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Rick Hess Straight Up

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

Make Education Reform Great Again!

By Guest Blogger — August 01, 2016 5 min read
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Note: Our guest-blogger this week will be Max Eden, a senior fellow of education policy at the Manhattan Institute.

Hey everyone! And thanks, Rick, for giving me the opportunity to guest blog here at RHSU.

As longtime readers with especially sharp memories may recall, about this time three years ago I was helping Rick out behind the scenes with this blog. I count myself incredibly fortunate to have begun my career as a research assistant under his tutelage, and after spending a few years working with and learning from Rick at the American Enterprise Institute, I hopped over to the Manhattan Institute to be a senior fellow focusing on education policy.

This week, I want to make the case that education reform has gotten off track and that part of the reason why is a tendency toward a party-line take on questions that actually deserve more scrutiny. I’d also like to offer a few arguments that might be a bit controversial, and hopefully spark a more open and productive debate.

The case that education reform has gotten off track is a pretty easy one. You don’t have to look much further than the 2016 Republican and Democratic platforms to see that there’s been a bipartisan repudiation of the bipartisan reform consensus of four short years ago.

The folks who drafted the 2016 Republican platform kept a lot of the same text from the old one, which makes the differences all the easier to spot and apprehend. Republicans are sticking to their principles on local control and choice and competition, but have backpedaled from areas of bipartisan agreement on subjects such as standards, data collection, and the economic case for education reform.

In 2012, the platform called for “a world-class system of education, with high standards ... [and] accountability at every level of schooling.” In 2016, it encourages and congratulates efforts to repeal the Common Core. There is also firm resistance to the role of the federal government in collecting data, especially “social and emotional data,” which, when done without parental consent, is “wholly incompatible with the American Experiment and our inalienable rights.” The business community is no longer in the Republican Party’s driver’s seat on education. The 2016 platform affirms the truth that all men are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, a truth that “rejects the dark view of the individual as human capital —a possession for the creation of another’s wealth.”

The Democratic platform saw a more wholesale revision. Obama had made K-12 education reform a key initiative of his presidency. (And, for the record, those who thought conservatives were crazy for thinking that the Common Core was an Obama initiative should review the 2012 platform, which stated that the “President challenged and encouraged states to raise their standards so students graduate ready for college or career and can succeed in a dynamic global economy. Forty-six states responded, leading groundbreaking reforms...”)

But in 2016, K-12 education is almost literally an afterthought. The section headers on the Democratic education platform read, “Making Debt-Free College a Reality,” “Providing Relief from Crushing Student Debt,” “Supporting Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Minority-Serving Institutions,” “Cracking Down on Predatory For-Profit Schools,” and “Guaranteeing Universal Preschool and Good Schools for Every Child” (emphasis added).

In 2012, charter schools were listed casually as one of many approaches to improving education; now, they are only good if they are “democratically governed,” “high quality,” “don’t destabilize” local schools, and “reflect their communities” by containing “proportionate numbers of students of color” and are subject to increased, “accountability.” The center of gravity on education has clearly shifted from the Democrats for Education Reform camp to the teachers’ unions within the Democratic party.

Why the evaporated consensus? I’d proffer two reasons.

First, it was an inevitable reaction to the concentration of power in Washington, DC. The more power the Department of Education assumed, the more formerly local questions became national issues. Parents and teachers rightfully felt that they had less voice, which made formerly concrete and civil debates more abstract and toxic.

Second, it’s a byproduct of an increasingly intellectually insular reform movement, which Rick says, “bears an eerie resemblance to the education schools that [he] fled long ago, including a stifling orthodoxy so ingrained that it’s invisible to its adherents.”

To make the invisible visible here, consider this story: When Robert Pondiscio penned a blog cautioning against a tendency toward ideologically charged groupthink amongst education reformers, hundreds upon hundreds of reformers signed an “open letter,” all swearing that groupthink was emphatically not a problem.

Cracking open this intellectual insularity is not only important for the future political prospects of education reform, but also because, as Rick noted, “exploring substantive differences is good, healthy, and important, and makes for smarter decisions about policy and practice.”

But some education reformers place less value in exploring substantive differences. Indeed, these days if you pen a profile of a struggling charter school to raise the question of potential unintended consequences of stricter charter accountability, the president of the National Alliance for Charter School Authorizers is liable to post a response the next day insisting that it’s not a legitimate topic for discussion.

A healthy movement doesn’t fear debate; it not only welcomes questions but is genuinely open to persuasion. A lot of education reformers seem quite sure that they are fighting for social justice. Yet as Socrates taught us 2,500 years ago, real political debate doesn’t start with the assumption that you know what justice is, but rather with the admission that just maybe you don’t.

So the order of business for this week is to question some common assumptions. I’ll explore a new approach to charter school accountability, argue against federal pre-K expansion, defend school suspensions, and sketch out an education reform agenda that starts with the premise that All Kids Matter.

Hopefully it will spark a little controversy. Better yet, a more open, good-faith debate on important questions in education policy.

--Max Eden

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.