Analysis: 30 Years After Pivotal Charlottesville Education Summit, State Leaders Must Again Come Together to Create a New Vision for America’s Public Schools
In honor of the 1989 Education Summit in Charlottesville, Virginia, where 49 out of 50 governors gathered to discuss the education of America’s children, the Aspen Institute’s Education & Society Program has partnered with to conduct a series of Q&A interviews. These interviews feature distinguished leaders from various fields such as politics, education, and advocacy, reflecting on the impact of the summit and the future of public education. The interviews were conducted via telephone, transcribed, and edited for clarity and length. While some questions remained consistent, the participants were also asked about their own careers and backgrounds. These leaders share their insights on why the summit was a groundbreaking event, the strengths and weaknesses of education policies, and the necessary steps for further progress in student education.
It is crucial to revitalize and update this agenda to address emerging challenges in education and society. The Aspen Institute plays a significant role in shaping these discussions by bringing together leaders with diverse experiences and perspectives. Through this exchange, leaders have the opportunity to learn from each other, challenge their assumptions, and identify potential threats and opportunities on the horizon. We assist leaders in establishing coherence between practice and policy, bridging gaps between different programs, from governmental bodies to classrooms.
Throughout this series, we have heard from prominent leaders across the political spectrum who emphasize the importance of standards, assessments, and accountability in education:
Governors should prioritize supporting effective testing and accountability. Those who will suffer the most from lowering our standards are the underserved students. – Governor Jim Hunt
If I were a governor today, I would likely do what I did in the 1980s, which is to advocate for higher standards and effective tests to measure progress towards national goals. – Senator Lamar Alexander
Notably, superintendents of school districts responsible for implementing these ambitious ideas also endorse this framework:
Having a common set of rigorous and grade-level appropriate standards transformed the conversation about classroom practices. It enabled administrators to push for necessary changes and rigor in our schools. – Janice Jackson, CEO of Chicago Public Schools
It is important to reiterate that our ability to have meaningful discussions about disparities in student performance is due to the progress made in implementing standards and assessments. This remains the most significant achievement of the past 30 years. – Former District of Columbia Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson
As we look towards the future, it is essential to protect the valuable commitments and infrastructure for improvement that originated from the summit and have endured over time.
Related Analysis: In 1989, 49 Governors Came Together at a Historic Summit to Reform Education. We Need the Same Type of Leadership Today
However, the leaders who shared their perspectives in this series also raised valid criticisms regarding the implementation of this agenda:
There is finally a greater awareness and commitment to acknowledging the reality of the impact of poverty on students. The discussion around providing trauma-informed care to young people, at least to some extent, is now on the table, unlike in 1989. – Brittany Packnett, Vice President of Teach for America
As we became more accurate in measuring student performance, we quickly transitioned to high-stakes testing, which may not have served us well as we assumed that these tests provided more information than they actually did. – Governor Tony Evers
One notable accomplishment was the inclusion of math, science, English, history, and geography as core subjects. However, this resulted in a shift away from subjects like music, art, and character education. – Alexander
Despite a 60% increase in the English learner population over the past two decades, federal funding for English learners has only seen a 1% increase since 2009. This is unacceptable. – Janet Murguía, President and CEO of Unidos US
There are valid critiques that should be addressed to enhance the effectiveness of standards-based reform. This includes reassessing the role of tests, targeted investments to support students who require additional assistance, and a more holistic curriculum. These ideas deserve attention and consideration.
The landscape of employability skills has changed, as has the way news is consumed and politics are conducted. However, the accountability for schools has remained largely the same. The current system of test-based accountability, which focused heavily on basic skills, may have been suitable for improving a system that was previously poor, but it is not enough to take us from good to great. We need different strategies to prepare young people for the future, including college, work, and citizenship opportunities.
I have become increasingly radicalized in my view on this matter. I believe that the existing system is not suitable for the world we live in. It does not produce lifelong learners. The idea of separating education into different stages, from pre-K to university, is becoming less relevant. We should instead prioritize a student-centered approach. If I had the opportunity to convene a group of 50 governors, I would ask them how we can ensure that every child reaches their full potential, rather than simply focusing on increasing graduation rates.
The world that our students are entering has undergone significant changes in the past 30 years. We need to prepare them not only to meet higher standards, but also to become lifelong learners who can navigate challenges and adapt to change. Furthermore, they should be equipped to thrive in a diverse democracy and society. Despite these evolving needs, the standards-based testing and accountability agenda established 30 years ago still dominates our education policies. We have not adequately addressed the challenges of the future and have not developed an innovative policy framework to drive transformation.
Just as governors in 1989 had the opportunity to shape education policy, today’s state policymakers also have the responsibility to reimagine success for students and schools. They can lay the groundwork for a new education policy that reflects the needs of the future.
The time is now for state leaders to create this new foundation. The consensus that guided education policy for the past 30 years, as established in the 1989 Charlottesville Education Summit, no longer exists. Americans are tired of federal overreach and ideological agendas that fail to deliver on their promises. There is a desire for leadership that upholds values, engages with stakeholders, and inspires collective action, rather than promoting division and fear.
Investing in public education is one of the most important commitments we can make to each other as Americans. Historically and constitutionally, states bear the primary responsibility for this endeavor. We must envision a future where every young person has access to the necessary educational opportunities and experiences to develop into their best selves, succeed in the workforce, and actively engage in our democracy. This requires new goals and policies to achieve. In my interview with Hunt, he called for a new sense of urgency. We should listen to his call.
Ross Wiener, Vice President at the Aspen Institute and Executive Director of its Education & Society Program, previously served as Vice President for Program and Policy at the Education Trust and as a trial attorney in the U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, Educational Opportunities Section.