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The strange death of education reform, part one
What was education reform?
I keep trying to write an article about the strange death of the education reform movement and the extent to which many of the contemporary woke wars emerged from these once-intense, now-forgotten battlegrounds. Every time I sit down to write it, though, the column spirals out of control. But this is my newsletter and I can do what I want, so instead it’s going to be a series of posts that come out on no particular schedule. Some of them will probably be a little unsatisfying and anti-climactic, but I appreciate you all bearing with me on this journey because I think it’s important.
What finally got me to actually start this series is the Chicago mayor’s race, where the incumbent Lori Lightfoot failed to make the runoff.
To grossly oversimplify a situation that has lots of local nuance: with Lightfoot out, the final round will feature Paul Vallas, the candidate of the police union running on a law-and-order platform, against Brandon Johnson, the candidate carrying the progressive torch. This is Chicago of course, so all the main candidates, including Vallas, are left-of-center in a national political context, and the vanquished Lightfoot is genuinely very progressive. Johnson, though, is the preferred candidate of the Chicago Teachers Union.
But I think what’s interesting about it from a national perspective is the extent to which Vallas’ profile is centered around the crime issue.
Vallas ran Chicago Public Schools from 1995-2001, then he ran Philadelphia Public Schools for five years, then he went to New Orleans for four years where he managed the post-Katrina overhaul of the school system. After that he did a stint running Bridgeport Public Schools, and then Illinois’ GOP governor put him on the board of Chicago State University. Vallas is a political moderate who’s worked for both Democrats and Republicans, which absolutely makes him a natural choice to hold down the right flank of local politics in a heavily Democratic city like Chicago. But the vast majority of his public sector experience is in education. And yet that is definitely not the main issue in the mayoral race.
I think this Chicago election is emblematic of the overall theme of this series: contemporary American politics is deeply shaped by the early 21st-century education reform wars, but education reform itself has died off in favor of a very different set of disputes.
To understand any of this, though, we need to start with the question of what education reform was.
Education reform on a high level
Part of what makes this topic tough to write about is that while education reform was a hot topic — everyone knew who the reformers were and what the dispute was about — it’s surprisingly hard to pin down in concrete terms.
But I think the main elements of education reform were:
A strong focus on K-12 policy issues that weren’t reducible to “spend more money” or “cut the budget.” Education reform was primarily interested in how the money was spent rather than how much was spent. It was about reform, not generic left-right spending disagreements.
A hostile relationship with teachers unions. When the reform wars were burning brightest, reformers would tell you they weren’t against unions and union leaders would tell you they weren’t against reform. But in practical terms, the “reform” camp was pushing for changes that unions didn’t like.
A belief that these questions about the management of K-12 school systems were very important. This is, in retrospect, the biggest defining quality of the education reform movement. As long as education reform was a big deal, thinking that the topics education reformers were talking about were important was just common sense. But now that the world has moved on, we can see there was actually something idiosyncratic about it.
And I think it is really that last point more than anything that defined the education reform era.
Barack Obama, like all presidents, had a lot on his plate. Also like all presidents, he did not believe that the interest group coalition backing his party was right about everything. But sane politicians don’t pick intra-coalitional battles just for fun —Obama pushed education reform ideas that teachers unions didn’t like because he was convinced these ideas were important. And at the time, many (but not all) prominent Democrats agreed with him. One reason for the collapse of education reform was the literal replacement of reformist figures by more union-friendly ones, like Joe Biden succeeding Obama. Another was people changing their minds about the merits of the issues. But I think the biggest signpost of collapse was the extent to which politicians like Michael Bennet and Cory Booker, who were once stalwarts of the reform movement, just kind of moved on.
To the best of my knowledge they haven’t actually changed their positions much; they are just focused elsewhere. And stepping back another level, the philanthropic community has largely moved on from this topic.
In Elie Hassenfeld’s history of GiveWell, he mentioned that one of the giving opportunities they investigated early on was a well-regarded New York City charter school. It failed the cost-benefit test for the basic reason that it’s so much cheaper to help people in poor countries, and GiveWell’s work is now focused on global public health. But the fact that they would have even considered the charter school is a sign of how education reform was a sexy funder topic for a while, and how these days it just isn’t. When I worked at the Center for American Progress over a decade ago, they had a program supporting Obama-style education reform. Now they don’t really seem to have any K-12 work at all.
This works for CAP because, at the end of the day, the federal government plays a pretty marginal role in K-12 schools. A national politician certainly can choose to try to involve themselves in K-12 policy, but it’s also easy to duck. That’s a big part of the Bennet/Booker story, too. Bennet ran Denver Public Schools, and if you have that job you basically have to care about K-12 school management. Booker was the mayor of Newark. And, again, as a mayor, you can’t just not have a K-12 policy. The Chicago election actually shows the pitfalls of this: Lori Lightfoot was never really an education reformer, but “just give the union everything they ask for” is not a viable way to run a city, especially a city experiencing hard times and especially when the union has very aggressive leadership. This is one reason education reform was doing well for a while among mayors of very liberal cities —if you’re going to fight with the teachers union, it helps to have a reform agenda with ideas and money and people behind it.
Measure learning, apply consequences
So for a while, this was self-sustaining. The reform camp was appealing to many local Democrats, and the existence of Democratic mayors in the reform camp kept reform issues in the news. With reform issues consistently in the news, the core reform idea of “you should pay attention to K-12 school management” was itself very popular nationally. And the reform movement had some big off-the-shelf ideas for interested politicians to pursue.
