EdFix Episode 37: Policy Perspectives and Possibilities - A Conversation with Jack Jennings

For nearly three decades, Jack Jennings was the foremost expert on education policy in the U.S. House of Representatives. His legacy spans some of the most significant legislative initiatives, including the Elementary and Secondary Act, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and the Higher Education Act. After leaving Congress, Jack founded and led the Center on Education Policy, a nonpartisan, nonprofit think tank focused on the improvement of public schools. In this fascinating conversation, Jack shares his reflections on bipartisanship, the effects of our Federalist system, and a blueprint for cultivating a pipeline of exceptional teachers.




Welcome to EdFix, your source for insights about the promise and practice of education. I'm your host, Michael Feuer. I'm the Dean of the Graduate School of Education and Human Development at George Washington University. I have a great pleasure today of introducing to our listeners an old and dear colleague, and one of the most accomplished experts in the world of education, Jack Jennings. People who have been in and around education policy, certainly in Washington and across the country, know Jack Jennings for his tremendous years of experience, working in and around the United States Congress, involved in many of the most significant legislative initiatives regarding elementary and secondary education, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the Higher Education Act, and so much more.

When Jack left his work in the US Congress, he established something called the Center on Education Policy, which was yet another remarkable, shall we say jewel in the big cluttered crown of potential organizations trying to provide wise advice on matters of education policy. Jack was an inspired and inspiring leader in that whole area. It's a great pleasure, welcome Jack, to EdFix.


Since it's been a while since you were in Congress, working in Congress and for the Congress, what have you been doing lately, and maybe more importantly, what do you think Congress has been doing lately?


Well, we moved to Chicago since that's where I'm from, and we really enjoy the city. But since I retired, I've written three books, and one of them was translated into Japanese, and I've also written some articles. But basically, I've been observing and thinking about education, and my thoughts, they're a little different than they were before having seen some experience with some of these reforms. And with the Congress, I think the Congress has basically passed the buck. I don't think the Congress is doing much that's useful to education. They replaced NCLB, No Child Left Behind, which was a very disliked statute, which was limited in its efforts to reform, and they replaced it with something that doesn't mean much.

And yet, they're saying that's what their policy is. So I don't think that Congress is doing much, but that shouldn't surprise us, because No Child Left Behind was an attempt to reform a very localized set of schools in the United States. Unlike other countries that have tripartite governments, federal, state or provincial and local, we have a localized system. And it's very hard to reform 14,000 school districts at a time. And so this was an attempt, No Child Left Behind, an attempt to encourage better state policies, and it didn't get the right balance, it used the wrong approach. But it shouldn't discourage people from thinking of how can you get the right balance between federal policies, state policies, and local control. And I think there should be more attempts made.


Jack, that's such an important reminder about the complexity of education policy in the United States where there is this diffusion of authority. And I would love for you to reflect a little bit more about, was there a time when relations between the federal role, the state role, and the local role seemed at least to be more, if not aligned, but more mutually respectful and productive? And if there was such a time, what do you think would have to happen to get us back onto some sort of a more compatible strategy for public policy and education?


Well, I think the time was 1970s when the Democrats basically passed federal legislation on education in the '60s, with some Republican support, but not with overwhelming Republican support. But by the end of the '70s, both parties were in support of federal education for basically the same reasons, and so it was a more cooperative period in our history. And basically what the federal legislation did, was provide money for certain things such as the education of children with disabilities, and education of children from poor families, but in a way that put the money through the states. Because although many people say the Constitution has delegated education to the states, which it has, most states do not take an active role in education. All they do is pass money to local school districts. And so unlike Australia, Germany, Canada, their provinces or states are the basic agencies that operate the policies in the schools.

Unlike that, our state governments are very weak in education. So one of the most important titles of the Elementary Secondary Education Act of 1965 was Title V, which provided aid to states if they would exercise their constitutional rights to administer the schools. And that aid, which was not very large, entitled states for the first time to hire staff to have policies on teacher training and things like that. So the times of the '70s were ones in which the federal government was cooperating much more with the state governments. To get us back to that time, I think we have to get through the period we're going through right now, which is when I'm thankful for federalism, because we have a federalist country where the government authorities are divided between three levels of government, and the national level is forbidden to set national curriculum standards or anything dealing with the curriculum.

