Federal Commentary

What Lies Beyond the Sound Bites?

By Bruce Fuller — October 18, 2000 13 min read
The candidates pelt us with rapid-fire rhetorical nuggets on how they will fix the public schools.

I recently sat with scores of parents in the nearby high school gym, calmly absorbing the ideals put forward by the energetic principal and the PTA president. Then, the bell rang. We jumped to our feet and quickly loped to our child’s first class. For the next 105 minutes, we were herded through seven different classes, instantly becoming acquainted with each teacher. Getting to know them on a lock-step schedule.

These anxious teachers had precisely 10 minutes to speak to us in sound bites, rapidly articulating a learning theory or simply marching through the tidy curriculum units. One brave parent tried to get off the script, urging a young teacher to move beyond her canned didactics. But that ear-splitting bell rudely interrupted. In unison, we awkwardly lifted our 30- and 40-something bodies from those metal, Formica-topped desks. The hurried cattle drive swept us toward the next class.

As the presidential campaign builds to a feverish pitch, I’m reminded of my frustrating back-to-school night. The candidates, Gov. George W. Bush of Texas and Vice President Al Gore, pelt us with rapid-fire rhetorical nuggets on how they will fix the public schools. From the morning paper to the evening news, we are awash in photo-ops and slogans aimed at convincing us that the Bush-Cheney or the Gore-Lieberman ticket will lift the spirits and the efficacy of our schools.

Yet many educators, having lived through successive generations of policy talk, are skeptical of whether much of substance lies behind all the rhetoric. Others scratch their heads, asking whether the candidates’ myriad policy ideas, if set in motion after the election, would really touch the daily lives of teachers and children.

When we look beyond the symbolism and one-liners, Gov. Bush and Vice President Gore are, in fact, putting forward an unprecedented array of specific policies and costly programs. At times, they echo one another, especially as they both push for stronger state-led accountability. But from this common intersection on the policy map, they would lead us down divergent roads to reform.

The Diagnosis: What’s the Problem? Who’s To Blame?

Politicians avoid harshly pinning blame on anyone, especially when their victory may hinge on attracting suburban moderates and working-class parents. And it’s politically costly to identify a villain or define a problem that voters don’t really believe exists: Witness Mr. Bush’s recent silence on school voucher initiatives in California and Michigan. It turns out, according to recent polls, that most suburban parents actually like their local schools, while remaining deeply worried about the education system overall.

Something has gone awry with public education in our generation. So, Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore must hang their policy remedies on some conception of the problem, the alleged causes for why, and at whose hands, the public schools are failing.

Gov. Bush fingers two culprits in his diagnosis. Speaking to a New Hampshire business group earlier this year, he emphasized, “My plan lifts the burden of bureaucracy and gives states unprecedented freedom in spending federal education dollars.” And in South Carolina last February, he declared, “A president is not a federal [school] principal.”

For the Texas governor, there’s also the moral bedrock that seems to be crumbling beneath the public schools. He believes in “opportunity for all Americans, rich and poor, black and white, born and unborn.” Nothing subliminal about this message. Last November, he underscored his belief that the mores of the 1960s continue to corrupt the school’s educational mission: “Values were clarified, not taught. Students were given moral puzzles, not moral guidance. But morality is not a cafeteria of personal choices—with every choice equally right and equally arbitrary.”

According to Mr. Bush, the problem is not simply one of governance: It’s the social decay that has weakened the moral fiber of teachers and kids.

According to Mr. Bush, the problem is not simply one of governance: It’s this social decay that has weakened the moral fiber of teachers and kids.

Vice President Gore, in contrast, frames the problem in economic and mechanical terms. It’s an organizational analysis, not a human-scale account of the schools’ uneven performance. The only hint of laying blame on anyone’s doorstep is Mr. Gore’s impatience with “failing schools.” States would be required to first identify lousy schools, then demand results and award them new resources. This, according to the vice president’s “Education Blue Book,” a cute, yet remarkably detailed, blueprint for reform.

There are few sharp edges in Mr. Gore’s diagnostics. It’s difficult to discern who is to blame for why children’s learning curves have failed to rise over the past decade in all but a few states. Beyond weak accountability and not enough money, the schools (and the communities around them) apparently suffer few other constraints. While the roots of schools’ problems remain hidden in the snow, Mr. Gore would hang weighty ornaments on a Christmas tree of policy remedies and new programs.

