A while back*, Rick Hess told education leaders to get over their “allergy” to policy. It took me a while to figure out what he was talking about, since education leaders are, for the most part, all about policy. (Teachers are another matter; they could give three nickels for policy.)
But a closer reading reveals that Hess is chastising education leaders—who do, despite his post, involve themselves in educational policy—for not agreeing with politicians on their current policy mandates. Hess says the politicians are the heart of reason:
Let me put it this way. If you were an elected official and were responsible for elementary schools where only half of kids are reading at grade level and high schools where only fifty percent of students are graduating, it’d be pretty understandable (and laudable, even) to think you can’t simply trust the educators to do the right thing.
Gosh. Those poor elected officials, trudging along, minding their own business, forced—yea, I say forced!–into the educational arena by the sheer incompetence of schools that can’t get their kids to read at grade level. Let us all bleed for them.
But while we are slitting our veins for a few ounces, some questions: what is this “grade level” he speaks of? And what are the academic expectations of a high school graduate? In fact, when did we declare that everyone should graduate high school, and why? When did we establish guidelines of what appropriate standards are? And aren’t those….you know, it kills me to bring it up, but aren’t those state responsibilities?
Yes, yes, I can hear the reply now. Of course it’s a state responsibility, constitution, blah blah blah. In fact the high school movement, the uniquely American push to increase access to a high school education, was a local movement. But the states want federal money, so naturally the federal government has an oversight role.
But when did the feds start giving the states money for education? Well, that would be when the states started incurring costs imposed upon public schools either by federal law or federal court fiat.
First up, of course, was the Elementary and Secondary Education Act’s Title I, designed to improve educational outcomes for the poor. More money would help the poor and close the achievement gap, so the thinking went–and still goes, although the Coleman Report, issued a year later, established that school spending had far less to do with student outcomes than student SES and background. But the expectation was set into law—all outcomes should be equal. No research, no science, no school has ever proven this out. It was just the sort of blithe expectation we had during the civil rights era that certainly seemed to be true. Unfortunately, when that expectation didn’t prove out, no one seemed to recall that we had no proof that it could ever be true. They just looked for someone else to blame. So the federal dollars came with more and more expectations, demanding an outcome that hadn’t ever been established as realistic to start with.
But Title I was just the start. In 1974, the Supreme Court, in Lau vs. Nichols, required the schools to educate kids in their native languages (ironically, this demand originated from the Asian community; bet they’re happy about that one now!). Then the Court told the schools that they have to educate illegal immigrants in Plyler vs. Doe, denying that there might be a “compelling state interest” in educating only those here legally. Don’t forget busing, disparate impact, free and appropriate education, inclusion….they cover all these court cases in ed school, did you know?
Meanwhile, Congress is busy declaring that children with mental and physical disabilities are guaranteed a free and appropriate public education, regardless of the cost, with a guaranteed Individualized Education Plan following when IDEA is passed in 1990.
So the feds are placing increasing burdens on the local school systems, often in the form of unfunded mandates, other times adding dollars with strings of steel.
These reforms were almost exclusively driven by progressives—liberals who believe that educational inequality is caused by unequal spending, white privilege, racism, prejudice, discrimination….you know that drill, too. Progressives were intent on improving access. While it’s likely that they, too, thought that access would end the achievement gap, they adjusted quickly when that expectation didn’t prove out. By the 80s, progressives in educational policy almost entirely anti-testing. They pooh-poohed SAT scores as racist and culturally biased. They instituted the multi-culti curricum, softened analytical requirements as much as possible whilst giving lip service to that all important “critical thinking”, declared tracking or other forms of ability grouping by demonstrated ability as another means of whites maintaining their institutional privilege, and declared that academic achievement could be demonstrated in many ways. To the extent possible, they ignored or downplayed demonstrated achievement in favor of a student’s effort, community service, and dedication to social justice.
So the original federal mandates were all initiated by progressives.
In contrast, the people we now call “reformers” (that I often refer to as “eduformers”) were largely conservatives. Checker Finn, Mike Petrilli, the Thernstroms, and Diane Ravitch before her switch—all policy wonks in Republican administrations or organizations (except Rotherham worked in a Democrat administration.)
The original reform movement originated as anti-progressive reform. Bill Bennett, in many ways the ur-Reformer, began his stint in the public eye by opposing or castigating many of the progressive mandates. He did his best to end native language instruction when he was Ed Sec, was pro-tracking, against affirmative action, and often castigated teacher unions as instruments of political indoctrination. Back in the 80s and 90s, Checker Finn lambasted the anti-tracking push and derided racial or economic integration as an end to itself, arguing that the important outcome was safe schools with effective teachers, not an obsession with numerical balance. Rare were the reformers who weren’t adamantly in favor of tracking, skeptical of mainstreaming special education kids, and opposed to bilingual education in native language. Educating illegal immigrants is possibly the only area in which reformers might have originally agreed with progressives (and consequently stand in stark disagreement with many parents).
They’ve softened this approach in recent years. For example, Mike Petrilli now writes about differentiation, and can be seen here telling a clearly skeptical, but not oppositional, Checker Finn about the way that differentiation avoids the bad old days of racially segregated approach of tracking. While many reformers used to openly oppose affirmative action, now they’re just really quiet about it, or promote charters for suburban families or selective public schools, both of which are just tracking in a different form (or reform, hyuk). No reformer has ever dared take on the special education mandates and the parental torrents of rage that would turn in his direction were he to be so foolish; instead, they’ll just talk up the charters that get to skate those mandates.
