As you know by now, Dropout Nation has largely praised President Barack Obama’s school reform efforts. Certainly his administration’s No Child waiver gambit has been an abject disappointment and a stain on the record on the president and that of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. But this is balanced off against the administration’s Race to the Top initiative, which has given reform-minded governors another tool in their efforts against education traditionalists in their respective states, and its unofficial push for Common Core standards in reading and math (another step in helping all kids get strong, comprehensive college-preparatory curricula).
So we can appreciate why Democrats for Education Reform, the activist group cofounded by Teach For America backer Whitney Tilson, issued a report this week explaining why their peers should rally behind Obama’s re-election. For the most part, the polemic makes some good points on the president’s behalf, especially in making clear his steadfast willingness to buck the will of the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers, which still wield considerable clout within Democratic Party circles. Yet DFER overstates the impact of Obama’s efforts on gubernatorial activity, fails to acknowledge that much of the success of Obama’a efforts so far has to do with predecessor George W. Bush”s steadfast use of policy and the bully pulpit, and in the process, reject the bipartisanship along party lines that has proven to be important in advancing reform.
Certainly Race to the Top has helped governors even in the most traditionalist-entrenched states such as California advance such reforms as Parent Trigger laws and requiring the use of student test score data in teacher evaluations; so has the administration’s tacit and controversial support of implementing Common Core, which, contrary to what opponents of the standards declare, are far superior to those that had been in place in all but Massachusetts and Hawaii (when it comes to eighth-grade math). Yet the administration’s efforts haven’t been all that helpful in all cases. Early results from the School Improvement Grant program touted by Obama and Duncan, for example, proves out arguments made by yours truly and others against the program. SIG’s overall focus of the program on individual school turnarounds ignores decades of evidence that such efforts rarely work. The fact that the turnarounds are overseen by the very districts that managed the schools into academic failure in the first place makes success anything but likely; the fact that SIG doesn’t address other underlying issues — including the array of state laws and collective bargaining agreements that have helped even the lowest-performing teachers keep their jobs — also makes SIG a less-than-useful tool for governors and school leaders.
Even the success of Race to the Top remains in many ways an open question. As governors such as Hawaii’s Neil Abercrombie have learned, federal policy doesn’t necessarily help out when you’re dealing with NEA and AFT affiliates, and other education traditionalists who still wield tremendous clout through their political donations and other state laws that still render districts (in the case of the Aloha State, an entire agency charged with running schools) servile to their demands. As the civil rights movement of the 1960s learned all too well, governors and reformers still have to do the tough work of rallying grassroots and legislative support (as well as develop needed governmental infrastructure and talent) to successfully implement their proposals. One way this can happen is by allowing reform-minded districts to participate in Race to the Top competitions, something that Dropout Nation suggested that the Obama administration should have done after its first round three years ago; only now has Obama and Duncan embraced this idea.
Meanwhile DFER’s claim that Obama’s reforms helped “Governors Get Their Groove Back” fails to acknowledge the reality that there was plenty of reform efforts happening at the state level before the president came into office. Under the leadership of governors Frank O’Bannon and Mitch Daniels, Indiana had moved throughout the early part of this century to allow the mayor of Indianapolis to become first city chief executive in the nation to authorize charter schools, moved to overhaul how it calculated graduation rates, launched one of the first dual college credit efforts, and provided what is still now one of the nation’s most-comprehensive and easy-to-use school data systems. Florida Gov. Jeb Bush built upon the efforts of predecessor Lawton Chiles to make the Sunshine State one of the most reform-oriented in the nation — and reduced the number of illiterate children on the path to academic and social failure. In California, Arnold Schwarzenegger spent years pushing for reforms such as increasing the number of years newly-minted teachers had to work before attaining near-lifetime employment, as well as oversaw the expansion of charter schools; it was Schwarzenegger’s state board of education appointees who helped Green Dot founder Steve Barr successfully push the Los Angeles Unified School District into handing over Locke High School for its so far successful overhaul. And in New York State, it was George Pataki who successfully supported putting New York City’s school district under mayoral control, and appointed the reform-minded Board of Regents that has now pushed for another wave of reforms; his successor, the otherwise-disgraced Eliot Spitzer convinced legislators to enact a law requiring new teachers seeking tenure to prove that they successfully use standardized test scores and other forms of student performance data in shaping their classroom instruction.
