Abstract and Keywords
Educational policy in the United States has evolved over the last hundred years to address a vast range of issues, including creating a universal system of primary and secondary education, trying to ensure equity and access for students, preparing youth for the workforce, preparing youth for postsecondary education, improving academic outcomes, and school safety. This entry summarizes key historical trends, judicial rulings, and legislative milestones that have helped form educational policy in the United States. Special attention is given to current challenges.
Today, the United States public education system includes programs beginning from early childhood (via early intervention in special education) through adulthood (adult education and postsecondary education). While federal policies related to each segment of this enormous system exist, most operational control is retained by state and local authorities. National policy is expressed through legislation, as well as federal court rulings, which interpret rights related to the school setting. (Lieberman & McLaughlin, 1982)
An educated public was considered a must for democracy by the founders like Thomas Jefferson, however, a national system evolved slowly. In 2005, about 88% of all eligible children attended public schools at some point, but the figure has increased to 90%, with the remainder attending private schools (NCES, 2014). Each state has its own department of education with a school board, which interprets federal and state policy, sets broad curricular guidelines, and distributes state and federal funds. Since 1988 the trend has been increasing decentralization to the local district level. This means that education program implementation varies not only by state but also by local district.
Massachusetts instituted a statewide educational system in the mid-1800s, but a national system did not follow until the turn of the century. Then the passing of child labor laws and increasing pressures related to urbanization and immigration created a demand for more widespread educational opportunities. Although public high schools existed prior to 1900, only about 6% of the population attended them. By 1929 all states had enacted compulsory attendance laws that included high school or secondary education (Information Please, 2006). Most states included kindergarten by the mid-1930s. Compulsory attendance policy, however, still varies by state with required entry at ages 5 to 7 and allowed exit at ages 16 to 18.
Within this structure, there are a variety of alternatives. Parents may choose homeschooling as an alternative to attendance at a school. About 3% of the eligible population opts for homeschooling (NCES, 2013). As of 2009, alternative public school settings were also provided in about 64% of school districts for students at risk of school failure due to behavior, academic performance, or pregnancy. These are typically high schools (NCES, 2010), and not all are operated by the school district itself. More recently, states have begun to oversee some form of charter schools. These schools receive public financing but are created and run independently by outside organizations or individuals (NCES, 2004). As of 2011–2012, there were nearly 6,000 charter schools in the United States (NCES, 2014).
Publicly funded early childhood education is largely limited to children from low-income families and children with disabilities. In 1965, federal Head Start legislation provided funds for preschool services for children from low-income families. While the funding for Head Start has increased over the years, the most recent estimates indicate that only about 42% of eligible children are served by this program (Schmit, Matthews, Smith, & Robbins, 2013). Begun in 1994, the Early Head Start program essentially replicated the Head Start idea for infants and toddlers from low-income families. It is a smaller discretionary program estimated to serve only about 4% of the eligible children (Schmit et al., 2013). Because of the availability of additional forms of preschool not necessarily based on income, the total estimated enrollment of 3- and 4-year-olds in full day programs was over 40% in 2010 (NCES, 2012).
Since 1986, special education services have included services for very young children under a broad category called “developmental delay.” Eligible children, aged birth through 4 years, are served if they meet their state's definition of developmental delay (IDEA IA, 2004). About 12% of the Head Start population had a diagnosed disability in 2013 (Walker, 2014).
A continued goal of education is to prepare students for the workforce. Schools offer technical or vocational programming primarily aimed at those students who may not be college bound. Vocational programs in the United States vary from programs fully integrated with academic curricula to training offered off-site at special schools or at community workplaces. The reauthorization of the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act of 2006 was designed to strengthen the academic components of career and vocational education as well as provide better connections to postsecondary education.
