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Education Opinion

Divided Democrats: The Two Narratives of School Reform

By Patrick McGuinn — June 18, 2010 8 min read
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Note: Pat McGuinn, a professor at Drew University, is guest-posting this week while Rick Hess is on a consulting project in the Republic of Georgia.

On Wednesday I wrote about the escalating fight between Republican Governor Christie and the teachers unions in New Jersey. Steven Brill’s NYTimes magazine piece a month ago attracted an enormous amount of attention because it described a growing rift within the Democratic Party between the teachers unions and a growing group of “reformers” over the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program. Differences between Republicans and teacher unions--and between the GOP and the Democratic Party--on education are nothing new, but the passionate disagreements between Democrats on education are a relatively new development and one with enormous import for the direction of school reform in the United States. With ESEA reauthorization discussions underway--and reports that Congressional leaders met with Secretary Duncan and White House advisors on Wednesday--the question of how this rift developed among Democratic elites thus deserves a closer look, as do the competing visions of school reform which underlay this fight. (Readers looking for more detail on the historical evolution of federal education policy and the national politics of school reform can check out my book No Child Left Behind and the Transformation of Federal Education Policy, 1965-2005. Sorry for the shameless self-promotion!)

There are two competing narratives of school reform within the Democratic Party today: one based on equity (of school resources) and another focused on accountability (for school results). (These different narratives are largely captured in the platforms of the “Broader, Bolder Approach to Education” and the “Education Equality Project,” respectively.) The first narrative sees public schools as generally well-performing and attributes poor student performance to the effects of poverty. Since schools cannot be expected to remedy educational deficits which have social or economic roots, in this view, NCLB (and the standardized testing and accountability movement more generally) are at best a waste of time and at worst dangerously counter-productive. If only teachers and schools leaders could be freed from the stifling effects of centralized bureaucratic control and test preparation--and given more resources--then they could deploy their professional expertise and first-hand knowledge of the children in their classrooms to deliver excellent and equitable education. A second version of this narrative acknowledges school failures but argues that teachers and administrators are the ones best equipped to address them.

The second narrative of school reform sees the status quo in American education as untenable, and believes that it is unlikely to change absent strong reform pressure from Washington that holds states and schools accountable for improving student performance. It believes that schools can--and must--generate dramatically improved results for poor and minority students. While this view agrees that education faces structural problems, it sees these problems as fundamentally political rather than economic. In this view, centralized testing and accountability policies are essential to changing the political dynamics around education reform--to breaking a status quo that has prevented schools from taking action to close racial and socio-economic achievement gaps despite a large increase in federal and state education spending over the past forty years. The political power of teachers unions and upper and middle class families prevents states and localities from adopting policies on behalf of poor children, and ossified bureaucratic school systems are unable or unwilling to address their own problems. The system is seen as broken in many ways, particularly in urban areas, and the purpose of the federal role is to foster/require policy change and innovation and to ensure that school leaders and teachers have meaningful incentives for success and consequences for failure.

Fundamentally, the disagreement centers on issues of governance and the appropriate role of the federal government in education. The central issue for Democrats has been how best to close persistent racial, socio-economic, and international achievement gaps in a fragmented and decentralized educational system. This is what might be called the 50/15,000/100,000 problem in American education reform--we have fifty different state education systems which collectively contain approximately 15,000 school districts and almost 100,000 schools. While the U.S. now has clear national goals in education, it lacks a national system of education within which to pursue these goals, and the federal government can only indirectly attempt to drive reform through the grant-in-aid system.

Some historical context is useful here. With the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965 during the Great Society, Democratic elites united behind an “equity paradigm” of using the federal government to provide supplemental resources to high poverty districts. Democrats remained united around this approach for about thirty years, but by the 1990s, the failure of integration and the continued persistence of achievement gaps despite large increases in education spending led many Democrats to question whether resources alone were sufficient to generate school improvement absent other reforms. They were joined in this view by the centrist Democratic Leadership Council and by anti-poverty and civil rights groups like the Education Trust and the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights. This shift helped to bring about the 1994 Improving America’s School Act, IASA, (by Democratic President Bill Clinton) and No Child Left Behind (by a Democratic Congress) which shifted the focus of federal policy from inputs (resources) to outputs (achievement).

The big increases in funding, considerable statutory discretion given to states, and soft federal implementation under IASA helped to smooth over lingering differences within the Democratic Party regarding this new federal emphasis on accountability. But the more intrusive and punitive mandates of NCLB, as well as its tough implementation by the Bush administration, brought the Democratic divide on education roaring back to surface. NCLB has brought about greater focus and data on student achievement and gaps, pushed states to address failing schools, and increased innovation. But the law has also been very controversial, appears to have had little short term positive impact on achievement, and has had a number of negative consequences on curriculum and instruction.

Adherents of the equity and accountability narratives tend to interpret the shortcomings of NCLB in ways that are strikingly different and which support their own general vision of reform. So for the equity narrative, the inability of NCLB to close achievement gaps (along with its many negative unintended consequences) demonstrates conclusively the folly of standardized testing and centralized accountability systems, as well as the need to return to a more decentralized, professionally driven education system buttressed by additional resources for families and teachers. Accountability advocates, meanwhile, tend to adopt a “mend it, don’t end it” approach and believe that one of the biggest problems with the law was that it left too much discretion in the hands of states and districts (standards, tests, cut scores, restructuring, SES and choice, highly qualified teachers) which enabled the politics of the status quo to undermine major reform. The answer here is national standards and tests that prevent the gaming of the system, along with more meaningful federal teacher and school turnaround mandates.

President Obama appears to have largely embraced an accountability paradigm, which has disappointed some Democrats who have disparagingly called his ESEA reauthorization blueprint and Race to the Top competition “Bush 2.0.” Pedero Noguera recently remarked in The Nation, for example, that Obama’s policies, “represent a disturbing continuity with the policies of the past... [and] do not reflect the change many hoped Obama would deliver.” The Obama administration’s focus on teacher accountability (through evaluation and tenure reform, merit pay, and restructuring plans that call for the firing of teachers in underperforming schools), in particular, has caused great consternation among the teachers unions who have long been one of the Democratic Party’s staunchest allies. The March dust up over the threatened firing of the entire teaching staff at underperforming Central Falls High School in Rhode Island was emblematic of the philosophical divide. The NYTimes noted at the time that “Officials at the two unions, the National Education Association and the American federation of Teachers, were so angry in the hours after Mr. Obama first endorsed the firings that an irreconcilable break with the administration seemed possible.”

Scholars and journalists covering the politics of education have tended to focus on inter-party struggles and how Republicans and Democrats have fought over their competing visions of school reform. The significant and growing intra-party divisions within the Democratic Party, however, have received less attention despite their enormous import for the future direction of education policy in this country. As the ESEA reauthorization debate begins, President Obama and Democratic Congressional leaders are working hard to reconcile the party’s two different visions of school reform, but it is important to recognize that they are in some important ways fundamentally irreconcilable. On the one hand, the growing split within the Democratic Party over school reform is disheartening since it disrupts what had been a powerful and united coalition on behalf of equity for many years. On the other hand, however, given the persistence of educational inequities during that period of intra-party unity, perhaps the disagreements will force difficult conversations to be had and alternative approaches to be considered that will ultimately advance the cause of educational equity in the U.S.

--Pat McGuinn

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.