Motivating Teachers: Strong Accountability
Without an Activist Government?

Reading Mr. Gore’s education speeches and detailed proposals, one must conclude that his rendition of accountability necessitates a more activist government, providing fresh dollars and clear incentives to states that toughen standards and raise student achievement. Yet, stopping in Middletown, Ohio, in late summer, during his road trip on a yellow school bus, Mr. Gore declared that “Governor Bush and I agree that the policies and the decisionmaking should stay at the local level, and both of us believe that there should be accountability—new accountability to encourage better performance.”

One problem with this schizophrenic view of school governance is that decisionmaking in many crucial areas—from curriculum, to a narrowing range of textbooks, class size, and testing—has not rested with local school boards since the early 1980s. Their discretion has shrunk dramatically over the past decade as impatient governors, Democrat and Republican alike, have pushed state-authored curricula, merit-based performance awards, summer school for low- performing students, and a sharp expansion of preschooling. Those governors include Mr. Bush, whose World Wide Web site spends two screens enumerating the centralized actions he has taken in Texas to improve student performance. In California, almost half of all state spending is now attached to state mandates and categorical programs. School boards oversee the other half, but it’s tied up in salaries and facilities.

A blurred conception of school governance also surfaces when both candidates argue from one corner of their mouths that centralization to state capitals, the driving force behind standards and accountability measures, will boost student achievement—then, from the other corner, claim that the panacea rests in parental choice and market remedies. This contradiction is most stark in Gov. Bush’s reform strategy.

The Texas governor is pushing a complicated scheme whereby Washington would require states to test kids in grades 3-8 who participate in the federal Title I program. Washington also would require principals, under the Bush plan, to collect racial and family-income data on every child that would be folded into each school’s annual report card. If a school failed to raise pupil performance over three years, its Title I dollars would be converted into portable vouchers. This resembles what his brother, Gov. Jeb Bush, is trying in Florida. But the mixed strategy could create a tempting incentive for schools to export their low achievers to private schools in order to raise their test scores and reap state-level merit awards.

On school choice, Mr. Gore long ago hitched his wagon to the charter school star, despite a growing controversy over whether school boards are really demanding achievement results. Mr. Gore would triple the number of “publicly accountable” charter schools with grant dollars; Mr. Bush would expand charter schools with $3 billion in loans. But neither candidate is advocating the same level of accountability for charter schools that they both urge for public schools.

Two bigger holes are apparent in the candidates’ narrow emphasis on state-led accountability. First, how do these centralized remedies motivate teachers to become more effective, or to innovate in promising ways? Second, does the intensifying push for more testing and accountability spark new forms of parent and civic participation, or seal off the school from the wider community?

Vice President Gore and his advisers do recognize the importance of greater professionalization: “We should treat teachers like the professionals they are,” Mr. Gore says. “We should pay teachers like the professionals they are.”

Vice President Gore argues that accountability without improvements in teachers’ workplaces will do little to raise their pedagogical skills or enhance their feeling of efficacy.

He argues that accountability without improvements in teachers’ workplaces will do little to raise their pedagogical skills or enhance their feeling of efficacy. “The difference [between the Bush blueprint and ours] is that the plan Joe Lieberman and I are putting forward starts with accountability, but it doesn’t end there,” the vice president says. “What we’re proposing is a comprehensive approach that focuses first on the classroom, to reduce class size.”

The 10-year, $115 billion package that Mr. Gore has put forward contains a host of new initiatives that could eventually reach teachers and improve their work lives; “investment and accountability go hand in hand,” he emphasizes. The Democratic candidate’s ambitious programs would help states further reduce class size, boost teacher salaries, especially for mentor teachers, and spur the development of small schools.

But in another fit of contradictory policy directions, Mr. Gore would train 100,000 new teachers and, at the same time, raise testing and credentialing requirements for the new recruits. How those two steps could be taken simultaneously is a mystery to state-level officials. And it ignores the widening gap in teacher-salary levels between rich and poor districts, a disparity that is fueling mass migration of good teachers from the inner city to affluent suburbs. Here we see the vice president hanging more costly ornaments on the Christmas tree without a sober look at structural inequalities that exacerbate the achievement gap.