One of the key factors driving those reforms — and has helped Obama support new efforts at the state level — was the current president’s predecessor, Bush, who ushered a great leap forward in systemic reform in 2001 with the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act. Thanks to Bush (and the cadre of Democrats and Republicans in Congress who supported it), No Child advanced federal policy by setting clear national goals for improving student achievement in reading and mathematics; it finally focused attention on using data in measuring teacher quality. Through its Adequate Yearly Progress measures, the low quality of education across the nation’s public schools — including urban districts and in suburbia — was exposed while it gave researchers the impetus to look at the nation’s high school graduation rates (and present in clear, stark terms the high school dropout crisis). More importantly, No Child fully signaled the primary role of states in education governance. States may be required to improve graduation rates and test scores — including the aspirational goal that all students are proficient in reading, math and science by 2014 — but the federal government allows them to develop their own solutions in order to achieve them.
Simply put, without No Child, the conditions that allow Obama to implement Race to the Top and his other reform efforts would have never existed. If anything, the flexibility that Obama is pushing rightfully (through Race tot the Top) and wrongly (in the No Child waiver gambit) would have never existed. Nor would have the latest round of reforms have ever come into place. And this is something that DFER should have acknowledged.
Meanwhile DFER seems far too unwilling to acknowledge another reality: That it will take bipartisanship to drive systemic reform. This has already proven to be the case in Connecticut (where the Democrat-controlled legislature attempted to eviscerate the reform efforts of their fellow party member, Gov. Dan Malloy, before public pressure forced them to relent), in Mississippi (where Republicans, doing the bidding of the NEA affiliate and school districts there, refused to allow for the existence of charters), in Minnesota (where Democrat Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed a bill passed by the Republican-controlled legislature that would have ended reverse-seniority layoffs that hurt the poorest students and the young, talented teachers that serve them), and in Arizona (where Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed the expansion of a voucher-like tax credit plan). If anything, it is clear that there are elements in both parties who are far more willing to bow to the demands of teachers’ unions and suburban districts opposed to reform than do the right thing by children.
But you wouldn’t know this from DFER’s declaration that “the core of the GOP education agenda revolves around dismantling the Education Department and shifting power back to states”. This broad mishmash of a statement, which focuses solely on the talking points uttered during the Republican presidential campaign and from House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline, fails to consider what is actually happening among GOP governors (who have embraced the support they have gotten for reform from the federal level). More importantly, like Andy Rotherham has done, DFER ignores the likelihood that the Republican presidential nominee presumptive, Mitt Romney, is as likely to support the kind of reform efforts Obama is currently pushing. (The fact that DFER fails to acknowledge the damage being wrecked by the president’s waiver gambit, which in many ways is no better than the efforts being pushed by Kline –and one that civil rights groups have articulated ad nauseam — is simply inexcusable.)
Sure, DFER is engaging in the usual political talking points game. But for reformers, such statements matter. Such words (and the unwillingness to acknowledge the importance of bipartisanship) make it more difficult for DFER’s fellow reformers to build broad coalitions for advancing reform, which is especially needed as the next wave of efforts begin tackling suburban districts in earnest. Alienating fellow reformers on the other side of the political aisle is not a strategy for success.
Let’s be clear: DFER plays an important role in advancing reform within Democratic Party circles, and in reminding people that Obama has done a generally good job as school reformer-in-chief. For that, they deserve thanks — and reform-minded Republicans and conservatives supporting Romney should acknowledge this too. But the organization needs to keep in mind that it must balance its role of supporting reform-minded Democrats within the party with its more-important role of helping all kids succeed in school and in life. Overstating the case for Obama’s re-election doesn’t help its cause.