And I think that's a good idea. I don't think there should be a national curriculum. And President Trump tried to impose a national curriculum, and he was not successful. And I'm glad there was a federal system that frustrated that effort. I don't think any president should impose a national curriculum. I think what a president should do is to help states exercise their constitutional duties to administer the schools in a better way than they're being administered now. And so, I think it would take a president who wants to bring about improvement, but who understands that the federal role is not an all-powerful role, that the idea is that the states should help school districts.

Now in Illinois, we have a situation where the wealthiest school district spends two and a half times as much on its children as the poor school district. And that has gotten better in Illinois, but it still means that the wealthiest school district whose kids, almost all of whom are kids of professionals, receive funds which ought to go to kids in poor districts. The result is the rich district spends two and a half times more money on its kids. That's a very inequitable structure, and it certainly isn't true to American values that some people should be so far ahead that other people will never have any chance of catching up. So I think that we need a president who's willing to push for some standards for better administration of the schools, and more equitable administration.


You mentioned the '70s, Jack, as a time when there seemed to be more agreement about a federal role in education that went beyond collecting data about education, but actually to promote more funding and to enable the states and others to carry it out. But right after the '70s came the '80s. And one of the first things that I believe President Reagan mentioned early in his term, was that the federal role for education actually had gotten beyond itself. And he, if memory serves, went about trying to actually even eliminate the US Department of Education. Can you reflect on that period in terms of the possibility that there was a bit of a whiplash here between the spirit of the '70s that you've described, and what came right after it?


Well, what happens with legislation and reforms more broadly is that sometimes you have unintended consequences. And during the '70s we had bipartisan agreement on the Elementary Secondary Education Act and other acts, but then the Congress pushed it too far and created too many small programs and put in too many regulations on the basic program, which is Title I. And there was a reaction at the local level against that. And Reagan took advantage of that reaction, and he tried to generalize it, to eliminate Title I and other federal aids. He did not succeed. And so, you have to look at the difference between what Reagan said and what really happened. What really happened was that Title I was saved by Republican congressmen and senators, not Democrats, but Republicans.

They rewrote Title I in 1982 to make it eliminate the worst features, but to continue it. Basically, it was structured during 1960s and '70s. So there Reagan did not succeed because of his own party. Same thing happened with the US Department of Education. He appointed Ted Bell to be the Secretary of Education, I think it was called Assistant Secretary for Education at that time, who undercut Reagan. And so, he frustrated Reagan by not eliminating the department. It wasn't the Democrats, it was the Republicans. And that shows the degree of bipartisan support that had built up during  the 1970s for a federal role.


You know, I recently used the word ‘aerogram’ to describe how I was corresponding with some friends back in the early 1970s. And people looked at me wondering, what does that word actually mean? I have a feeling that today when we use the word bipartisan, that has also become something that seems like it comes from a long time ago. Is there any hope for bipartisanship in the current political atmosphere?


There was bipartisanship. I have great empathy for President Biden. I'm the same age as he, and he's doing wonders, whereas I'm just trying to finish reading a book. He is a man of great energy in advanced age, and he's brought the world together so that we're united against Russia. And Russia is bogged down. It's gradually using up its assets without American soldiers being involved. And with the West being united. That is quite a feat. He's also helped to revive the economy through a bipartisan effort. The infrastructure bill that passed, passed on a bipartisan vote. Also, the anti-inflation measure was passed on a bipartisan vote. It was bipartisan with a few Republicans, not with all of them, but it was bipartisan. And I am sure Biden remembers the 1970s when he tried to fashion legislation with support of southern Democrats and other conservatives, and he had to do it a certain way.

