The impact of education policies reverberate across the entire US educational system, affecting students, teachers and administrators. Everything from funding to curriculum to the required credentials for teachers can be determined by education policies.
An example of US education policy that immediately affected students nationwide is President Harry Truman signing the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act in 1946, which funded the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) to provide nutritionally balanced free or reduced-cost lunches to school children daily. That year, 7.1 million children participated in the NSLP. In 2016, that number had grown to 30.4 million students who faced food insecurity at home and otherwise would have been continuing to face that hunger at school. Children who are hungry face an increased risk of physical and mental health conditions. Research also shows that when students have access to healthy lunches, they perform better in school.
Continue reading for an overview of some of the current education policy changes that are being discussed, along with a preview of issues likely to face policy makers in the coming years.
Each year, national education policy is under discussion as lawmakers wrestle with how to best serve students.
Every Student Succeeds Act
In 2015, President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which reauthorized the national education law that was committed to bringing equal educational opportunities to all students. This act was notable and different from the No Child Left Behind Act, which gave the federal government the authority to set national academic standards, because it returned the power back to individual states. ESSA requires “all students in America be taught to high academic standards that will prepare them to succeed in college and careers.” With more autonomy and flexibility to be responsive to local needs and decide their educational plans, states and school districts only work within a framework set by the federal government. Based on statewide academic standards and coursework, all students take annual statewide assessments to measure progress on these standards. Dependent on results and state-set achievement goals, the federal government determines if action is needed for low-performing schools.
School choice describes the schooling options that families have for their children beyond traditional public schools. Instead of automatically enrolling their children in the public school assigned to their address, families can choose charter schools, magnet schools, virtual schools, or homeschooling options based on what they feel is the best fit and offers the best opportunity for their children. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is a known advocate of school choice, to give families more of a say in their children’s education. DeVos has backed various legislative measures to allow states to participate in a program that provides tax credits for contributing to scholarship programs for private school tuition. Critics say this takes away public funds from the public school system and privatizes an essential public institution.
Classroom sizes in the US have increased so much that some teachers are expected to teach up to 150 children in a single day. According to the National Council of Teachers of English, between 2007 and 2014, public schools lost 250,000 employees while gaining 800,000 students. Students in smaller classes are shown to perform better both in school and on standardized testing. Students in smaller classes have been shown to be as much as two months ahead of their peers in larger classes in content knowledge. As population growth in certain districts isn’t controllable, public schools face daunting challenges to adequately staff their schools in order to keep the number of students in each classroom at an acceptable level.
Especially with ESSA in place, states have recently acquired more autonomy in shaping their curriculums and assessment methods. While working within the national policy framework, here are examples of how states are making decisions based on individual circumstances such as budget, population, and student needs.
Over the last 10 years, Pennsylvania has paid $425 million for the Keystone test for high school students and the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment exam for elementary school students. Passing Keystone Exams in algebra, biology, and literature was a graduation requirement for all high school students until February 2016, when Governor Tom Wolf signed a bill ending the mandate. The Keystone Exams were previously required by the federal government—as mandated by NCLB—but the ESSA does not require state-specific tests. Politicians in Pennsylvania are pushing for college acceptance percentages, AP testing scores, and SAT or ACT proficiency to be used as a measure for graduation. The future necessity of Keystone Exams is still a topic up for debate.
Early Childhood Education
Many families across the US have no option when it comes to having their children educated before kindergarten. In Michigan, less than 50 percent of children ages three to four attend state-funded preschools. Children with access to pre-K education centers have a much higher chance of succeeding once they enter kindergarten and beyond. So a governor’s commission is proposing to grant all Michigan four-year-olds access to state-funded preschool. The state is also working on providing child care for more low-income families whose children aren’t yet old enough for preschool.
Exploring the Future
More issues will affect education as the nation grows in size and technology continues to advance. As the US fights to maintain its place in the world as a country with a top educational system, policy makers are looking ahead to predict the ways legislation will affect schools in the future.
Since 2017, there have been 159 school shootings. Stores are selling bullet-proof backpacks. Schools are scheduling lockdown drills in the first weeks of school. DeVos has said states should decide if school districts can use federal funds to arm teachers, and teachers across 42 states went to firearm courses last summer as part of National Train a Teacher Day, sponsored by the United States Concealed Carry Association. Last May, Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida signed a bill allowing schools to arm classroom teachers. Through the bill, teachers would be required to take a 144-hour training course before being armed. As tensions heighten, states are under pressure to make individual decisions on how to keep students safe, while also making sure families feel comfortable sending their children to school.
Innovations in technology, such as educational software and interactive white boards, have already made their way into classrooms, shifting how many educators teach and how many students learn. With new advancing technologies, more educational tools will become available and will further affect the teaching and learning in future classrooms. For example, new software has resulted in shifts from traditional teaching models. Presenting the same material, at the same pace, to an entire classroom of students might become a thing of the past. Current educational software makes it possible to personalize learning content to the skill levels of individual students. It can also personalize the pacing of delivery. In addition to changes in how students are taught, technology will likely impact what they are taught. Today, it takes little effort to look up facts about a scientific theory or solve a difficult math problem. This easy access to information has pushed many to reconsider what types of knowledge and skills students will need to succeed in their lives. Educators expect that future technological tools will similarly force them to reassess how to best prepare students.
Why American University?
Understanding policy’s impact on education is a major focus in many advanced degrees in education. Graduate students equipped with this knowledge and a comprehensive understanding of how policy affects students, teachers, administrators, and all US citizens are prepared to manage policy issues and spark change. American University’s Online Master of Arts in Teaching and Online Master of Education in Education Policy and Leadership help students tackle current and future education policy issues through in-depth and leadership-focused coursework.