their own, so it is an area in which the federal government could help. Title I is an area where the federal government has invested since the early 1960s, and President-elect Biden has pledged to triple Title I funding. The student debt crisis is overwhelming and there is evidence that, particularly in this financial crisis, it's starting to lead people not to enroll in college at a time when some post-secondary credential is essential for individuals and for our nation’s economy. The way we get to prosperity is through education. So, attending to the student debt crisis, to the cost of higher education and to government's role in financing public higher education has got to be a first-order priority.

Allen: You mentioned President-elect Biden’s commitment to expanding Title I funding. Is there an opportunity to change the Title I formula, which distributes money to the states in a manner that is not aligned with equity, with states that spend quite a bit on education, like Massachusetts, getting considerably more Title I funding than low-spending states like Oklahoma?

Reville: In the near term, the focus likely will be on the quantity of money going through the existing channel because even if all else fails, funding under the current formula is still needed. But I do think that this administration will be looking at the distribution of funding when it is time for reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Allen: Turning to the need for additional pandemic relief for schools, what are the prospects for additional COVID-19 aid for schools and would that aid be effective without additional general aid to support constrained state budgets?

Allen: Tax policy and education policy are often at odds. In this election, California voters turned down a proposition that would have imposed higher taxes on commercial properties to fund public education, while Arizona voters passed a proposition that imposes an additional tax on high-income earners to fund public education. Going forward, where do you see tax reform for supporting education?

Reville: Prerogatives on taxation are distributed across our decentralized system, with federal, state, and local elements. With 8% of education funding coming from the federal government and on average about 45% to 47% from each of the states and localities, much of what needs to happen in the future will need to happen at the state level, which will not be controlled by the Biden administration. The states are going to be stretched and state capitals will push to fund the bare minimum for education. I do think we'll see a hard push from the Biden administration to do significantly more at the federal level than our country has done in the past to support education -- but changing tax and spending policy depends on Congress. Rethinking the level of investment Americans are willing to make in public education, in human capital, and what kinds of sacrifices we are willing to make in terms of tax rates and how we distribute funds at the local, state and federal level is going to be the political work of the incoming administration.

Allen: 2020 has been an extraordinary year with the triple pandemics of COVID-19, the recession and racial injustice that have disproportionately affected our most vulnerable students and their families. Schools are being asked to do so much more with less. Where do you see the best levers available to avoid long-term lost opportunity for today's children?

Reville: This is a moment in which we have to re-examine one of the central paradigms in education, which is a confusion between equity and equality. We tend to think that we aspire to giving an equal education, giving the same thing to everybody. But it turns out that equality doesn't match up with what all children need. Affluent children have access to all kinds of resources, supports and opportunities outside of school. The gaps between young people's access to opportunity and therefore achievement is growing deeper with each passing day in this crisis. We already lost a quarter of a school year last year. The gaps in September as children came back to school were greater than ever and they're only getting wider. If we look ahead into the school year, we can expect that it is going to be interrupted and punctuated. And again, those with the greatest resources are going to come through this alright, relatively on track, and those without are going to fall further and further behind. So, we've got to develop an approach strategically that meets every child where they are and gives them what they need, inside and outside of school, in order for them to succeed.

Our strategic approach should look more like a health care system with a case management model, where we do a diagnosis of a patient and then determine what is needed to get her to an appropriate standard of health. That's what we need to do in education -- where are you now relative to competitive students of your age, and what supports do you need both inside and outside of school so that you can attain that level of achievement? That's a different operating paradigm, and I believe that's the new way we should be thinking about how we approach education. I'm hopeful that the moment for that kind of thinking in our field has arrived. It’s tough going though because our education system has enormous inertia. We have an early 20th century system of education, where we educated a few to a high standard and most to a level to perform routine tasks, operating in the 21st century. Today, everybody needs to be educated to a high level, which requires a different system. It’s not for lack of trying that we haven’t made the shift. We've tried hard over the past 25 to 30 years to invest in strategies for improving our schools but it hasn't actually worked. The results have been relatively modest. We need to have another look at what it will take to actually prepare children who come from extreme economic disadvantage to levels heretofore enjoyed only by the affluent if “no child left behind” is truly our national aspiration.

Allen: You mentioned the education reform efforts over the past 25 to 30 years. There have been many different reform efforts but student outcomes haven't really improved significantly. Can you comment on why those well intentioned reform efforts failed, and where should those who care about education and equity be focusing their efforts going forward?

Reville: I think that the flaw in our school reform strategy traces back to our theory of the problem. If you're going to use public policy to solve a problem in society, you've got to have a theory of the problem and then a theory of action about how to solve that problem. The theory of the problem in the recent school reform era was that we didn't have a 21st century public education system that prepared all young people to be successful in a high-skill, high-knowledge economy and we weren't competitive with some of our strongest international competitors. Our theory of the problem was that schools hadn't been optimized. By the end of the 20th century, with the Nation at Risk report and other clarion calls to change our practices, governors and business people began to believe that our human capital system -- our education system -- was outdated and not producing the level of graduates that were capable of meeting the 21st century demands of the economy and the democracy so public school reform was needed. So our theory of action was that if we improved schools, we could deliver on the basic concept of US public education as founded by Horace Mann in the 19th century here in Massachusetts, which was the idea that if we gave every citizen equal access to a common school, irrespective of race, ethnicity, gender and social class, we'd have an equal opportunity society and merit and talent would rise to the top. But schools typically consume only 20% of a child's waking hours between kindergarten and grade 12 and so school optimization alone is a relatively weak response. After 25 to 30 years of school reform, we still have an iron-law correlation between socioeconomic status and educational achievement. That's not what Horace Mann had in mind. That's not what America is about.