The second drawback of the candidates’ centralizing tendencies is the question of how state-led accountability measures would encourage richer participation in the school community by parents, teachers, and grassroots activists. Such effects on democratic participation must be gauged as government redoubles its efforts to dictate what teachers teach, how they teach, and how children’s learning is measured. Early signs from California, North Carolina, and Texas suggest that state-led accountability may well raise test scores. But will it lock out civic actors as they come to conclude that school reform is simply a mechanical process, manipulated from the state capital?

Mr. Bush talks much about “local control,” but this is a story about the workings of district school boards, which often simply guide rule-bound school bureaucracies, as the political right likes to reminds us. On the civic-activism issue, Republican vice presidential candidate Richard B. Cheney’s recent explanation for why he has rarely voted in Texas elections seriously zapped the ticket’s credibility: “Go look at the elections in Texas, [there are] an awful lot of these local issues, that Highland Park school board issue, those kinds of things.” As for Mr. Gore, his centralized version of accountability eclipses any inspiring ideas on how to nurture greater involvement of parents and civic leaders in their neighborhood schools as the locus of reform moves upward to state capitals and Washington.

The Learning Gap: Can Schools Alone Reduce Inequality?

Maybe the most vivid contrast between the Bush and Gore platforms is in how they situate the institution of school within the broader issues of family poverty and middle-class opportunity in America. Gov. Bush has been hitting hard on the achievement gap between blacks and whites shown in scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a disparity that has not closed appreciably over the life of the Clinton administration. One recent salvo from the Bush press office emphasized that 68 percent of black 4th graders still score below the minimum-proficiency benchmark set by NAEP: “Clinton-Gore failed to boost student test scores.”

Maybe the most vivid contrast between the Bush and Gore platforms is in how they situate the institution of school within the broader issues of family poverty and middle-class opportunity in America.

But, to be fair, Mr. Bush’s fellow Republicans in Congress have slowed Mr. Clinton’s repeated attempts to invest more in education.

Gov. Bush has recognized the potential of child-care and early-education programs to raise children’s early reading and social skills. In 1990, his father approved the first national child-care program since World War II. The younger Bush would modestly increase support for after-school programs, emphasizing that “faith- based organizations” could run these expanded neighborhood efforts. He also would require federally funded child-care and preschool programs, including Head Start, to adopt a “core curriculum,” stressing reading.

Yet the vice president trumped him early in the campaign by proposing universal access to preschooling for all 4-year-olds and some 3-year-olds over the coming decade. Exactly how preschools could expand markedly in urban areas, where new space is expensive and qualified teachers are increasingly scarce, remains an unanswered question.

Reaching further, the vice president leads off his education blue book by asserting that “quality education for all is our best anti-poverty program.” But we know that even with incremental gains in school quality, children from poor families begin school already behind, lagging a full grade level in reading by as early as the 2nd grade. Other senior administration officials have disagreed with Mr. Gore’s hopeful claim about the magic of schools. Tax, wage, and welfare policies can do far more to lift families out of poverty, or leave them below the line, and we know that the consequences of poverty are telling on children’s early development and later school success.

To Mr. Gore’s credit, his economic plan ups the ante on President Clinton’s antipoverty strategy to “make work pay,” expanding tax credits for parents who stay off welfare and providing child-care and preschool programs to sustain employability. While President Clinton’s ending of welfare (as we knew it) has succeeded in shrinking the welfare rolls, it has also tossed at least 1 million toddlers into day care of questionable quality. Here, too, Mr. Gore steps up, advocating $2 billion annually to improve child-care quality. Mr. Bush’s economic strategy provides a sharp contrast, offering a program of tax relief that would lift the burden of paying any federal income taxes from a portion of the extremely poor, but would mainly benefit families with annual incomes of $185,000 or more..

Educators should care about these broader policies: Over time, they may bring to our schools young children who are better prepared and parents who are freed a bit to better nurture their kids’ learning.

In short, the fine print matters a lot in judging the two candidates. So we should get beyond the photo captions and the sound bites and give careful thought to which wave of school reform we prefer to ride.

Bruce Fuller is a professor of education and public policy at the University of California, Berkeley. His book Inside Charter Schools: The Paradox of Radical Decentralization will be published next month by Harvard University Press.

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