And he's followed those same techniques now into the presidency. So even in an atmosphere that's poisonous and not bipartisan, and poisonous in the sense that one party demonizing the other party, even in a poisonous atmosphere like that, Biden was able to be bipartisan. So, I think you just have to work at it. And basic criticism, we've never had a time of tranquil peace in the Congress from the first day they came into office. Congress is meant to be the place where you dispute. We argue. You put your points of view forward. You try to get them adopted. And so, there's always been arguing in the Congress over every issue. So we're not going to hit a Nirvana where everybody's going to be coming with spiritual songs, we're going to hit a point where people can state their point of view without demonizing the other party, and work to get their point of view adopted.

I noticed you have a new book on civics education, Michael, which I commend you for. I think you are very timely, but I think there's two words that are important in civics: toleration and compromise. And you can't have a democracy, unless you have toleration and compromise. Toleration of other points of view, and understanding that somebody may look at life differently than you do, but that doesn't mean they're wrong and that doesn't necessarily mean you're right. But so, tolerance of other points of view, but also compromise. One point of view is not going to be accepted by everybody. And so, you have to compromise somewhere along the line. I think that people have forgotten those two precepts. You need tolerance and you need compromise.


Let me pick up on something else that you mentioned. You used the phrase, national curriculum, which it reminds me of when a proposal came forward to establish something called the voluntary national test, one of the more Republican leaning commentators and experts said, "Well, there's only two things wrong with the idea of a national test, and that is that half the country hates the word national, and the other half hates the word test. Otherwise, it seemed like an interesting proposal." Say a little bit more about your many years of working at the intersection of these arguments about America with a national ethos, and part of its national ethos being the diffusion of authority to the states and localities. Where are we in that ongoing seesaw between the pluribus and the unum?


Well, let me we talk about the national test for a while. For years, Senator Pell from Rhode Island had a provision passed by the Senate that there'd be a national test, because he was very experienced in what European countries were doing. And most European countries do have some type of a national test or examination system to determine who goes on to college and universities. And that was a not popular idea, and the Republicans attacked it, saying that this would be a way for the Democrats to take over the curriculum. And Democrats didn't much like it, because the educators didn't much like it, and Democrats are close to the teachers unions, so it wasn't going anywhere. But then President Bush gets elected, the first President Bush, and he's proposing a national test. He's proposing national standards in education, and this is coming from the Republican side, not from the Democratic side.

And he was responding to American corporations who were saying that American corporations were saying that in the world they were competing with other countries where the population was much better educated than the United States. Not completely, but Korea was on the way up and the United States was stagnating. And so the business people urged Bush to propose national tests and national standards. Republicans didn't know what to do, because they tend to fall behind their leaders. So conservatives tend to fall behind their leaders. And so, the Republican Party fell behind Bush in supporting national tests and national standards. The Democrats, again, didn't know what to do. So the legislation came forward and it was enacted in a weaker form, and then voluntary national standards were started to be developed. They were supported by people like the AFT and other groups.

But they had difficulty in supporting and developing those standards, especially in history and literacy, and there was no agreement between the sides on those two sets of standards. They did agree to the math standards and some other standards. So then Bush lost and Clinton came along, and Clinton changed it from national standards, national tests to state standards and state tests, and his legislation went through as Goals 2000. So the reform movement was changed from a national standard to a state standard, and it was enacted, but that fell into great controversy. So I think the problem was, Clinton as well as Bush as well as more current reformers, they looked too much on tests as the way to bring about improvement. But Governor Romer from Colorado used to say that the Goals 2000 Act would be used to lever the whole system of education. And what he meant was that the states could use test results, which would be produced by tests that were relatively inexpensive, like $100,000 for a state test or $200,000 for a state test.

And they wouldn't have to worry about changing their teacher recruitment system to give higher wages to teachers, or spending money on remedial education for kids who don't know how to read and write. They were trying to change the whole system on the basis of a test. And then the test makers, in my book, and I served on the board of ETS, test makers in my book, did not follow their own ethics standards. The ethics standards for the testing industry is that you cannot rely on one test to make an important decision. You have to rely on multiple tests, and there are other standards that were not followed. So I think there was an improper use of testing bringing about changes, and testing was looked upon as a way to do it without having to spend vast amounts of money equalizing spending, better pay for teachers, better improvements for teachers, and it didn't work. And so, that was repealed.

