Taking Stock of Educational Progress Under Obama

Secretary John King’s exit memo offers a first look at what the administration thinks it has—and hasn’t—achieved.

Carlos Barria / Reuters

As they prepare to leave office, members of President Barack Obama’s cabinet are beginning to file their exit memos. Partially a chance to take credit for progress made and partially a final opportunity to call for changes in policy they’ve yet to push through, the memos offer insight into what the administration’s top officials think they have—and haven’t—accomplished over the last eight years.

On Thursday, Education Secretary John King delivers his memo. Entitled “Giving Every Student a Fair Shot: Progress Under the Obama Administration’s Education Agenda,” the 14-page document is divided into two sections: One outlines notable progress and the other lays a framework for sustaining that progress.

Clearly, some of what King touts as “progress” (say, Race to the Top grant competitions), others (for instance, teachers’ unions and labor groups) see as mistakes or failures. But, as a whole, the memo paints an initial picture of what the administration—and King, personally—would like its education legacy to be. (Obviously, whether it receives the credit it is looking for remains to be seen and will vary depending on who is doing the evaluating.)

King spends a good chunk of space noting work the department has done to expand access to preschool, pointing out that 31 states increased the percentage of 4-year-olds attending state-funded preschool between 2009 and 2015. He praises an early-learning Race to the Top competition for spurring programs that help the nation’s most vulnerable youngsters. It’s unclear how many states would have taken steps to expand preschool access without prodding from the administration, but the same way any good resume or report offers concrete examples of work done, King sprinkles his memo with anecdotes. Delaware used a 2012 grant from the administration, he reminds readers, to launch a new early-learning agency and screen nearly 20,000 students for health issues.

The secretary also touts record high-school graduation rates, a reduction in what the administration dubbed “dropout factories,” and the expansion of technology (as a tool for creating individualized learning plans) in classrooms. He lauds the fact that it has become easier to apply for federal financial aid to pay for college, and the development of a college “scorecard” to help students evaluate which colleges might be a good fit.

King devotes significant space to the hard-fought Every Student Succeeds Act, a rewrite of the nation’s main federal education law and a rare bipartisan effort. Predictably, the secretary sidesteps acknowledging that some elements of the law that the administration would like to see cemented, such as a rule that federal and state money slated to educate poor students should be added to local funding instead of replacing it, could actually be scaled back or rescinded during Donald Trump’s presidency. (Trump’s name does not appear in the memo.)

Instead, King focuses on what he sees as the law’s civil-rights focus, writing:

Importantly, ESSA reinforces the civil rights protections of the original 1965 law. It has a strong focus on underserved students—such as students of color, students from low-income families, Native-American students, English learners, students with disabilities, foster youth, homeless students, and migrant and seasonal farmworker children—so all students receive a quality education that prepares them for college and careers.

Civil-rights groups have expressed fear that a Trump administration will not see protecting and promoting the equal treatment of minorities (racial, religious, and otherwise) as a priority, and King’s decision to focus on the topic serves as a something of a message that Democrats do not think the new law can be successfully implemented if what they view as the civil rights of some students are ignored. (While the Obama administration has voiced support for LGBT students, for instance, civil-rights groups have expressed concern that Trump’s pick for education secretary, Betsy DeVos, belongs to a family that has backed anti-LGBT causes.)

The section on ESSA is not the only space where King devotes time to civil rights, which the administration and he in particular have called a priority. Officials in both the White House and Education Department have frequently framed education broadly as a civil-rights issue.  King notes in the memo that the department’s Office of Civil Rights has responded to more than 75,000 complaints and reached agreements with more than 5,000 schools and programs. He praises the administration’s “efforts to improve the usefulness and transparency of data,” and the use of that data to create “an understandable, graphical picture of our challenges in education.”

At other points in the memo, King praises what he sees as the department’s prioritization of evidence-based research (“Eight years ago,” he writes, “federal grants were rarely awarded based on evidence of their likelihood to succeed”), and its work to support teachers. The latter will surely draw some pushback from teachers’ unions, who saw the administration as too test-happy (and too willing to tie teacher evaluations to tests).

But King cites the administration’s effort to keep teachers in classrooms (a portion of the president’s Recovery Act spending involved grants to keep teachers in schools during the recession) as a powerful use of the federal government, and in doing so takes a shot at Republicans who would like to see less Washington involvement in education. And he draws (carefully) on his personal teaching experience in a section on the administration’s work to support teachers, writing:

As a student, the son of lifelong New York City public school educators, a former social studies teacher and middle school principal, and now as Secretary of Education, I understand the power teachers have to make a difference in students’ lives. So, I am proud to serve in an Administration that, from its beginning, has worked to uplift and invest in teaching.

The memo also hails the public-private partnerships the administration has developed, which have led to things like the My Brother’s Keeper initiative, an effort to support boys and young men of color.

While most of the memo focuses on the department’s successes, King also acknowledges several areas where gaps remain. Schools are still racially and socioeconomically segregated, he says, and too many 4-year-olds still don’t have access to publicly funded preschool. There is not enough research and development (R&D) happening in education, he laments, and not enough good programs or innovations are effectively scaled up. Not all students have equal access to educational opportunities.

Broadly, King lays out his ideal scenario this way:

My vision and great hope for the future is that every child is set up for success from the start with access to high-quality early learning. Public elementary and secondary schools are well-resourced, diverse, and able to use broadband and cutting-edge technology to enhance learning. Schools that need the most help get the most support, and all students have access to a world-class, well-rounded education that prepares them for success in college and beyond in a 21st century economy. The teaching profession is respected and diverse, with an effective, well-prepared, and supported teacher in every classroom.

Without naming Trump or DeVos specifically, he calls on them and others in the education-policy world to continue the administration’s work. (That’s a pipe dream in many cases, as DeVos has championed the privatization of education and Trump has blasted the Common Core standards the administration has praised.) Among other things, he urges Congress to ease restrictions on the department’s ability to monitor the way colleges are accredited and its ability to crack down on unscrupulous for-profit colleges. He calls on states to invest more in education, and on colleges to do more to help students complete their degrees.

Ultimately, he writes:

Everything we do in education—from investing in early learning; to providing each child with rich, well- rounded learning opportunities; to making sure schools are well-supported, safe, and diverse learning environments with great teachers; to getting all students to and through postsecondary education—is about that inextricable link between what our students learn and who they become. It is about achieving the America that all of us want for our children and grandchildren, where everyone can earn the knowledge and skills to succeed; where opportunity is plentiful and prosperity is widely shared; where communities are strong; and where all children can grow up to be whatever they choose. Creating and sustaining this America is not easy, but it is possible. Together, we can make this a reality and ensure every American has a clear path to a bright future.

And while King’s memo alone may not shift anyone’s thinking, and it’s unlikely that the Trump administration will see the document as any sort of legitimate guidance, the memo serves as a useful roundup of how far education has (or hasn’t, depending on the perspective) come in the last eight years, and how far there is to go to ensure all students have a chance to learn in good schools.