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Time for the Democrats to Rethink Education Policy

In my last blog, I took the Republican Party to task for following a policy trajectory over the last three decades or so on education reforms based on the introduction of market forces in the public schools arena, a trajectory that seems to be culminating in proposals from some Republicans to abandon the public schools altogether. Some of my Republican friends then took me to task for abandoning what they have seen as my bipartisan stance in favor of a very partisan outburst.

But that is not the case at all.  I am the same person I was, aiming to use good data and sound analysis to hold the mirror up to both parties and their well-worn positions on education.  I would urge those who count themselves among my regular readers to recall that my eye is firmly fixed on the fact that, over the last 40 years, high school NAEP scores on mathematics and reading have not budged at all, while the costs of elementary and secondary education have soared and the performance of a growing number of other countries has surpassed our students' performance by ever-wider margins.  That is a period in which both Democrats and Republicans have been at the helm.  If one is searching for parties to blame, there is plenty to go around.

With respect to the Democrats, my story begins when John F. Kennedy was running for president in the primaries. Young, rich, Catholic, Harvard-educated, possessed of a haughty New England accent and a lot of upper crust friends, his task was to convince his party's voters that he could connect with Protestant, working-class, low-income families. He chose to make his stand in West Virginia coal country. It worked, and, as he got to know the West Virginians, Kennedy came face to face with a kind and depth of poverty he hardly knew existed. He decided that, if he became president, he would do something about it. When he did become president, the American South started to get politically unglued as the civil rights movement got underway and Martin Luther King's voice began to hold the conscience of the country to the fire. But, on that score, Kennedy was reluctant to undo the knot of Southern white racism, rust belt working class whites and coastal progressivism that held his party together.

Real progress was made on poverty under Kennedy, but the heavy lifting fell to Lyndon Johnson. Johnson, unlike Kennedy, had grown up in grinding poverty. He went to a little known teachers college, not Harvard, and, in his first job out of college, worked with almost demonic energy to transform the prospects of his Mexican-American students in an impoverished community on the Rio Grande. When he became president, he astonished many by turning his back on the Southern white oligarchs of the Congress, passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and launching his Great Society program, which he intended as a worthy successor to FDR's historic social programs.

For Johnson, unlike Kennedy, issues of both race and poverty were paramount. Arguably the centerpiece of Johnson's Great Society program, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA) was designed to address both. The governing construct in the scholarly community gave us the language of "compensatory" education. The idea, at bottom, was simplicity itself.  Poor and minority children came to school with deficits. If professional educators had extra money to deal with those deficits, they would be overcome and the children of poor and minority parents would have the chance that they needed to escape poverty and discrimination and join the middle class. The efficacy of this idea, of course, depended on professional educators knowing what to do and then doing it. The legislation contained large sums to conduct the necessary research and development.

By the time I got to Washington, in the Nixon years, to help plan and launch the new National Institute of Education, a settled view of ESEA had developed. Title I was for African-Americans. The title dealing with English language learners, Title III, was for the Latino community. Special education had its own pot of money.  And there were many others. ESEA had become a holding company for categorical programs, which were quickly expanding, each one a pot for some specific constituency. The politics of ESEA became a politics of competition among these constituencies, punctuated by periodic efforts by Republicans to bundle them up in block grants and efforts by advocates for the poor to concentrate the money in the schools serving the lowest-income students.

No one seemed to notice that, among all the special categories into which all this money was divided and subdivided, there was no category for the people whose plight first caught JFK's attention in 1960: poor rural whites. As recent events have made clear, the 1970s saw the beginning of a global economic dynamic that progressively destroyed the economies of the Rust Belt, the South, the Appalachian Mountains and other parts of the United States, all of which fell especially hard on communities in which education levels were very low, irrespective of racial or ethnic status. 

Now, when we look back on the whole era I have described, the arc it describes is sobering, or ought to be. Average student performance at the high school level, as measured by NAEP, has not changed. The cost per student has skyrocketed. The gap between racial and ethnic minorities and majority students, which had been closing at the middle and high school years, stopped closing more than 10 years ago. There is more racial segregation now than there was in the 1960s, shortly after the Supreme Court desegregated the schools in Brown v. Board of Education. Our schools are more segregated by socio-economic status than they have ever been since such things were first measured. Students in a growing number of other countries are outperforming our students by ever-wider margins and, remarkably, those countries are doing much better on measures of equity than the United States. Further, socio-economic status predicts student performance more reliably in the U.S. than in most developed nations. So much for the U.S. as the great equalizer.

What does this suggest to you? For me, it says that the use of identity politics as the underlying framework for policies designed to lift up the academic performance of poor and minority children has failed, and the nation needs another framework.  I suspect that there is no appetite for creating a new categorical education program for poor white people from rural and Rust Belt communities.  The great profusion of categorical programs, each siphoning money off to ever narrower segments of our population, at both the federal and state levels, has served to Balkanize school and district administration and management, diffuse accountability, increase administrative and overhead costs, bureaucratize the system and set groups against one another that should be working together.


But that is not the worst of it. The worst of it is that this approach to improving the prospects of our neediest students not only has not worked; it could not work. That is because of the unstated premise on which it was first built, the idea that all these kids needed was a little more—maybe a lot more—money, the idea that the system was basically working fine, but these kids had been left out and needed to get help that would compensate for the adverse factors outside of school that had previously prevented them from learning. In this view of the world, our education system was one of the best in the world and so the issue was access.

But that has turned out not to be true. We know now, thanks to the TIMSS and the OECD PISA surveys, that our system is performing very poorly, not just for the poorest students and those from identified minorities, but for the great majority of American students. Our challenge is not to provide access to a system that is working brilliantly; it is to change the system itself so that it works far better for everyone. And, to do that, it must be changed, in fact transformed, along the same lines that the top-performing nations have transformed their systems. What they have shown, indisputably, is that the systems they have built not only produce higher average student achievement, but much smaller gaps between their poor and minority students and those in the majority who are members of wealthier families. And guess what? Those countries did not do it with categorical programs.

Some might say we need to abolish these categorical programs and package them up in block grants and let the states decide how to use the money.  But that is not what I am saying.  If the money is not used to change the system, if it is spent the way money is now spent, but there is simply less of it, then the people for whom the money was intended will be worse off, not better off.

To see a policy framework that might make more sense, take a look at No Time to Lose, the recent report from the National Conference of State Legislatures. That report, of course, lays out a program for state policy, not federal policy, but that is a pretty good place to begin the development of federal policy, framed as policies that will help the states do what these state legislators think needs to be done. 

I can hear some of my Republican friends now saying something like, "Well that is all well and good, but you know the real problem is the unions and the way they protect lousy teachers while pretending to be for the kids.  How can you claim to be evenhanded when you do not even mention this issue, which, for us, is the central issue?"  That is the issue I will deal with next week.

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