Department of Education Seeks Feedback on Strategic Plan

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Agency issues draft focused on closing achievement gap and leading the world.

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Americans were once among the most educated people in the world.  However, according to a recent education scorecard released by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), the state of American education has not only weakened in relation to the past, but also relative to the rest of the world.  For example, half a century ago, Americans led the world in high school graduates and sent the third largest group of students to college.  Today, the U.S. has dropped ten spots in both categories.  The same scorecard also indicates that America trails the rest of the world in both preschool enrollment and college dropout rates.

The U.S. Department of Education (DOE) views regaining America’s position as the world leader in education as “the North Star guiding all [its] work.”  Earlier this month, the agency released a draft of its strategic plan for achieving this goal by 2020.  In its draft, the Department proposed six strategic goals for fiscal years 2014-2018, and outlined key objectives necessary to achieve those goals.

One of the Department’s primary concerns is improving equity within the nation’s education system.  The Department highlights two forms of discrimination underserved students encounter: institutional and social.  Institutional discrimination typically stems from a disproportionate distribution of resources, whereas social discrimination includes bullying and harassment.

The Department’s efforts to combat institutional inequity focus on proposals to address the socioeconomic and racial achievement gaps found in American schools.  The report recognizes that low-income students and students of color are disproportionately disadvantaged, and that many of them test two to three years behind their more affluent peers.  This achievement gap, the Department contends, translates into an opportunity gap.

Rebecca Strauss, associate director for publications at CFR’s Renewing America blog, states that the achievement gap is perpetuated by the lack of financial resources directed toward the nation’s poorest schools and students.  “While America does spend plenty on education,” Strauss says, “it funnels a disproportionate share into educating wealthier students, worsening that [achievement] gap.”

According to the Department, these gaps begin forming within the first years of a child’s life. Many students, particularly from low-income households, start kindergarten over a year behind in both pre-reading and language skills.  The strategic plan suggests that state-federal partnerships may create a way to fund preschool for all 4-year-olds from low or moderate-income families, combating this problem.  The Department endorses President Obama’s Preschool for All proposal, which the agency views as a potential historical victory bolstering early educational equality in America.

Another Department concern is that many preschool teachers are unprepared for the task before them.  It aims to promote “state workforce frameworks” that would improve training, and perhaps impose stricter credentialing requirements on preschool teachers.

The Department emphasizes the need for reform in secondary and post-secondary education as well. The Department contends that progress is being made to create equity amongst elementary and secondary students, but believes their efforts will be cut short unless Congress reauthorizes theElementary and Secondary Education Act.

While many students believe that a college education is essential to a successful life, a significant amount of those students do not attend college because they cannot afford it. The Department hopes to offer a solution to this dilemma by creating opportunities for students through the availability of effective and comprehensive federal student aid.

Funding is one likely impediment to the Department’s plans in this area.  The Department acknowledges that some of its efforts would require new appropriations from Congress.  However, Congress is currently focused on an intense debate over a series of impending fiscal deadlines. Though efforts such as passing the Student Aid and Financial Responsibility Act have cut student loan subsidies owed to banks, the Department maintains that tuition rates still must still decrease.

The Department also addressed social inequity in American schools.  While emphasizing the states’ primary role in this area, it committed to doing its part through its Office for Civil Rights (OCR).  The plan highlighted how OCR is able to use the federal government’s position as a source of school funds as a leverage point for pushing schools in an equitable direction.  The plan highlighted OCR’s ability to issue policy guidance, and conduct compliance reviews, amongst other options.

The Department’s public comment period on the draft document will close on Friday, October 4th.