Friday, November 11, 2016

Suggestions for the US Department of Education

Stephen Krashen, November, 2016

These are suggested priorities for the US Department of Education for the next four years. None of the idea presented here are original with me, and I will provide sources and supporting evidence for the suggestions at a later time.

Focus on poverty

By far the most consistent and powerful predictor of school achievement is poverty.  In fact, when researchers control for the effect of poverty, American students rank near the top of the world on international tests.

The current view of the US Department of Education is that improving education will reduce the rate of poverty, but there is strong evidence that the causality goes in the opposite direction, supporting Martin Luther King’s position: "We are likely to find that the problems of housing and education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished”(Martin Luther King, 1967, Final Words of Advice).

Until we achieve full employment at a living wage, the real cure for poverty, the Department of Education can improve the situation immediately by protecting children from at least some of the effects of poverty. Children of poverty suffer from food deprivation, lack of proper health care, and have very limited access to reading material. We can act immediately to improve school food programs, improve access to school nurses, and provide more support school libraries and librarians.

More flexible expectations

The Department of Education can also improve matters immediately by encouraging more flexible expectations for school completion: Announcing high school graduation rates based only those who graduate "on time" (in four years) sends the message that there is something wrong with taking longer.  Education expert Susan Ohanian tells us that during the depression, her father went to high school every other year, working to help support the family during the years when he wasn't in school.  Taking longer than the usual four years is often an indication of persistence and determination, not laziness. Using today's measures, he would be classified as a dropout.

Help students find their paths

The Department of Education should not promote specific careers based on (often inaccurate) current perceptions of national needs. Rather, school should provide an environment in which students discover their individual interests and talents, and help them develop these interests and talents.

This requires a re-analysis of the need for college. The official position of the US government is that on finishing high-school students should be “college or career ready,” but in practice the focus is clearly on college. This is reflected not only in statements from the Department of Education, but also in the content of the Common Core, clearly a college prep program.

College is right for many many students. But it is not right for everybody. College is not better, it is different.  Many young people have talents and interests that are not well-served by college, and they deserve the chance to develop in different ways.  Both young people and society profit when we respect diversity, and both suffer when we do not:  John Gardner, Former Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, tried to warn us years ago: “The society which scorns excellence in plumbing as a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy: neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.”

Reduce STEM fever

There is no question that computer use should be included in school, but this does not mean that every child should be preparing for a career in computer science or STEM.  Study after study has shown that there is no STEM crisis, no shortage of STEM workers. In fact, in many areas, there is a surplus. 

NUT: No Unnecessary Testing

Limit standardized testing to what has been demonstrated to be helpful to teachers and students.  If we do this, there will be more than enough money available to significantly improve food programs, health care, and libraries (see above). 


Recess will be brought back and in the form of free play, not organized activities. Administrators in elementary schools that do not allow recess should lose their coffee breaks.

In summary, I suggest that we immediately do a better job protecting students from the impact of poverty, help students find their own paths, and eliminate unnecessary testing.  This can be done easily, will save money, and will result in considerable improvement in the lives of millions of students and teachers, while at the same time increasing academic achievement.


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