So I think the governors, there were two Democrats, two Republican governors who were basically behind this. Those governors who moved into the presidency and into the Secretaryship of Education, those governors were asking the federal government, tell the states what to do in the area of education, which is quite a roundabout, because governors generally spend their time telling the federal government what not to do in states. And here these four governors, two Democrats, two Republicans, were saying that they could only go so far at the state level, they needed some national policy to help them go further, but they picked the wrong policy and the wrong instrument.

I wish there had been the same bipartisan support for trying to bring about real improvement in teacher education, trying to bring about higher pay for teachers, trying to make substantial improvements in education. These other countries, even though they have examination systems, those examination systems tend to sort out kids so that some kids are sorted out, allowed to go to college, and other kids are sorted out to go to trade school or to gain skills as a tradesmen. And so, those are sorting systems. In the United States, we don't like sorting systems, so we have not accepted tests to have that function, but I think we'll have to have another attempt at increasing state authority over education and national encouragement, better education through more comprehensive approaches.


We have an interesting problem right now in that we have, in some places it's already happening, in other places, an impending shortage of teachers, and it also coincides with a clear economic barrier and other barriers to having teachers enter the profession. And when you think about the cost of teacher education that culminates in a credential that gets somebody qualified for a starting salary, which is particularly low compared to other professions, we've got a big complicated mess on our hands. What would you say would be the first two or three steps we should be taking to improve the quality and the pipeline of good teachers?


First step I would take would be to say that changes will be made over time, and that people who are currently teachers, will maintain their jobs, unless they are shown not to be good teachers. And I hope that this would settle down the current teaching force so that they would realize that their jobs aren't going to be threatened by some legislation that is enacted within the next couple of years. But the second thing I would do, would be to improve the quality of the people who are applying to become teachers. And this will involve having to offer higher salaries to teachers, having to be clearer on how teachers make a pathway from being prepared as a teacher into the classroom, trying to gain respect for teachers. One of the biggest things driving teachers from the profession now, I think, is a lack of respect.

Teachers have told me that if they give a child a B in a class, the parents will be on the phone right away. Will send them emails, wanting to reverse that, because they want their child to go to a better college, because they want As in all the courses. And too often, the teacher changes that score in order to accommodate the parent. In my day, this was a long time ago, the parents tended to believe the teacher. Today, parents believe the child, and so they don't back the teacher. And then the child, being backed by the parents, doesn't obey the teacher or doesn't respect the teacher. And who wants to be in front of a classroom where you have kids of 11 years old, telling you you're not worth anything, telling you that they had their parents change their grades on you. And so, I think it comes down to having to recognize that we don't respect teachers today, regardless of all the malarkey that's set by polls, we don't respect teachers.

If we did, we would give them better jobs and better pay. We'd give them better working conditions, we'd give them better training. We'd make attempts to get the brightest kids into teaching, which we are not doing now. And so, I would start with some reassurance to the current teaching cohorts that they're not going to be done away with. But secondly, that it'd be a package of things, higher pay, a better transition, better teacher training and cooperation. It would be available to kids who score at the highest. There was a report that came out on international quality in teachers, and what I found was that teachers who had high verbal skills, were teachers who produced kids who are better educated. And when I proposed that to the unions, their reaction was, "Well, what about other factors that determine whether you have a good teacher, whether they want to be a teacher, whether they have empathy with kids?" And I think the attributes are important. If verbal ability is what is key factor identifying the most effective teachers, I think we should try to get people with high verbal ability into teaching.

And the kids in college who have high verbal ability can have higher grades. And so, we'd have to change the philosophy. We should say, we just don't want somebody to fill a classroom, we want the brightest people to come into teaching. And that's going to take quite a change. I wrote these two books, and then the third one that was translated. And both books, as you know Michael, I took on the teaching profession in terms of training at Colleges of Education. And I knew what I was doing, because both books have, as their natural audience, colleges of education, which would use them in courses. But I decided I had to tell the truth. And the truth is that what is there now is not adequate, and that there has to be a better way to do things, but I don't think it's going to come about naturally.

