K-12 Reforms: Strategic Initiatives to Foster Real Change

K-12 Reforms: Strategic Initiatives to Foster Real Change

It is clear what it means to be prepared for tomorrow's economy. Already, three-quarters of the fastest-growing occupations require education beyond a high school diploma, with science, technology, and engineering careers prominent on the list. However, our schools aren't preparing enough of our students for that reality. Today, the United States has one of the highest high school dropout rates in the world. Among students who do complete high school and go on to college, nearly half require remedial courses, and nearly half never graduate. Yet in today's world, a college degree or advanced certificate increasingly represents the entry ticket to rewarding careers. In today's world, our graduates will compete against the smartest young people from across the globe. But in today's world, the United States ranks 12th in college attainment. As President Obama has said, "It is our generation's task ... to reignite the true engine of America's economic growth—a rising, thriving middle class." Reigniting that engine depends on education, preschool through 12th grade, strong enough to prepare all students for college, careers, and the innovation-based economy in which they will make their living.

Education Reforms: The Work Ahead

The core reforms

To meet that challenge, the Obama administration set out in 2009—amid the greatest financial crisis in generations—to put in place a set of reforms to ensure that every child in this country receives the education he or she deserves. President Obama set two ambitious goals: that the United States would once again lead the world in college completion, and that every student would receive at least one year of college or specialized training after high school.

At the K-12 level, the Obama administration put in place a coordinated set of initiatives that unleashed a wave of innovation and reform at the state and district levels, while continuing to ensure quality services for the most vulnerable students. The reforms sought to make improvements in the most pivotal elements of education systems: excellence in teaching and school leadership; high standards for what every student should know and be able to do; next generation assessments and data systems used to drive improvement; and technology infrastructure to support next generation learning.

The key initiative in this K-12 reform effort has been the Race to the Top program, which has provided more than $4 billion to support and spotlight some of the most promising ideas to improve education, through comprehensive reform strategies based on college- and career-ready academic standards and assessments, increased use of data to improve instruction, great teachers and principals in every school, and an intense focus on turning around the lowest-performing schools. Race to the Top reform strategies also provided the foundation for the President's 2010 blueprint for reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which re-envisioned the federal role in education as supporting more flexible, innovative, locally driven approaches to teaching and learning that would allow states, school districts, principals, and teachers to make more productive use of existing resources. However, in September 2011, with reauthorization five years overdue and the outdated provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act increasingly hindering state-led efforts to create next-generation education accountability and improvement systems, President Obama announced "ESEA flexibility." Forty-two states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico are now taking advantage of ESEA flexibility to implement state-developed plans to ensure access to higher quality standards and assessments for all students, including students with disabilities and English learners; differentiated accountability systems that target intensive interventions in the lowest-performing schools while ensuring strong, continued student group accountability in all schools; and rigorous systems for the evaluation and support of teachers and principals.

K-12 reform

Building on this momentum, President Obama has proposed to deepen reforms through investments in strategic areas where states and school districts face key implementation challenges, and to continue substantial investments in critical formula programs that support state and local reform efforts. The President's plan includes the following elements:

Strengthening Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education

Economists project strong growth in careers related to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Today, however, only 16 percent of American high school seniors are proficient in mathematics and interested in a STEM career. The nation also faces a skills gap: the United States ranks 25th in mathematics and 17th in science among industrialized nations. To address these challenges, the Obama administration proposes a coordinated and aligned approach to improving STEM education, acting in accordance with the Federal Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Education 5-year Strategic Plan. The Department of Education is leading efforts to improve P-12 STEM instruction by supporting partnerships among school districts and universities, science agencies, businesses, and other community partners to transform teaching and learning.

Learning powered by technology

Technology can provide teachers with opportunities to share best practices and personalize learning for students, and it allows parents to become more connected to the learning process. In 2010, the National Educational Technology Plan established a vision for how technology could provide students with access to engaging digital resources, opportunities to collaborate with peers and experts, and powerful tools to solve real problems as an integral part of their learning experience. Yet, despite the great potential of technology to increase access and opportunity for students across the country, too often, school is the least connected part of a student's life. In 2013, President Obama announced the ConnectED Initiative, which aims to make the vision outlined in the National Educational Technology Plan a reality by ensuring classrooms across the country are connected to high-speed internet. The plan also aims to ensure that affordable devices are available to support students' digital learning, teachers are prepared to thrive in connected classrooms, and high-quality digital learning resources are available to teachers and students at any time and any place. Our schools must have modern technology infrastructure and our students must have access to the best resources—regardless of where they live—so that they are prepared to thrive in a globally connected world.

Supporting effective teaching and strengthening school leadership

Many of the brightest college graduates in this country never consider entering the field of education and nearly half of all individuals who do begin a career in teaching leave the profession within the first five years. This turnover rate costs the nation more than $7 billion each year, and costs schools, families and communities in ways that cannot be counted. The Obama administration has laid out a plan to strengthen teaching and school leadership, building on significant investments and proposals in the first term, including through the RESPECT (Recognizing Educational Success, Professional Excellence, and Collaborative Teaching) initiative, which would award grants to states and consortia of districts with the most ambitious plans and policies for reforming all aspects of the teaching profession. In addition to the RESPECT competition, the administration helped to launch TEACH.org to recruit the next generation of teachers, with a focus on quality and diversity of those entering the profession. The Department supports partnerships among high-needs districts, institutions of higher education (IHEs), and other organizations to improve the quality of teachers and leaders in high-needs schools. Additionally, the Department is funding the development of innovation strategies in the education profession through the Supporting Effective Educator Development (SEED) program and, through Title II, the Department provides more than $2.3 billion to help districts and states prepare, recruit, support, and retain teachers.

School safety

Schools are, generally, among the safest places for children in America, but the nation's conscience has been shocked by acts of horrific violence in schools. While these acts have changed their communities forever, less dramatic moments of violence each day decrease students' sense of security, which is essential to their healthy growth and learning. In response, the President's plan to increase school safety and to decrease gun violence includes investments not only to prepare schools for emergencies, but also to create nurturing school climates.

Turning around the lowest-performing schools

Since 2009, the administration has invested $6.2 billion in School Improvement Grants aimed at turning around an estimated 2,000 of the nation's persistently lowest-achieving schools that produce a disproportionate number of the more than 500,000 students who drop out of high school each year. Although the nation's high school graduation rate has risen to a three-decade high in recent years, there is still much further to go.

Data to drive improvement

Strong data systems are at the heart of the effort to improve schools. The Department's Statewide Longitudinal Data Systems (SLDS) program has funded data systems that improve the ability of schools to provide regular feedback to educators, offer teachers data they can use to improve instruction, allow state and local educational agencies to devise methods for identifying effective teachers and teaching practices, and provide accurate information about student and school progress.

Learn more