Nice to See the Right and the Left Agree on Something, Too Bad They're Both Wrong

May 30, 2018 12:00:00 AM

by Peter Cunningham

Two former U.S. secretaries of education, Margaret Spellings, who served under President George W. Bush, and Arne Duncan, who served under President Barack Obama, think the movement to improve public education has lost its mojo. In The Washington Post, they write:
For decades, national leadership rejected the soft bigotry of low expectations and insisted that every student, regardless of race, background or economic hardship, deserved the American ideal of equal opportunity. A promise that’s given life through education. Today, we lack the national leadership to fulfill that promise.
Driving their message is a troubling retreat from reform that has historically come from the left but more recently is coming from the right. Kappan Magazine recently published an article from conservative policy analysts Jay Greene and Michael Q. McShane titled “Learning From the Failures of School Reform.” The article is a condensed version of a book released in January called “Failure Up Close” that includes essays from a range of mostly conservative policy wonks who gathered last May to reflect on the state of school reform. Each participant presented on a particular reform initiative they favored but that had fallen short in its goals. The first thing wrong with the picture is that none of the participants were people of color who are, in large part, the intended beneficiaries of education reform. Setting aside that inexcusable oversight, the gathering is notable for its explicit focus on failure. [pullquote]Self-reflection is important but why focus only on reform’s failures?[/pullquote] Why not celebrate success or at least do a little of both? There’s plenty of material to choose from. The fact is, most states have raised standards and many now use common standards created at the urging of governors. Most states allow some kind of school choice, empowering parents, creating laboratories of innovation and shaking up the status quo. Test scores, graduation rates and college enrollment rates, especially for low-income students, have all been rising for decades. Today, low-income kids are learning at one to two grades higher than they were a generation or two ago. Millions of low-income people of color have had access to college and millions have gone on to earn degrees. And, whatever your views about testing, the federal mandate to disaggregate results by race, income and other characteristics has changed the national conversation and driven policy at every level of government. There is no more denying the racial and economic inequities in educational outcomes even as we still struggle to address them. One participant in the convening about the failures of education reform was Rick Hess, who oversees education policy for the conservative American Enterprise Institute. Rick recently released his own book, “Letters to A Young Education Reformer,” calling on reformers to show more humility for policies he once supported but now disparages. Rick’s favorite target is the Obama administration, whose apparent sin was to use competitive grants (he once argued for incentives) to advance the very reforms that conservatives like him had long dreamed of: high standards, fewer barriers to choice, robust accountability and meaningful evaluation for educators. Edu-pundits in right-wing think tanks regularly echo Rick’s anti-Obama views. Some criticism of education reform as it has been implemented is justified, of course. States, districts or schools that over-test at the expense of an engaging, well-rounded education deserve criticism for perverting the purpose of schooling. But, the hysterical narrative that “high-stakes testing” has destroyed public education is way overblown. The percentage of schools and teachers that have faced meaningful consequences for underperformance is in the low-single digits. Most school districts meet testing mandates without a lot of drama. Most schools still offer a well-rounded curriculum. Current law pretty much focuses only on the bottom 5 percent of schools. There is little pressure to improve in the other 95 percent. Similarly, [pullquote position="right"]poorly managed, low-performing charter schools deserve condemnation.[/pullquote] The small percentage of charters run by for-profit companies are especially troubling, both because their outcomes are dismal and, in some cases, their profits are shameful. But, the vast majority of charter schools are non-profits led by dedicated educators heroically trying to make the system work better for the neediest kids. The best of them are proving poverty isn’t destiny. Low-income parents choosing to enroll their kids in charter schools are simply doing what wealthy families have always done by moving into expensive communities with better schools or paying for private education. Demonizing them for their choices is immoral. Greene and McShane close with three common sense suggestions: Be humble about expectations for reform, build real political support for change and beware of technocrats—experts without experience wielding “evidence” that is rarely if ever definitive. While these are all good points to remember, I still take issue with their overall theme of failure. The field of education should, as well. The biggest education story of 2018 is that teachers are demanding higher pay and more funding for schools but unless those demands are paired with continuing efforts to get better, sustainable funding will never materialize. The negative and misleading narrative around reform, now coming from the right and the left, is not helping teachers or kids.

Peter Cunningham

Peter Cunningham is the founder of Education Post and serves on its board. He served as Assistant Secretary for communications and outreach in the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration’s first term. Prior to that he worked with Arne Duncan when he was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. Peter is affiliated with Whiteboard Advisors, a DC-based education policy, research and communications firm. He serves on several non-profit boards, including Oakland-based Great Schools, which provides school quality information to parents through a national online platform, The Montessori School of Englewood, a Chicago public charter school, Manufacturing Renaissance, a career education program that trains public high school students for jobs in manufacturing, Unbounded, an organization supporting teachers in schools that are transitioning to higher standards, and, which is focused on financial literacy for students. Peter founded Cunningham Communications, serving public, private and nonprofit clients, worked for political consultant David Axelrod, and was a senior advisor and speechwriter for Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. A native New Yorker, Peter began his career as a journalist with small weekly newspapers in New York. He earned an M.S. in Journalism from Columbia University and a B.A. in philosophy from Duke University. He is married to artist Jackie Kazarian, and they have two adult children who are proud graduates of the Chicago Public Schools. Peter joined the Education Post board in 2018 after stepping down as the organization's Executive Director.  Meet our board →

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