I also proposed in one of these books that the governors be the ones who convene in their state in order to try to improve their teaching profession. The unions are probably afraid of that, because half the states are controlled by Republicans, and they're afraid of the Republicans finding some way to harm the teaching profession, they'll find some way to shuffle out public education, shuffle out the teachers union, but I think it's worth the chance. What's happening now, we followed Oklahoma and other states, they're phasing out public schools. Oklahoma has given money to a Catholic network to run an internet school, and you don't have to be Catholic to sign up for that school. Some of the state legislatures have as their objective, eliminating public education in the country. And I think we have to be brave and just go and say we have to do it a better way, and we have to pay teachers more, we have to give them a better teaching environment, and we have to give them a better respect, and this will cause changes.


Let me ask you to say a word about yourself, Jack. I understand that you have recently turned your attention to other creative ventures, including writing and even for the theater. Can you tell us a little bit about that? I'm sure that many of the listeners who think they know JACK JENNINGS, might not know that you've been working on poetry and plays, too. Tell us a little bit about that.


Well, I worked for Congress for 27 years, which is highly unusual. And the reason for that was Chairmen Roman Pucinski, Carl Perkins, Gus Hawkins, and Bill Ford hired me as a chief education expert. And I was lucky, because the four had a common philosophy, which was that the federal government should have a policy to help with inequities in education, and should more broadly help people get a better education. So four different chairmen from four quite different directional districts employed me for those many years to carry out that policy. And I think that's why Title I is still in existence today as a major source of funding for disadvantaged children, trying to improve their education. And I think that's just why the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is still in existence, and why Title IX is still in existence, which prevents discrimination against women and girls in school.

All these achievements were done because there was an attempt to improve the federal role while continuing it, and an attempt to be bipartisan. And in all those years there was bipartisanship, especially with senators on the education committee. But having done all that, I’m in Chicago with Steve, my husband, we've been together 54 years. We were leading a nice life in Chicago downtown. But during the pandemic I thought, well, I should write a play, because we had bought an old house on Capitol Hill, house built in 1860, and we ran out of money to restore it. So we found, in digging out the basement ourselves, that a small cache of letters was hidden away, and that letters dealt with a woman who was having an affair with somebody, and she had to decide whether to go with him or go back home. And the story intrigued me. And so, I took the letters and used them as a basis for writing a play.

And then I wrote a poem about what it was like to be getting old, and what I've learned during the years living. I've written a short description of what's it like to live in a neighborhood, a policeman, a fireman in Chicago in the 1950s and '60s. I put it under the name of, “The Three Ps,” because Irish American kids at that time were politicians, priests, or policemen. So and the play is “Girlie.” These are all on my website, which is JackJenningsdc.com. The play was read twice, which was fascinating for me.

And one woman came up to me and said, "I wish the play could have gone on longer to find out what happened to these people." And I said, "The people were created in my mind. They're not separately living people." And she had somehow incorporated the fact that they were appearing as evidence that they were real people. So that was a compliment, and I appreciated that. But I really appreciate, Michael, this chance to have a last hurrah, be able to spout off on my views. And I followed your own career, and you've done quite well. You were very valuable to the Congress in understanding the role of testing early on, and your career has done well. So I congratulate you.


Well, it's very kind of you, Jack, and let me just say that. You are one of the great statesmen of American education, Jack, and it's a pleasure to have had this chance to talk to you on EdFix and wishing you well.

For our listeners, again, a big thank you to Jack, and if you've enjoyed this episode, you can subscribe to EdFix on Apple Podcast, Spotify, iHeartRadio, Google Podcast, other places where you listen to your podcasts. We have a website called EdFixPodcast.com and there you can see and listen to all of the previous episodes. A special thanks to our brilliant producer, engineer, and casting director Touran Waters. Thank you all and best wishes from EdFix.


Thank you again for the invitation.


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