So, for the first twenty to thirty years, progressives dramatically reformed public education through federal interventions. Conservatives opposed many of the initiatives. Progressives denounced opposition as racist and elitist. Conservatives tried to hold progressives responsible for these initiatives through accountability, and declared that parents needed more choice in schools, to get away from the forced control imposed by the progressive viewpoint. Progressives continued to denounce opposition as racist and elitist.
Finally, in the late 90s, conservatives figured out an effective strategy to gain support for their reforms. They took a card from the progressive deck, and demanded that the schools live up to the educational objectives the progressives had set for them. It wasn’t enough just to desegregate classes by race, income, language and learning status. The schools needed to demonstrate that they were teaching everyone equally, that there were “no excuses” for failure. Excuses were—wait for it—racist and elitist. Accountability became the club through which they could achieve choice, and choice would weaken public schools, thus weakening progressives and—not to put too fine a point on it—unions, whose political power the reformers saw as the primary opponent of their political objectives. By demanding equal performance and softening or eliminating their opposition to tracking, bi-lingual education, and all the other progressive hot spots, they could beat the progressives on their head with their own club.
They’d finally figured out the unassailable rhetorical approach. Who could oppose setting mandates requiring everyone—of all races, incomes, and abilities—achieve proficiency? Only racists and elitists. Who could oppose punishing such failure with consequences? Only racists and elitists. Who could oppose giving parents and their students a way to escape from these horrible schools that fail to educate their students to proficiency? Yes, progressives with their excuses of poverty and culture and isolation—they’re the racists. The same people who gave lip service to equality are now fighting the reformers’ efforts to achieve the reality—so not only are progressives elitist and racist, they’re hypocrites, too!
And so, the current reform movement set new federal mandates, which takes those original mandates of the 70s and 80s and shoves them down schools’ throats, hoisting any progressive opposition on its own petard. Unions who opposed accountability on behalf of the teachers, who know full well that equal outcomes are utterly impossible, could now be castigated as anti-education, fat, entitled organizations who protected all the terrible teachers preventing the nation from reaching the dream that progressives started, the dream that progressives have now abandoned, that reformers are finally helping the nation reach. Over time, this approach picked up some new democrats, who aren’t overly fond of unions and tend to sneer at the reputedly low educational achievement of teachers, and the billionaires who Diane Ravitch, now on the other side, excoriates regularly for finding a new hobby.
I’m no fan of progressives, so it’s pretty amusing watching them sputter. They can’t say, “WTF? We never thought everyone would actually achieve at the same level, dammit! We wanted everything to look equal, so that we could browbeat employers and colleges! Tests are racist!” Besides, it’s their idiotic mandates we’re all being forced to live up to now, and they had no more basis for demanding them than reformers do in enforcing them.
So here we are. Schools are stuck with the outcome of two different waves of political reform—first, the progressive mandates designed to enforce surface “equality” of their dreams, then the reforms mandated by conservatives to make the surface equality a reality, which they knew was impossible but would give them a tool to break progressives and, more importantly, unions.
From the schools’ point of view, all these mandates, progressive or “reform” are alike in one key sense: they are bent on imposing political and ideological mandates that haven’t the slightest link to educational validity.
No one has ever made an effective case that non-native speakers can be educated as well as native speakers, regardless of the method used. No one has ever established that integration, racial or economic, improves educational outcomes. No one has ever demonstrated that blacks or Hispanics can achieve at the same average level as whites (or that whites can achieve at the same level as Asians, although no one gets worked up about that gap), nor has anyone ever demonstrated that poor students can achieve equally with their higher-income peers. No one has ever established that kids with IQs below 90 can achieve at the same level as kids with IQs above 100, or examined the difference in outcomes of educating kids with high vs. low motivation. And the only thing that has changed in forty years is that anyone who points this out will now be labelled elitist and racist by both sides of the educational debate, instead of just one.
So back to Hess. Hess’s rationale for political interference starts with the premise that low test scores means failing schools. When Hess says that a politician whose district schools show half or more kids reading below grade level can’t trust educators to do the right thing, he is assuming that half or more kids reading below grade level is a bad result.
Hess is using exactly the same rationale that progressives did when they labelled schools racist/elitist/pick your ist for enrolling fewer blacks, Hispanics, poor kids or dyslexics in advanced classes. It’s the fallacy at the heart of all reform: that all kids can achieve equally.
We don’t know that this is true. In order to call test scores “low”, we assume that all populations can achieve to the same average ability. We don’t know that they can. All available evidence says that they can not, that race, special education status, and poverty are not excuses but genuine, reliable predictors of lower achievement.
But thanks to the combined efforts of progressives and eduformers and their blithe lack of interest in the validity of their expectations, schools are now stuck with mandates that force them to pretend that all students can achieve equally to the same average ability, even though no research supports this. When Virginia bit the bullet to acknowledge that race is in some way related to achievement (note: I don’t think race is a direct factor, just an unsettling proxy), they were browbeaten and hammered into backing down, although I was cheered to see they still used race for achievement goals.
Rick Hess is wrong in saying that education leaders are “allergic” to policy. They are “allergic” to mandates with no relationship to reality. And his sympathy for political leaders who are dragged in reluctantly, poor folks, to spare the kids from uncaring, dysfunctional schools is also misplaced. The problem isn’t the schools. The problem is the mandates—both progressive and reform. The problem is the imposition of political and ideological objectives into the educational world, screaming and howling and suing for five impossible things before breakfast.
*Yeah, I started writing this a month ago and got distracted.