Postsecondary education is also a part of the public education system and can be divided into two categories. “Adult Education,” traced to the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, was developed to assist young adults who did not complete high school. Federal funds and policy also support higher education, including community colleges (usually two-year programs), and state college and university systems. Both systems have grown dramatically. Since the late 1960s, adult education (now under the 1988 Workforce Investment Act) has grown to include vocational programming, programs for the elderly (1974), and literacy programs for families (Even Start, 1988) and prisoners (1991). Postsecondary education expanded as initiatives such as the GI bill during the 1940s, and the Higher Education Act in 1965 (reauthorized as the Higher Education Opportunity Act in 2008) increased federal financial aid to young adults seeking a college education.
Access and Equity
Providing an equitable education was and remains a major issue facing U.S. public education. Prior to the 1950s, many children of color and children with disabilities were forced or coerced into separate schools according to race (as with African Americans, Native Americans, and Asians) or language (as with Mexican American children in states like Texas) or disability. In 1954, the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case found that “separate was not equal.” The court ruling became federal policy when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 allowed the federal government to withhold funds from schools that refused to desegregate.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s federal policy continued to develop around issues of access and equity. In 1965 the Elementary and Secondary Schools Act created federal funding support (Title I) to ensure educational equity for poor children. In 1968, the Bilingual Act was passed to address segregation resulting from language barriers and created the English as a Second Language program. In 1972, Title IX stated that schools must provide equal opportunities irrespective of gender. In 1975, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act formally began the special education system. Children with disabilities were now educated at regular school sites, but many were still taught in separate classrooms. After 1986, the notion of “least restrictive” in the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act began to be interpreted under a higher standard of “inclusion” (that is, the placement of choice is always the regular class environment unless proved that that is impossible or harmful). In 2004, the IDEA Improvement Act (PL 108–446) was enacted. This reform provided more flexibility to states in assessment, disciplinary practices, and the ability to use funds for early intervention to offset overidentification.
Family and Student Rights
Along with equity came increased attention to the rights of the family and student. One of the primary policies related to parents' rights is the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). This act protects the privacy of the student's education records and ensures parental access to their contents. How information is recorded and shared between professionals within the public school system and between schools and outside agencies is heavily influenced by this policy. In addition, several policies such as the IDEA Improvement Act and the No Child Left Behind Act emphasize the family's right to information and appeal regarding special education eligibility and placement, discipline, and school choice.
National policy on student rights in schools developed largely through court rulings. Schools must provide for the safety of their students (Vernonia School District v. Acton, 1995) and maintain order needed for its educational mission (Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, 1988). As long as a student's behavior or belief does not violate these two principles, the courts have granted limited extensions of constitutional rights to minors in schools including the right to express political and religious opinion (Tinker v. Des Moines, 1969; Equal Access Act, 1984), freedom from unlawful search (In re William G, 1985), and limited due process rights (In re Gault, 1967).
Federal policy has also developed in response to student achievement. In 1958, the National Defense Education Act was passed to encourage better academic achievement—particularly in math and science. Concern continued and, in 1983, the Reagan administration released the report “A Nation at Risk” resulting in, among other things, a call for a national accountability system. Though no policy resulted, the same theme was carried through the next administration's America 2000 proposal and finally incorporated into policy in the 1994 Clinton administration's Educate America Act: Goals 2000. Goals 2000 supplied funding to states for developing assessment systems, but there were no enforced timelines for implementation or consequences associated with results. In 2002, this act was replaced by the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) as a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. This act laid emphasis on the idea of accountability, adding timelines and sanctions for not achieving goals (called adequate yearly progress [AYP]). Sanctions range from being listed as a “failing school” and getting technical assistance, to losing funds, to being closed. The continuing struggle between state and federal control is evident as states define parameters and assessment methods for meeting AYP goals. By 2011, 50% of U.S. schools failed to meet the Adequate Yearly Progress benchmarks (Scott, 2011).
In 2009, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was signed into law with a strong emphasis on improving educational outcomes through a series of grant and formula funding programs available to the states. Special funding mechanisms were available to struggling schools that had been identified as poorly performing under the prior policy standards, educational technology, teacher quality, data systems, and improved assessment (U.S. Department of Education, 2009). Although several versions for reauthorization of the Elementary Secondary Education Act have been promoted, none have yet been passed. In addition to ARRA, interim efforts to address problems related to the NCLB have included making waivers available to states for some of the requirements (Skinner, Kuenzi, Dortch, & McCallion, 2013).
