Education Opinion

A Time for Mobilization and Fresh Ideas

By Arthur E. Levine — January 04, 2005 4 min read
As the president enters his second term, the education agenda for the nation is in flux and likely to change substantially.

The education centerpiece of President Bush’s first term was the No Child Left Behind Act, which focused on raising student achievement by establishing high standards, testing, and school system accountability. As the president enters his second term, the education agenda for the nation is in flux and likely to change substantially. There are three reasons for this.

First, the future of the No Child Left Behind law itself is uncertain. The bipartisan legislative coalition that passed it has splintered. Democrats are demanding greater funding and provision for special education. Republicans are championing vouchers, privatization, and choice. And at the state and local levels, there’s open revolt against the federal law’s unfunded—and often unrealistic—goals for improvement and accountability.

Lawsuits over the legislation’s testing provisions are being pressed by parents, particularly in affluent communities, challenging the validity and reliability of high-stakes testing. State legislatures, unhappy with the law’s requirements, are threatening to defy provisions of it or refuse the Title I funding tied to meeting the law’s requirements. This is particularly true of the red (Republican) states: In Utah, for example, legislators have threatened to bolt from the program and forgo over $100 million in federal funds.

States and school systems are likely to increase their demands to postpone achieving No Child Left Behind requirements as the due dates approach for schools to establish faculties composed entirely of “highly qualified” teachers, ensure that all their children have met yearly standards for improvement, and—in the case of failing schools—offer students the ability to transfer.

Second, education will diminish as a priority. A September Washington Post poll found that education had moved from the first or second priority of Americans in 2000 to the fifth in 2004, trailing terrorism, the economy, health care, and the war in Iraq.

This is in part a matter of demographics. Baby boomers put education on the national agenda in the 1970s and ’80s because they wanted quality schools for their children. Making up nearly 60 percent of the electorate, they demanded that every candidate for office, from dogcatcher to president, have an education platform. That made education a federal as well as a state issue.

But the baby boomers have changed their priorities as their children have aged. Today they are more concerned with their parents, who are living longer and failing in health. Their focus is now increasingly on government provision of elder care, health coverage, and Social Security. The boomers’ concern with these issues will only grow as they themselves begin to retire in five years. Given the size of the boomer cohort, politicians at every level of government can be expected to respond with alacrity.

Third, the Bush education agenda is likely to become more conservative, incorporating items varying from sexual-abstinence education, heterosexual-marriage education, and more stringent accountability measures for higher education, to experiments in vouchers, common standards for state tests, and increased aid to religious schools.

These developments mirror change on a broader scale. As America makes the transition from a national industrial to a global information economy, everything appears to be in flux—family, jobs, safety, relationships with the rest of the world, and even biology. With the new world still inchoate, it is far easier to see what is being lost than what is coming into being.

It is up to us to keep education on the national agenda; to move the country forward with a new vision of what our schools can be; and to offer new policies rather than cling to the past.

In this era, the Republican Party has chosen to be the protector of the old world: the champion of its values, its institutions, and its way of life. Big majorities of those who found the salient election issues to be what was being lost—moral values (79 percent) and safety from terrorism (86 percent)—voted for President Bush.

In contrast, the Democratic Party has tried, for the most part without success, to straddle both the old world and the new. In attempting to create a big tent that can hold a diverse population with conflicting beliefs and goals, the Democrats have failed to clearly articulate their agenda, cobbling together a cornucopia of diffuse and familiar policies in education and other areas.

Essentially, the Democrats have adopted a posture of dissent from the Bush education agenda, rather than offering an agenda of their own designed to appeal to those seeking to speed the creation of a new world. With this orientation, it is unlikely they will be able to create an education platform that paints a compelling vision of tomorrow, protects Americans and the institutions we value as the country continues to change, points out the costs of failure to adapt, and offers the policies that will enable the country to benefit from change.

This means the education community has to mobilize. We need to stop merely reacting to government policy as we have since the 1983 publication of A Nation at Risk that launched a 20-year school improvement movement. Now it is up to us to keep education on the national agenda; to move the country forward with a new vision of what our schools can be; and to offer new policies rather than cling to the past.

This requires convening the most important leaders and best thinkers in education to craft a progressive education agenda for the nation. This could be an intensive effort like the World War II-era Manhattan Project, or a more permanently established education think-tank. It’s a task that the major foundations with interests in education, such as Annenberg, Carnegie, Ford, Gates, Spencer, and Wallace, should undertake—preferably together. They should view this not as a political act, but as an opportunity to fuel and maintain an open national debate about the future of education in America.

Of course there are risks in putting new ideas before the public. But the bigger risk—for our children, and for the future of the country—is to advance no new ideas at all.

A version of this article appeared in the January 05, 2005 edition of Education Week as A Time for Mobilization and Fresh Ideas