When most people talk about a school being “good,” they are talking largely about the quality of the inputs. Harvard and Yale are good schools primarily because you need high test scores to attend them and secondarily because they use their large endowments to create nice facilities. The exam-based public high schools that have been the source of a lot of recent controversy — Stuyvesant in New York, Lowell in San Francisco, or Jefferson in Fairfax County — are good schools because they are the schools the best high school students attend. In D.C., the “good” public high school is Jackson-Reed (formerly Woodrow Wilson), which is just the high school that serves the richest neighborhoods. The funding is equalized citywide, so even though Jackson-Reed serves much richer neighborhoods, it doesn’t get better funding. But it does get better students — students with affluent, educated parents. By the same token, if you move out to the suburbs in Bethesda for the “good schools,” what you are getting is a peer group that has extraordinarily high background levels of educational attainment because that’s where the NIH is.
It’s certainly possible that Yale professors are using pedagogical techniques that are superior to those at the average college or that they have above-average teaching skills. But nobody is really attempting to measure that or hire on that basis. The good school has good students, good facilities, and — especially for younger kids — parents who provide a lot of external motivation and backstopping.
One of the big ideas of education reform, embedded in the slogan “no child left behind,” is that this isn’t good enough. A school that enrolls very few low-income kids and has very strong results on average could still be getting below-average results for those low-income kids. And if you look at every low-income, highly-segregated school in the country, probably none of them have great average results, but some of them are likely doing much better than others.
Reformers wanted us to pay attention to these kinds of performance gaps, try to rigorously measure how kids were doing in math and reading, adjust those outcomes for demographic factors, and then use that information as the basis for action. This could include school-level accountability — the idea was that if a school was persistently delivering below-average results, something should happen. Perhaps the state government should take over management. Perhaps the staff should all be fired and new personnel should be brought in. Perhaps the school should be closed and the students re-assigned to nearby schools. My sense is that the original wave of NCLB reforms was focused heavily on that kind of school-level accountability.
But the Obama administration and Obama-aligned officials were very focused on individual teacher-level compensation. The way a conventional public school teacher salary schedule works is that the pay is based on seniority and perhaps on advanced degrees. The Obama idea was that we should measure students’ demographically-adjusted learning progress and give extra money to teachers who were consistently above average while firing teachers who were much worse than average. D.C., where I live, implemented a system like this after a lot of controversies and political infighting, and I believe it’s delivered modest but real benefits.
The other big idea was charter schools.
Broadly speaking, shutting down bad schools makes a lot more sense if you have some notion of what the alternative might be. Letting new, different schools open up and see if they could do better seemed like a natural option. Reformers also believed that conventional teacher training programs, hiring standards, and compensation models were bad and that schools that operated outside the scope of collective bargaining agreements might do better than conventional public schools. To some on the left, of course, this just sounded like union-busting. And for some on the right, it was in fact just union-busting — they liked union-busting and thus wanted to make it as easy as possible to open any kind of charter school and run it however you wanted. But in keeping with the reform movements’ faith in measurement, the true reform idea was that you would measure charter schools’ performance and shut down the worst-performing ones while letting the best-performing ones expand.
Education as a key lever
One way of looking at these ideas is just as a banal management question. Given that public school teachers need to be paid on the basis of some formula or other, one might wonder whether it’s better to use a pure seniority system, one that’s based purely on value-added scores, or one that blends the two. This seems like something people might disagree about, but that disagreement would be pretty in-the-weeds and boring.
Indeed, I think the vast majority of politicians would probably just take the status quo as a given and not worry about it too much. In D.C., it took enormous controversy and effort for former mayor Adrian Fenty to push D.C.’s teacher pay reforms through, but his successor didn’t reverse them once they were in place and neither has our current mayor.
It’s worth noting, though, that Fenty and other supporters at the time believed education reform was worth running big risks.
That’s because one part of education reform was a set of ideas about how K-12 schools should be run, but another part of education reform was the meta-idea that improving K-12 school performance was extremely important. Education reform had a lot of support among Democrats despite union opposition, because “education is really good and important” is a quintessentially liberal idea. By the same token, George W. Bush’s embrace of education reform was a form of moderation and centrist outreach on his part. He was trying to shake off the public perception that Republicans don’t care about schools and refuse to spend money on anything. No Child Left Behind was structured as a kind of grand bargain where federal K-12 spending would go up, but there would be these management reforms in exchange. And while education reform was hegemonic, unions spent a lot of time countering with their own ideas to raise student test scores. You got a sort of counter-reform agenda arguing that wraparound social services, spending on facilities, and emphasis on desegregation were the right ways to achieve reformers’ goals.
Back in 2011, Barack Obama called improving school quality “the civil rights issue of our time.”
That was a tremendous amount of rhetorical heat and conceptual pressure to bring to bear on these questions of school management. And I think a big part of the reason the reform moment eventually collapsed is that even though the reformers’ ideas were basically good, their rhetoric involved massive overpromising. I have a lot of ideas about how to improve the management of federal mass transit grants and I do believe that fixing this would be good for racial and economic equality, but I’m not going to tell you that this is the answer for fixing racism.
In retrospect, I think this was mostly cynical. Moderate Democrats had some ideas they liked but that unions didn’t like. They needed to think of a way to win the fight with the unions, so that’s what they came up with. Eventually the unions figured out how to fight back, and that laid the groundwork for a lot of today’s education culture wars.
But that’s a story for next time on the rise and fall of the achievement gap.
CTU is not only an important force in city politics, but is specifically an unusually militant and ideological teachers union after some internal upheaval during Obama’s first term — that is itself part of our larger story.