Sustaining Centrist Education Reform in a Time of Polarization
The following piece by Paul Hill and Ashley Jochim was first published by RealClearEducation:
Education has not escaped the politics and polarization in the Presidential campaign.
The strong center defined by GOP moderates and Democrats for Education Reform still exist but its ranks are strained and likely to grow thinner.
Ideologues on the right and left won’t agree that the policy consensus that emerged with President George W. Bush and continued through the Obama administration was moderate and centrist. But much of it was, embracing accountability, choice, and innovation but also focused on productive uses of funds, improving teacher quality, and closing the achievement gap.
But, anti-reform rhetoric right and left has had its effect. Stand-pat superintendents and local unions can hide behind the claim that charter schools and testing are a billionaires’ assault on communities and that schools can improve only with vast increases in funding; GOP legislators and right-of-center think tanks can retreat to claims that government should have no role in K-12 other than to fund vouchers.
From these positions, neither left nor right is likely to accomplish much. As before, the left can only deliver a more expensive system, not a more effective one. And the right stands to prove yet again that a K-12 system without government oversight can be discredited by a few bad actors.
But these results will become evident only in the long run. Will the centrist reform community survive to resume its work when progress is once again possible?
The growing polarization in American education makes the center an important arbitrator of evidence and debate. But for the center to play these roles, it must take stock and act strategically.
While it was ascendant, the pro-reform center made some mistakes that strengthened its opponents. Over-confidence about the quality of the Common Core State Standards, test-based evaluation of teachers, and replacement of traditional public schools with charters led to actions that were more aggressive than the results could always justify. Natural allies, especially parents and community leaders who wanted better schools, were often put off by reformers’ disregard for local sensibilities and demands for speed. Union-funded opposition groups have gained as a result.
Centrist reformers – state chiefs who favor innovation and accountability, local portfolio district leaders, nonprofits and philanthropies – can stay around, keep the ground gained to date, and be ready to move ahead again in two or four years. But that won’t just happen. During the coming hard times, reformers need to:
- Highlight progress and bright spots: Cities like Denver, Cleveland, and Indianapolis have made a real difference for kids via choice, new schools, and performance accountability. Philanthropies and think tanks can continue to document the continued progress in these cities.
Keep the pressure on the existing system: Continue to shine light on persistent inequities. Support rigorous studies and commentaries showing that millions of kids, particularly minorities are languishing in existing schools.
Broaden the reform coalition: Cultivate political support among parents and teachers who are better off today as a result of centrist reform. Help blue-collar whites in suburbs, towns, and rural areas see that the existing system contribute to their problems and can’t adapt to their needs.
Keep pressing for innovation: Develop and evaluate new ideas in personalized and blended learning and demonstrate the effectiveness of making good matches between school approaches and student needs. New approaches to education in suburbs, small towns, and rural areas will pay off politically and for kids.
Acknowledge reform liabilities: From Common Core implementation, civil rights abuses, and bad charter schools, reformers have their own liabilities that need to be aired and addressed. Ignoring problems or defending bad policy does not make them go away but does arm your opponents who have equally ambitious agendas. Document the inevitable state and local failures
Develop new leadership pipelines: Invest in pathways for superintendents and state chiefs, who will be critical to continued progress in an era of federal retrenchment. Build and sustain networks of reform superintendents and state officials who will otherwise be isolated and beleaguered.
This strategy will depend on philanthropies, think tanks, and advocacy groups. The latter groups also pose risks for the center if they pander to ideologues, pick fights with opponents, or ignore evidence that doesn’t favor their agenda.
Philanthropies may play the most important role in ensuring that the center remains meaningful. Advocacy groups and think tanks are dependent on funds from philanthropy, making their agendas in part a function of foundation leadership.
Foundations are always under pressure to jump on some new bandwagon, and (given board composition and incentives) some of that will happen. But the foundations that have underwritten the progress made to date need to sustain it financially.
Centrists have a critical role to play in mediating the polarization that has come to dominate education and American politics more broadly. Their advantage over ideologues on the left and the right comes from following the evidence and building sustainable coalitions within states and localities. A failure on either of these fronts risks making the center irrelevant at a time when their ideas and leadership are more important than ever. During this period of polarization and reaction, centrists need to winter over at Valley Forge, not give up and go home.