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Education Opinion

The Democratic Platform: More of a Victory for Reformers Than It Seems

By Douglas N. Harris — July 25, 2016 8 min read
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It’s convention time for both the Democratic and Republican parties, and I’ll take turns discussing their education platforms. Several people I’ve consulted on this have pointed out that platforms aren’t that important and that the nominees ignore them. That’s true, but they are useful windows into the current status of political debates and harbingers of compromises to come.

I’ll start with Democrats. Full disclosure: I am a long-time Democrat and supporter of Hillary Clinton, though any regular reader of my columns and other work knows that I don’t toe the party line. Also, since the Democratic platform isn’t finalized, I’m working off the draft in Valerie Strauss’ Washington Post article.

Four things stand out to me:

(1) In many ways, the Democratic platform basically follows the two-decade-old Washington Consensus on school-level standards and accountability--with some useful course corrections. The platform reads: “We will hold schools, districts, communities, and states accountable for raising achievement levels for all students.” The school piece of this has been a staple of deferral policy for decades, so nothing new there. The reference to “communities” reinforces the reality that student outcomes are heavily driven by non-school factors. This, along with the reference to districts and states, is intended to share responsibility more broadly so that educators on the front lines don’t take all the blame when things go wrong (or all the praise when things go right). That strikes me as reasonable even if community and state accountability will almost certainly never become concrete policies.

The platform also wisely mentions “multiple measures.” This is perfectly consistent with the idea of strong accountability. We expect a lot from schools. If the measures of performance don’t reflect that, then accountability will fail.

The broadening of school goals is also reflected in the references to discipline and restorative justice. That too makes sense. Incarceration rates, especially for black males, are at crisis levels, and there is a real need for attention to this at the school level. Data from the U.S. Department of Education shows huge numbers of schools with police officers but no counselors.

(2) The specific combination of support for accountability and opposition to testing made in the platform makes no sense. First, there is the blanket criticism of testing: “We oppose high-stakes standardized tests that falsely and unfairly label students of color, students with disabilities and English Language Learners as failing.” Then there is the opt-out provision: “We also support enabling parents to opt their children out of standardized tests without penalty for either the student or their school.”

You can’t hold anyone “accountable for raising achievement levels” if students don’t take some measure of achievement. Without that, we couldn’t measure the “achievement gaps” that the platform elsewhere expresses concern about. Supporting accountability while opposing testing doesn’t make sense without also proposing alternative measures or methods, which are completely absent.

(3) The platform signals an almost complete reversal of the last decade of teacher evaluation and accountability. The above quote on accountability doesn’t mention educators at all, and elsewhere it reads: “We oppose . . . the use of standardized test scores as basis for refusing to fund schools or to close schools, and the use of student test scores in teacher and principal evaluations.” Almost none of the recent teacher accountability systems rely solely on student test scores. In most cases, classroom observations and other measures represent a clear majority of the evaluation. Nevertheless, the antipathy for value-added is understandable and deep-seated, and this has become a major distraction from the larger goal of effective evaluation and accountability. I have argued for a lesser focus on teacher value-added and even more so principal value-added for some time.

It’s unfortunate, though, that the platform writers didn’t couple their opposition to teacher value-added with an affirmation of teacher evaluation and accountability generally. To their credit, teacher unions have long complained about the lack of feedback teachers receive. They also talk a lot about due process based on performance, which requires effective evaluation. Where do we stand on this fundamental issue of teacher evaluation? The platform is silent.

Reading further in the platform draft, we see themes of recruiting high-quality teachers, professional development and capacity-building, reinforcing the shift away from teacher accountability. Those are good themes, though capacity and accountability shouldn’t be viewed as opponents. On the contrary, they are complementary. We need both.

(4) The shift in charter language is interesting, though not nearly as negative as charter advocates have suggested. “Democrats are also committed to providing parents with high-quality public school options and expanding these options for low-income youth. We support democratically governed great neighborhood public schools and high-quality public charter schools.” This statement is positive and affirms charter schools.

As charter advocates have been quick to point out, the messages are not all positive: “We believe that high quality public charter schools should provide options for parents, but should not replace or destabilize traditional public schools.” This is perhaps the most interesting quote because it opposes something that few charter leaders ever thought possible. The original idea was that charters would create some degree of choice and competition, allow some schools more autonomy, facilitate innovation and diversify options. “Replacing” traditional public schools was almost never part of the conversation. Yet, this is exactly what is happening in New Orleans, Detroit, and some other cities (albeit to very different effect), so it’s no surprise that the platform writers are drawing this line in the sand.

The concern that charters might “destabilize” traditional public schools is interesting because destabilization is part of the point for charter advocates--that is, part of the charter argument is that school districts need to be shaken up to do a better job. But I think the main intent here is to avoid sending traditional school districts into a death spiral where funding declines so quickly that even a strong leadership team would not be able to provide a quality education in the remaining district schools. The boundaries on this are unclear. Where does putting pressure on public schools end and “destabilizing” begin? I’m not sure, but they are writing a platform, not a legal brief, so it’s a reasonable point.

“Charter schools must reflect their communities, and thus must accept and retain proportionate numbers of students of color, students with disabilities and English Language Learners in relation to their neighborhood public schools.” Hillary Clinton had commented on this previously, after the “got to go list” controversy at Success Academy. Here, the platform writers did not go far enough. Most neighborhoods are so segregated that “reflect their communities” just means more segregation. It’s a low bar. More charter schools should pursue integration.

Finally, the latest draft adds “democratically elected” to the language describing traditional public schools. See my earlier post on this where I argue that charter schools have to have less democratic governance than traditional public schools if they are going to have the autonomy and performance-based accountability that define charter schools. This doesn’t mean no democratic accountability, just less.

There is more to the platform. For example, it affirms school choice (“providing parents with high-quality public school options and expanding these options for low-income youth”) and doesn’t mention the words vouchers, teacher tenure, bargaining, or union. I’m a bit surprised by the omission of vouchers, given the grand compromise where teacher unions go along with support for charters so long as Democratic opposition to vouchers continues. Also, the recent evidence on vouchers has been negative, and this would have drawn more attention to those studies.

I am not surprised that the teacher unions seem happy with the platform--they have taken a beating for at least the last 16 years. Any move in their direction will feel like, as Randi Weingarten put it, a “sea change.” At the same time, there are no real policy victories for them in here. You don’t win policy debates by throwing bricks alone. You also have to use bricks to build new policy ideas, and that’s what’s missing here. Maybe this is the first step and some new policy ideas are coming, but I’m not so sure. The unions have struggled for the past two decades to rally around ideas that are politically feasible.

It is also easy to see why Democrats for Education Reform isn’t happy with the revised platform. The bricks are being thrown at them. But the platform does affirm school choice and provides reasonably nuanced support for charter schools, as well. It also includes some things I wish the reformers more actively supported like multiple measures and doesn’t include any ideas that could reasonably replace the existing reform approach. The reform building is standing in tact.

All the signs here still point in one direction. The reform movement will slow down a little, but there are still no signs yet of a reversal.

Douglas N. Harris is professor of economics, the Schleider Foundation Chair in Public Education, and founder and Director of the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans.

You can follow him on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in Urban Education: Lessons From New Orleans 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.