The American myth -- that everybody has a fair opportunity -- is less true today than it was 75 years ago. Social mobility is declining. It is not an equal opportunity society. Having standards, holding folks accountable, measuring progress, using data to inform our work in schools, improving the quality of teaching, dealing with chronically underperforming schools -- those are common sense strategies and I'm glad we engaged in those strategies. But it turns out that changing schools, while necessary, was not sufficient. Our theory of the problem has been too narrow. We're going to have to tackle childhood poverty. We've got to have health care and mental health care for all of our students. We've got to have family stability in housing and jobs, enabling children to come to school ready and able to learn. These problems are bigger than schools. Schools have a central and important role to play, but it's not the only role. So, we need our entire society to come together to pitch in to educate all of our students to a level where they all have the opportunity to be successful.

Allen: You mentioned international competition. The U.S. education system is often compared unfavorably to the systems in many other countries, including Finland and Singapore, for example. Is that comparison fair?

Reville: Yes. There are very different contexts in different countries and we have to acknowledge those. For example, in a lot of countries around the world, education policy is determined at the national level by a Ministry of Education, so they have much more coherence and focus. We have federal, state and local policy often going in different directions and confusing educators and families and students. But the numbers don't lie. A number of other countries are outperforming the United States. We had been the unchallenged leader in education -- educating more of our people to higher levels than any nation in the world. We no longer have that standing. It's not so much about what we want for our children -- most people agree we want them to be able to participate fully in the economy, to be good citizens and leaders, to be family leaders and lifelong learners. But how we do that is where we disagree. And frankly, in our disagreements over how to get the job done, we've driven a lot of potential allies away from our field. We need to welcome them back. We need to put educating our young people, developing them for success, as a top priority. I'm optimistic that this new administration is committed to doing that.

Allen: Turning to higher ed for a moment, as you noted enrollment is down at four-year colleges and community colleges. The same state budget challenges that are impacting K-12 education will impact public higher education and the recession will exacerbate the burden of $1.5 trillion of outstanding student debt. How will these headwinds for higher ed impact our country's economic outlook and what should be done about it? Reville: Of the three sectors in education, higher ed, K-12 and early childhood, I think higher ed is most likely to bear the greatest burden in this crisis. Higher ed was already on the verge of a crisis because of escalating costs and escalating student debt. Students and families can't afford public institution tuitions anymore, which is where the overwhelming majority of people in the U.S. get higher education. Those institutions have suffered from declining government support, particularly as a percentage of their overall budgets. In order to make public higher education accessible, we’ll have to invest significantly more at both the federal and state levels. The Biden administration, I think wisely, is thinking about doubling the Pell Grant, across-the-board$10,000 student loan forgiveness and deferment during the pandemic crisis of loan repayments generally. One of their most ambitious promises is free community college. But I think the President-elect has got some significant challenges in terms of the politics. These are the right investments, but it remains to be seen how to build a political consensus to make them.

Allen: The U.S. Constitution makes no mention of education. There have been multiple attempts to find a federal constitutional right to education, whether it's under the equal protection clause or the citizenship clause of the 14th amendment. The recent Gary B. case in Detroit was settled before it reached the Supreme Court. Do you think there's an argument to be made for a federal constitutional right to education, or at least a basic minimum education that provides access to literacy?

Reville: I think there's a good case to be made that it ought to be a federal responsibility. We have a national interest in every child receiving a high-quality education that prepares them to be part of a prosperous future for our economy and democracy. While that seems to me to be obvious, that language is not in the Constitution. There have been a number of plaintiffs who have come forward, trying to get courts to rule in favor of a federal right. They've not been successful and given the changes in our courts, particularly the Supreme Court, I think it highly unlikely that we're going to find such an obligation when it isn't explicitly in the federal Constitution anytime in the near future.

Allen: Is there anything you'd like to add to this conversation?

Reville: Only that I think you can't exaggerate the importance of this moment. We ought not to ignore the fact that American voters in poll after poll say they care deeply about education, but education was largely ignored in the campaign because of our divisions. A big challenge for the President-elect is to enunciate the central importance of developing our young people, that they are the future. Most Americans believe that. Learning how to listen to one another in this domain is just as important as it is overall. For example, for a long time, elite education leadership ignored the needs of rural communities, but after President Trump's election, they began to pay attention to rural needs in education. I think that trend needs to continue. We need to focus on things about which we can agree, for example, early childhood, where there is evidence that it is a good, highly leveraged investment. Let's start at points where we can find common ground, build consensus and begin to get some victories that we can celebrate. I worry that if we try to do everything at once, we are not going to get there. But if we can get some short-term wins on things that meet the commonsense test and have broad-based support, that would be a start on the path forward. So, I'm optimistic. I think we need to galvanize the citizenry in a reinvigorated debate not just about education, but about child development. We need to check our swords and shields at the door and come together and say, “our young people are our future and we're not doing a good job bringing them forward.”

Now is the time. Now we have a President committed to education and to working across the aisle to make good things happen for children as we move forward in America.