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Bush-Obama School Reform: Lessons Learned

By Rick Hess — January 17, 2018 3 min read
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Yesterday at AEI, along with my friend and colleague Mike McShane, I hosted a conference on “Bush-Obama School Reform: Lessons Learned.” The papers that were presented examined an array of issues, including lessons learned on accountability, standards, school turnarounds, teacher quality, research, state capacity, and more. You can check out the summary, read the papers, and watch the various sessions here, and keep an eye out for the final product—which will be out as a book from Harvard Education Press next fall.

In any event, after spending a day noodling on the subject, I thought I’d share a few takeaways.

I was struck how comfortable most in attendance seemed to be with the notion that “Bush-Obama school reform” was something of a unified whole. McShane and I had wondered if it might go the other way, with participants or attendees insisting that Bush and Obama reflected two very different approaches to school reform. After all, when thinking back on these administrations, they’re generally regarded as being pretty far apart on a range of issues. But there seemed to be a broad consensus, for good and ill, that much of what Bush did in the NCLB era set the table for Obama’s efforts, and that Obama’s efforts built pretty seamlessly on what Bush had previously done.

I also found it illuminating to see how different scholars viewed the lessons and the track record of the Bush-Obama years. Some, like CRPE’s Ashley Jochim, Brookings’ Tom Loveless, and the University of Oklahoma’s Deven Carlson offered largely cautionary takes regarding both ambitious reform agendas and federal efforts to support them. Meanwhile, others, like Brown University’s Matt Kraft and North Carolina State’s Anna Egalite, were more upbeat about the legacies of federal efforts to boost teacher quality and support charter schooling.

In surveying what we’ve learned about school accountability, which seems to be remembered as the defining legacy of the Bush-Obama era, Oklahoma’s Carlson offered up a series of takeaways. First off, he argued that accountability clearly increased test scores in reading and math, and that “no fair reading of the literature” can deny that. That said, due to test prep and other kinds of manipulation, “achievement increases may not correspond to actual learning gains” and “reading and math gains came at the expense of instruction in other subjects.” At the policy design level, he said that schools responded to accountability in unintended and unproductive ways, frequently focusing on proficiency thresholds and “bubble” kids rather than system improvement. Carlson suggested that all of this was fueled by unrealistic expectations and goals. Given ongoing disagreement over the purpose of schooling, it’s always going to be a challenge devising accountability systems that are sustainable and broadly supported.

Reflecting on Carlson’s observations and two related papers, College Board’s Stefanie Sanford observed, “The theme here is that people like standards and accountability . . . until they don’t.” She explained that some kind of accountability seems necessary, if only to ensure that public money will be well-spent. Everyone tends to agree on this in the abstract, but the “worldviews of the left, right, and educators collide” as things get more specific and practical. She reflected that, when looking back, reformers turned to “the last refuge of policy scoundrels: insisting, ‘The theory was right, it was just the details of implementation that went wrong.’”

Anyway, I’m still ruminating on what I read and what was said. If you’re interested in checking it out for yourself, you can find the papers, the panels, and the closing keynote by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos here.

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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