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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Back With a Full Dose of Distemper

By Rick Hess — May 06, 2013 4 min read
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Hidy all. Well, I’m back. I’d like to offer a big thanks to all the terrific folks who stepped in while I was off sabbaticalizing. (Not that it involved many thrills--mostly lots of talks about cage-busting, a big dose of AERA and the NewSchools Venture Fund summit, and such much... apologies to Casablanca).

Now, most writers write from a place of compassion and love, or wit and wisdom. As you all know, that’s not really my bag. Me? I mostly write from a place of distemper and disgruntlement. Happily, time away from RHSU has led to an invigorating buildup of frustration and bile. Anyway, sitting down to write RHSU for the first time in a couple months, I had two thoughts. First, I hope you’ll forgive the rust. Second, I found myself inclined to opine on a few recent developments that have consistently merited mention during my travels. In no particular order:

Federal Research Funds Used to Proselytize for More Edu-Spending. Going out of its way to politicize its federally supported work, the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers used its April release of its “The State of Preschool 2012 Yearbook” to demand more pre-K spending. NIEER’s press release billed a modest national decline in 2011-12 pre-K spending as “devastating” and -- name-checking President Obama in the process -- kvetched that, “even as states emerge from the recession, pre-K continues to suffer.” Maybe it’s just me, but I think NIEER’s job is to conduct and disseminate research on how to improve pre-K -- not to wade into political debates about spending levels, much less flack for a president’s agenda.

Duncan Announces, “All That ‘New Normal’ Stuff I Said? Well, I Lied.” Three years ago, in fall 2010, our earnest Secretary of Education announced that a “new normal” had come to education spending, and that schools and systems had to spend smarter. This spring, that same lovable goof tripped all over himself arguing the President’s case that trimming two percent of the federal budget will ring in the end times. Duncan started yammering on national TV about slews of teachers getting pink-slipped and the districts being crushed by a reduction of one percent in their total outlays. Unfortunately, he appeared to have made up his facts whole-cloth, managing to get the dreaded “Four Pinocchios” from the Washington Post’s fact checker (no mean feat for an Obama administration official). Overlooked was how completely Duncan had abandoned any pretense of believing that schools have to get more bang for the buck. Instead, he made it clear that the “new new normal” is all about “more.” Period.

DFER Decides That McCarthyite Tactics Are Just Swell. In a development that highlighted just how poorly equipped Common Core proponents are to argue their case, Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) launched a (blessedly short-lived) campaign to woo Democrats skeptical of the Common Core by warning that they’d wind up allying with, yuck, conservatives. DFER operative Larry Grau wrote, “Dear Fellow Democrats: It’s growing late and some of us have spent the night canoodling with far-right opponents of the Common Core State Standards...It’s time you ask yourself this question: “Am I going to hate myself for this in the morning?” In a series of e-mails, Grau revealed that Republican Indiana state senator Scott Schneider opposes state funding for Planned Parenthood and that Heather Cross (founder of Hoosiers Against the Common Core) once worked for Republican U.S. Congressman Dan Burton. (Grau offered many more such bombshells). Now, I’m neither a Common Core enthusiast nor a Democrat, and even I can think of much better reasons than that as to why Dems should embrace the Core. So long as proponents would rather belittle their critics than address serious questions, they shouldn’t be surprised that their push is taking on water.

AERA Reminds Everyone Why Ed Researchers Get So Little Respect. This was going to be the American Educational Research Association’s lucky year. I was on sabbatical, so I skipped my annual, “Man, this is what passes for ed research?” column. And, while AERA weighed in with a highly politicized amicus brief in the Supreme Court’s Fisher case, at least the AERA leadership offered a reasoned and delimited defense of its decision in Educational Researcher. Yet, just when I was about to cut AERA some slack, the nation’s proud edu-professoriate went out of its way to embarrass itself. Having asked Secretary Duncan to come address AERA, the assembled faculty behaved like a bunch of wannabe Occupy Wall Streeters. They waved banners reading, “Not In Our Name” (I have no idea what that meant). They booed Duncan. They called him a war criminal. They accused this guy of being disinterested in poverty. (Whatever his shortcomings, that’s not one of them). Well, there are just desserts. AERA managed to infuriate and offend key allies at the Department of Education. Whoops.

John Merrow Reminds Me of a Dumped Sophomore Obsessing Over His Ex-Girlfriend. Journalist John Merrow spent the first year or so of Michelle Rhee’s tenure as chancellor in Washington D.C. slobbering all over her, in a fairly gross display of puppy love. He ran a ludicrous number of stories lionizing her, prompting some of us to think, “Dude, chill out.” Somewhere along the line, Merrow got disenchanted. He’s has now gone on a frenetic kick to figure out whether Rhee moved aggressively enough to investigate possible cheating incidents that occurred during the Bush years. He’s written long treatises on five-year-old DCPS memos and dragged other journos into his pursuit. It’s a legitimate question and Rhee’s prominence means the whole thing is not purely a matter of historical interest. That said, I’d have a whole lot more faith in Merrow’s motivation and judgment if he wasn’t wheeling so hormonally from one extreme to another.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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