Every Student Succeeds Act

School ‘Reform’ Loses Steam as a Topline Political Issue

By Alyson Klein — November 27, 2018 6 min read
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Testing. Standards. Teacher evaluation. School turnarounds. Those were the issues that dominated education policy for decades. But they took a back seat in most places in the 2018 midterm elections. And experts expect that could be the case again in the “ideas primary” for the 2020 presidential race, which is expected to feature an unwieldy Democratic field.

At the state level, candidates for governor were far more likely to have touted career and technical education, STEM, expanding early-childhood education, social and emotional learning, and especially, education funding, as opposed to issues like accountability, and even charter schools. That’s according to an analysis of candidate websites by the American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning think tank.

That evolution makes political sense, said Frederick Hess, the director of education policy studies at AEI.

“School reform the way it’s been understood in the Bush-Obama years became narrower and narrower and more and more removed from a lot of families’ concerns,” he said. “Over time you saw that the stuff of that agenda—testing, accountability, teacher evaluation—has no constituency anymore.”

Instead, in his view, candidates are pivoting to politically safer topics that impact a broader range of children. And they are choosing to emphasize issues that aren’t well-defined and which have widespread support, he added. “These things are pretty amorphous so it’s easy to make them sound nice without offending anybody.”

But Charles Barone, the chief policy officer at Democrats for Education Reform, a national group that advocates for charter schools and stringent school accountability among other policies, said he would never expect candidates to emphasize policies like testing on the campaign trail.

“When did people ever run on things like accountability?” asked Barone, who served as an aide to Democrats on the House education committee. “The reality is you have a very different set-up in each state or locality, you can’t make sweeping generalizations.” He noted that candidates who are fans of charter schools and strong accountability ran and succeeded in Colorado, the District of Columbia, and elsewhere.

It wouldn’t make sense, he said, for candidates to run on issues like the Common Core State Standards when most states have already figured out their standards and don’t want to open them back up. Right now, he said, supporters of education redesign are pushing for things like ensuring that disadvantaged students have access to rigorous coursework and other issues that more directly affect teaching and learning.

“That’s the kind of hard work that is going to need to take place now,” he said. “It’s just not the kind of change that’s easy to explain in a stump speech.”

The DeVos Factor

Democratic candidates for governor, in particular, were more likely to focus on early-childhood education and education spending, including increasing teachers’ salaries, AEI’s analysis found.

Those ideas—along with expanding career and technical education, offering all students free lunch and breakfast, improving school climate, and overhauling school facilities—were featured prominently in a list of “great education policy ideas for progressives in 2018" published by the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank that was closely associated with the Obama administration. CAP’s list did not mention testing, accountability, or dramatic school turnarounds.

Talking about things like early-childhood education and workforce preparation isn’t just about avoiding controversy—it’s about capturing the imagination of voters, said Lisette Partelow, the director of K-12 strategic initiatives at CAP.

“It’s a campaign, you’re talking about big exciting ideas,” she said. “They are future-thinking visions.” That doesn’t mean that many Democrats are going to suddenly stop supporting, say, the Common Core State Standards, she said. “I don’t think that means that there is a big shift in focus when it comes to policymaking.”

To be sure, the shift away from a political emphasis on accountability, standards, and testing is partly a function of the Every Student Succeeds Act, which turned major policy decisions over to states, said Elizabeth DeBray, a professor of lifelong education, administration, and policy at the University of Georgia.

“Congress really designed ESSA to be politically palatable to the states, and I think what you’re seeing is that, by and large, it is,” she said.

What’s more, lawmakers at the federal level haven’t focused much on these issues since passing ESSA. Democrats, in particular, have generally been attempting to push back on the agenda of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, not arguing the finer points of state accountability plans, she said.

The secretary has helped bridge long-standing political divides in the Democratic community between civil rights groups, which favored strong accountability measures to help disadvantaged students, and teachers’ unions, which worried about the impact of those measures on teaching and learning, said Tamara Hiler, the deputy director of education at Third Way, a think tank in Washington that champions center-left ideas.

“Betsy DeVos is sort of a uniter in a way, on the left,” Hiler said. “Democrats had a lot more infighting when their party was in power. It’s easy to be anti-Betsy DeVos. It made some of the infighting that we used to see a little bit less of an issue.”

2020 Implications

The lack of talk about testing and accountability doesn’t mean though, that the so-called “reform” wing of the Democratic party is no longer influential, Hiler said. She pointed to two gubernatorial victories by education-redesign-minded Democrats—charter school fan Jared Polis, a Colorado congressman who won his race for governor, and Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo, who has clashed with teachers’ unions and was re-elected this year.

But some candidates seemed to make headway running against Obama-era education redesign. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat who was just elected governor of New Mexico, sought to get rid of the state’s A–F grading system and ditch the PARCC tests, which were designed using a grant from Obama’s Education Department. And she called for scrapping the state’s tough teacher-evaluation system, another policy pushed by Obama and company.

Richard Woods, the newly re-elected Republican state schools chief in Georgia, turned an endorsement from Obama’s long-serving education secretary, Arne Duncan, against his opponent, Otha Thornton. Duncan touted Thornton’s advocacy for rural students. But Woods said Duncan was for high-stakes testing, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

The change in tone on accountability opens up the question of whether Democratic presidential candidates—who will be fighting for airtime in the runup to the 2020 contest—will decide to take on the issue of annual standardized testing. After all, ESSA is technically up for reauthorization in 2019, and Congress could use that opportunity to back away from the requirement.

“The Democrats that I’ve heard talking about testing are not talking about testing in an equity way, but more of an opt-out way,” said Andrew Saultz, an assistant professor and program director of educational leadership at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Ore. “Who are the interest groups that are really going to go out and fight for accountability policy and testing policy? And absent the kind of wonky policy folks and researchers, I don’t see the public saying, ‘This is really important for our kids.’ They’re saying, ‘Can you believe they have another test?’ ”

But, even given that, Saultz doesn’t expect that proposals to ditch standardized testing will get much traction, in part because ESSA’s predecessor, the No Child Left Behind Act, helped focus attention on achievement gaps. “I don’t think they’d go away from that requirement,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the November 28, 2018 edition of Education Week as School ‘Reform’ Loses Steam as a Topline Political Issue

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