The safety of students and staff has received a great deal of federal and state attention since the 1990s. In the mid-1990s , the Safe and Drug Free Schools and Communities Act (SFDCA) and the Gun Free Schools Act (GFSA) were passed (both re-authorized as part of NCLB). The SFDCA provides funds for evidence-based programs aimed at the prevention of violence and drug use. The GFSA requires states to enact laws mandating the expulsion of a child who brings a firearm to school. Further in NCLB, schools must track and publicize rates of violent acts and drug-related offenses. Parents can transfer (with funds) their children out of “persistently dangerous” schools (states define “persistently dangerous”) to other schools in the district. Many state policies go much further to enact so-called zero tolerance disciplinary regulations related to weapons, substances, and disruptive or violent behavior. Most recently, concern has turned to the overuse and disparity of disciplinary practices in schools, with a new guidance letter issued by the United States Department of Education and United States Department of Justice in January of 2014 (Office of Civil Rights, DOE, 2014). This letter highlights the need for attention to fair practices and evidence-based approaches to improving school climate and safety other than the use of traditional suspension and zero-tolerance approaches to nonviolent offenses.
Compared to the late 1980s, the public school system serves students spanning a wider age range, range of ethnic and racial diversity, and range of disabilities.
Despite growth in the proportion of children in the United States aged 3 to 5 enrolled in public preschools since the 1970s, recent data indicate that this growth has stalled. Recent figures indicate that about 41% of 4-year-olds and 7% of 3-year-olds are served in publicly funded programs (NIEER, 2012). When including private programming, the rates rise to over 60% of 4-year-olds and about 40% of 3-year-olds (NCES, 2013).
About 13% of the student population (ages 3 to 21) receives services for a specific disability, an increase of nearly 39% since the 1990s. Between 2001 and 2011, the percentage of persons receiving special education or early intervention services grew for all races, with White non-Hispanic growing the fastest (MMWR, 2013).
Ethnicity and Race
Forty-six percent of public education students are part of a racial or ethnic minority group, compared to about 33% in the late 1990s. The proportion of students of Asian and Hispanic origin is increasing at the highest rate, while the number of Black students has remained relatively stable and the proportion of White students has declined. English-language learner services are provided to approximately 10% of the students nationwide, with percentages being as high as 29% in some states like California (NCES, 2012).
The gender composition of K-12 education has not changed dramatically since the late 1980s, but the number of women attending postsecondary institutions has risen at a higher rate than the number of men, and women now comprise the majority of degrees conferred (NCES, 2012).
While public education has always served low-income students, the proportion of preschool to 12th-grade students who are poor has increased. Nineteen percent of public school students attended a school where 75% qualified for free and reduced lunch in 2011–2012, compared to only 12% in 1999–2000 (NCES, 2013).
Challenges and Dilemmas
Because educational achievement is so strongly related to economic well-being, equal access to effective education is inherently a social justice issue. Less than half of parents give schools in their community a grade of “A” or “B” (Peterson, 2014), and about 30% of schools were listed as “chronically underperforming” as of 2010 (Cantor, Smolover, & Stamler, 2010). Poverty and social capital at the family and school levels are strongly linked to poor educational opportunities and outcomes (Cantor et al., 2010; Dufur, Parcel, & Troutman, 2013; Dahl & Lochner, 2005). Although the most recent achievement test data available indicate that the achievement gap between White and Asian students and other students may be narrowing, African American, Hispanic, and Native American students lag behind other students on academic tests and rate of high school graduation (Ford & Moore, 2013; Hemphill, Vanneman, & Rahman, 2011; NCES, 2006a). While special education services have expanded since the late 1970s, much debate exists on their effectiveness and how it should be measured (Hanushek, Kain, & Rivkin, 2002; Reynolds & Wolfe, 1997; U.S. DOE, 2005). Critics point out the continued problems related to the NCLB requirements with the proper approach to and interpretation of assessment of academic achievement among children with disabilities (Bleiberg & West, 2013). Graduation rates for 2010–2011 among students served in special education range from a low of 23% to a high of 88% depending upon the state (Annual Disability Statistics Compendium, 2013).
