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Where Does ‘Education Reform’ Go in a Post-Obama World?

By Alyson Klein — July 26, 2016 4 min read
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Back in 2008, Democrats for Education Reform had what amounted to its coming out party at the party’s national convention in Denver. But a lot has changed in eight years.

On Monday, an event put on here by Education Reform Now, an affiliated organization, felt like an opportunity for a little soul searching, as some big name speakers pondered a central question: Where exactly, does the education-redesign movement go in a post-Obama administration, post Every Student Succeeds Act world?

“There’s a lot of anxiety about the transition from this president to the next
administration,” Shavar Jeffries, the national president of the organization, a non-profit think tank affiliated with DFER said as he kicked off the policy forum.

But Jeffries isn’t worried. His message? Hang tight and play the long game.

“For us this is a social justice project,” Jeffries said. “And social justice is never easy. It’s never short-term.”

Jeffries linked education redesign to other social-change movements, noting that after the success of the Montgomery bus boycott, the civil rights movement experienced a seven-year period of “defeat, after defeat, after defeat.”

End of an Era

The event attracted a star-studded cast—well, star-studded as wonky education events get—including Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, Gov. Dannel Malloy of Connecticut, Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia; and Ann O’Leary, Clinton’s campaign advisor, all of whom spoke of their continued commitment to ensuring schools are better able to help the neediest kids.

Still, the past couple years have been challenging for fans of education redesign who have seen some of their favorite policies—high standards, teacher evaluation through test scores, dramatic school turnarounds, and testing—attacked in school districts, statehouses and Congress.

To be sure, the presumptive Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, has a track record of supporting some of those policies like rigorous standards, and expanding charter schools (even if she’s gotten into trouble for some of her rhetoric on charters this campaign cycle).

But she’s been skeptical of some signature Obama policies, especially teacher evaluation based on test scores and turnaround programs that call for getting rid of teachers. (Both are out the window at the federal level anyway, thanks to ESSA.)

And while she’s talked a lot about new resources on the campaign trail, she’s mostly steered clear of accountability and testing. Plus, she needed help from both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers to win an unexpectedly tough primary against Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

And oh, yeah, the Democratic platform this year takes aim at the “test-and-punish” regime, saying it hurts schools and kids of color. It’s also sanctioned parents right to opt their children out of standardized tests.

Contrast that to 2008, when Obama had been out on the campaign trail talking about policies that Democrats didn’t normally rush out and hug—expanding charter schools, raising standards, and paying teachers based on their performance. He’d even declared himself open to vouchers. (Sorta.) And he hadn’t needed help from the teachers’ unions to get to the top of the ticket.

Obama more than made good on what a lot of those in the education redesign movement saw as his potential, enticing states to adopt the Common Core State Standards and teacher evaluations that relied in part on test scores through the Race to the Top grant program, and later, on waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act. But both policies have fallen out of favor.

The icing on the cake? Education organizations teamed up with Republicans to water down the federal role in K-12.

Malloy noted the loss of the Republican partners.

“We may be more losing Republicans [support] than we are losing Democratic support,” he said. “Some folks say this is just a little messy, a little too hard. It gets into issues that we don’t want to get into.”

New Challenges

For his part, Jefferies, made it clear in an interview that the organization isn’t backing away from the policies it embraced in 2008.

But it’s added some new priorities to its plate, including making sure that disadvantaged kids have access to their fair share of resources (good teachers, rigorous coursework), and making sure that teacher preparation programs are informed by data, but also include rich, hands-on experiences for perspective teachers.

And on one of the panels, Kristen Clarke, the president and executive director of the National Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, brought up a new priority: encouraging schools to desegrate, both racially and socio-economically. (That’s been a key issue for U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr., too.)

“I think we need to be more creative in what can we do today,” she said. " I do think this organization stands to play an important role,”

Here’s the overall take on the state of this movement from Jeff Henig, a political science professor at Columbia University, who has studied the intersection of education and politics. “It overreached and its paying a price,” he said. “But I don’t think they are all going to disappear.”

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