What does the evidence say about the education planks in national political party platforms? While we understand that ideology may influence an individual or party’s policy preferences, our goal today is to shed factual light on some of the claims made in both parties’ platforms related to elementary/secondary education.
Republican Platform Claims:
1. “it recognizes… choice – as the most important driving force for renewing education” (p. 33)
Mostly false. While school choice is often promoted as a reform strategy, the reality is that 71% of U.S. students are in their neighborhood public school and 82% of students are in a traditional school district. Only 4% of students attend charter schools, and less than 0.5% of students receive vouchers to attend private schools. Further, the results for participants in choice programs are underwhelming. Students in charter schools perform about the same as they would in their traditional public school, on average, with some outscoring their traditional school counterparts and others performing worse. Results for voucher recipients are equally mixed.
2. “Rigid tenure systems should be replaced with a merit-based approach in order to attract the best talent to the classroom.” (p. 33)
On the fence. A recent study showed that union-protected tenure systems have been shown to improve the quality of the teacher pool, as schools have greater incentive to weed out poor teachers quickly. However, other research suggests that very few teachers, especially those with tenure, are ever dismissed. Unions help protect teacher salaries and reasonable workloads, which may help keep high quality teachers in the classroom. Some states with lower teacher salaries struggle to hire and retain high-quality teachers. Merit-based incentive programs have shown mixed results in retaining good teachers. Little research speaks to how the presence of tenure systems or merit-based systems actually attract teachers to the profession, though it seems that individuals would be more likely to enter a profession if the pay is higher and work conditions were more agreeable.
3. “Since 1965, the federal government, through more than 100 programs in the Department of Education, has spent $2 trillion on elementary and secondary education with little substantial improvement in academic achievement or high school graduation rates.” (p. 33-34)
True. The $2 trillion tally (in 2015 dollars) is a reasonable estimate.
And False. There has been great improvement in both academic achievement and high school graduation rates, particularly for students of color and low-income students. Graduation rates are at an all-time high at 82% (on-time graduation) and NAEP scores have shown significant improvement overall for 9- and 13-year-olds since their commencement in 1972. Further, the achievement gap between white students and students of color has decreased significantly. Most of federal education spending goes toward increasing the achievement of low-income students through Title I funds, so it seems that this spending has paid off.
4. “To ensure that all students have access to the mainstream of American life, we support the English First approach and oppose divisive programs that limit students’ ability to advance in American society.” (p. 34)
False. Granted, the claim is a statement of what the GOP supports, as opposed to what works. But, if we imply that their claim is that English-only education prepares students to participate in America, both academically and linguistically, this claim is false. “English First” is not an actual educational model. English-only programs are less effective in making students proficient in English than dual-language programs that teach students in their native language, in addition to English. English-only programs are also less effective in helping students succeed in math, science, and reading.
Democratic Platform Claims:
1. “Our schools are more segregated today than they were when Brown v. Board of Education was decided.” (p. 30)
Mostly false. Brown v. Board of Education was decided in 1954, at which point, seventeen southern states still required elementary schools to be segregated. It was not until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and subsequent Supreme Court cases that southern schools really started to desegregate, along with the incentive of federal funds under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. Segregation has varied significantly across geographic region and is highly dependent on housing trends, as most students attend their neighborhood school. Segregation is also hard to measure; if we look at minority students’ exposure to white students, and vice versa, we are more segregated than we were in the 1980s. However, shifting demographics have also changed the makeup of schools. Either way, our schools are not equally balanced among races.
2. “We see wide disparities in educational outcomes across racial and socioeconomic lines.” (p. 30)
True. Even though these disparities have lessened since 1972, achievement gaps still persist.
3. “Graduation rates have stagnated for low-income students.” (p. 30)
Mostly false. Long term trends in graduation rates show that low-income students are graduating at much higher rates than in the past. Drop-out rates for low-income students were 14-17% in the 1970s, as compared with 5.9% in 2012. Between 2011 and 2014, the graduation rate for low-income students increased from 70% to 74.6%. Thus, there is improvement in both long-term and short-term trends.
4. Researchers have “repeatedly rejected” the practice of using “student test scores in teacher and principal evaluations.” (p. 33)
Mostly true. The Department of Education’s flexibility waivers required states to include “data on student growth” as a portion of teacher evaluations (a requirement that is not included in the Every Student Succeeds Act, passed in 2015), which was often assessed using standardized tests. Many statisticians and academics have shown that student test scores are not reliable enough to determine individual teachers’ contributions to student learning. Consensus is not complete on this issue, which is why we label this statement “mostly true.”
The U.S. spend millions of dollars on education research to try to improve outcomes for students. Our hope is that more policy makers from both parties will use documented evidence to make good decisions for our children.
Prepared by Chandi Wagner, research analyst, NSBA’s Center for Public Education.
August 2, 2016