In 2011, the federal government provided about 12% of elementary and secondary school funding (Cornman, Keaton, & Glander, 2013). Vast differences by state exist in the remaining proportion of funds drawn from state as compared to local (primarily property tax) sources. Such inequities were compounded by the recession. Although ARRA funds were designed to buffer reduced state and local revenues, policy research indicates that many states were not sufficiently recovered when these funds were ended (Baker, Sciarra, & Farrie, 2014). States that rely on local property tax can have higher disparities of funding within the state due to regional differences in property values. The concern regarding equal access to education related to income is not new, and in some cases it has been addressed through litigation within certain states (e.g., Hadderman, 1999). Thus far, however, the debate continues about how to encourage states to achieve equitable funding (US DOE, 2013).
Diversity, Quality, Scope
Some researchers suggest that schools perform poorly due to a complex array of issues such as poor teacher quality, low levels of parent involvement, and ineffective strategies for teaching a diverse range of students (Dufur, Parcel, & Troutman, 2013; Ford & Moore, 2013). Recent calls for reform include increasing cultural competency, better means of assessing outcomes, improving teacher quality, mentoring, and technology innovations (Burris & Welner, 2005; Cantor, Smolover, & Stamler, 2010; Good, Aronson, & Inzlicht, 2003; Office of the Press Secretary, 2014; U.S. Department of Education, 2005). Others suggest that a greater investment in early childhood education would improve outcomes (Barnett, 2000; Calman & Tarr-Whelan, 2005; Reynolds, Temple, & Ou, 2010).
Others argue that education can only be “fixed” by using market forces to force low-performing schools to improve. This idea underlies recent federal policy encouraging charter schools and offering vouchers to allow some families in low-functioning systems to move their children to better schools. Current research is mixed regarding whether these options have produced or can produce the desired positive outcomes (Loeb, Valant, & Kasman, 2011; Wolf, Kisida, Gulmann, Puma, Eissa, & Rizzo, 2013; Zimmer, Gill, Booker, Lavertu, & Witte, 2012).
So-called zero-tolerance policies are criticized for uneven and inappropriate application (ABA, 2001; Civil Rights Project, 2000). Special education policy provides some extra protection from inappropriate applications of “zero tolerance” for students with disabilities (IDEA IA, 2004). Very recently, the issues of fairness in application of disciplinary practices has gotten federal attention in the form of guidance to the states related to discriminatory practices (United States Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights and United States Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, 2014). Alternative approaches are becoming increasingly available (e.g., Boccanfuso & Kuhfeld, 2011; Browne-Dianis, 2011).
Economic trends increasingly make high school completion a necessary, but insufficient, educational outcome. Efforts to increase and diversify the college population have indeed resulted in expanded college access (Barrow, Brock, & Rouse, 2013). However, entering college does not guarantee acquisition of academic skills, completion of a degree, or the interpersonal skills required by employers (American Speech Language Hearing Association, 2007; Bair, Cook, & Baldi, 2006; Casner-Lotto & Barrington, 2006). Further, there is increasing concern about the rise in debt related to postsecondary education compared to its relative return on investment (Barrow et al., 2013).
Research on international educational outcomes ranks the United States about average in most subjects in elementary school but dipping below average by high school (NCES, 2012b). The structure and expectations of educational systems in other countries vary widely, however, making cross-national comparisons difficult and beyond the scope of a single entry. Further, certain states actually score much higher than the United States as a whole. It is unclear if or how international models of education will influence American policy in the future.
Trends and Directions
Education policy still struggles to balance local, state, and federal funding, control, and accountability. Educators must also balance attention to the individual with the safety and education of entire schools. Communities and policy makers must balance the need for education with competing areas of need like health care. One hundred years later, education policy continues to address the challenge of providing an effective and equitable education for all.
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