Opinion
Federal Commentary

Where Is Education in the 2008 Election?

By David S. Seeley — January 07, 2008 7 min read

So far, there has been little serious discussion of public education in the 2008 presidential campaigns. Maybe it’s just as well. Elections are not famous for developing bipartisan spirit, and that is what is needed for the substantial changes still required in American education. Cooperation between the parties is not required for all issues, but Americans of all parties, creeds, and backgrounds need to have confidence in their public schools.

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There has, of course, been some discussion of the federal No Child Left Behind Act on the campaign trail. But most of it has consisted of little more than partisan jousting over whether President Bush should be praised or blamed for the program. People seem to forget that the No Child Left Behind legislation was developed and adopted with strong bipartisan support. The current, politically polarized debate obscures both the valuable aspects of that law and its most serious defects.

But NCLB—now marking its sixth anniversary—is not the real issue. The most important challenge facing public education today involves its systemic reform, and this need not be a partisan matter. The basic premise is that our more than century-old public education system is obsolete and in need of fundamental redesign, not just the piling of new programs and demands on top of an inadequate system never designed to produce the levels and breadth of learning now required.

Both Democrats and Republicans have increasingly recognized this as an approach to education reform that has much more promise than the piecemeal effort that has produced so many years of disappointing results. Now, candidates of both parties should be competing to show who will provide the best leadership to move this kind of reform forward, some two decades after a limited version of the idea gained attention.

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Admittedly, there are good reasons for the dearth of public discussion about systemic reform. The concept is still not well understood by the general public, or even by many educators, and it has yet to produce a concrete new vision for public education that is widely accepted. Nor can it be explained in 30-second sound bites. And the controversy over the No Child Left Behind law has only served to further blur the public’s conception of what systemic reform means.

Many people, moreover, are wary about what they see as a “business” approach to schooling. It’s true that many systemic-reform concepts derive from the experience of corporations, and they have been popularized over the years by such business-management analysts as W. Edwards Deming, William G. Ouchi, Tom Peters, and Peter Senge. And, yes, there are, as educators are quick to point out, significant differences between corporations and schools: their political accountability, for one, plus the professional nature of teaching and the crucial role played in education by students and parents, who are not school employees. So business practices should never be applied to schools wholesale or uncritically.

But it is foolish not to learn from other organizations’ experiences with systemic reform. School reform efforts that have emphasized fundamental changes in school culture and in the basic relationships of those involved in schooling have demonstrated that these “systemic” changes encourage people to work together more productively for shared goals. This is the antithesis of what many employed in today’s schools encounter, as they struggle to produce high-quality education within a demoralized, bureaucratic system filled with too many alienated students and frustrated teachers. As people have lost confidence in the ability of a seemingly endless succession of school reforms to produce the high levels of learning now required, interest in systemic reform has grown.

In the 1980s, a limited systemic approach gained widespread support. It called for a combination of (1) standards for what students should learn, (2) assessment to determine how well they were learning it, and (3) measures to hold students and schools “accountable” if they failed to show progress in meeting the goals. This three-element “standards movement” developed momentum from the federal A Nation at Risk report in 1983, the bipartisan leadership of the National Governors Association in that decade, President George H.W. Bush’s 1989 National Education Summit, and the bipartisan work on education reform bills under President Clinton in the 1990s.

As people have lost confidence in the ability of a seemingly endless succession of school reforms to produce the high levels of learning now required, interest in systemic reform has grown.

When George W. Bush became president in 2001, most media coverage of his education agenda focused on his “trade-offs” with congressional leaders—with reports of his supposedly giving up on vouchers and committing to greatly increased funding in return for bipartisan support for the No Child Left Behind legislation. But that law’s primary approach was the same three-pronged “standards movement” framework that had gained increasing support in the 1980s and ’90s.

The problem with this framework is that while higher expectations, assessment regimens, and accountability measures are important components of redesigning public education, they do not bring about sufficient change to produce the needed new levels of learning. Some states, school districts, and individual schools have been able to achieve notable progress toward these ends, however, by developing the more comprehensive system changes that transform school culture and the basic relationships among the participants. In most school districts, though, and in federal policy, the main emphasis is still being placed on this incomplete, three-pronged framework. Without deeper system change, it will misfire. This is what is happening under the No Child Left Behind law in schools across the country.

What is desperately needed is leadership to press forward with shifting the reform framework from the present piecemeal approach of adding new programs and demands onto an obsolete system, to one that promotes fundamental redesign of the system to make it capable of producing new levels of learning. The question for political candidates in 2008 is this: Will you provide such leadership?

Fashioning detailed platforms on educational system change is, of course, a task for the candidates and their expert advisers. But here are a few basic considerations they should incorporate into their thinking—issues and directions that might help voters see the need to go beyond simply advocating more programs or relying on a standards-reform model that is not part of comprehensive system redesign:

Take “all children can learn” seriously. This doesn’t mean lock-step uniformity. It implies a fundamental shift from the “winners and losers” model embedded in the present system, to a system designed to assure each child’s educational success. This shift will drive all other reform.

Move from “school systems” to “education systems.” Schools alone can’t achieve this radically higher level of educational success. They need the active support of families and community resources, and a whole new partnership framework to promote their collaboration.

De-emphasize bureaucracy and promote teamwork and “learning communities.” Bureaucratic culture has been stifling quality public education since long before the enactment of the No Child Left Behind law. It is a major reason standards, assessment, and accountability were weak before the federal law, and it is why NCLB is creating such negative responses in many school districts.

Let accountability begin by making teachers, students, and parents personally accountable to one another. Without powerful shared purpose and mutual responsibility at this level, all other “accountability” from above will fail.

Help people understand that system change is difficult. It will require the support and participation of many people, and is not something that school officials can accomplish through rhetoric or mandates. Political leaders need to help mobilize the support, involvement, and cooperation that will be required.

Invest in the change process. Corporations have learned that system change requires much more orientation and training than they had initially expected, and school systems have a more complex array of participants than corporations do. Political leadership is needed to secure the funding that can help school people learn their new roles and relationships.

With these fundamentals in mind, let us ask political candidates this year to give us more than boilerplate responses to questions about education. Let’s demand that they think deeply, critically, and creatively about the issue that affects so much of our future.

A version of this article appeared in the January 09, 2008 edition of Education Week as Where Is Education in the 2008 Election?

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