How to Fix the American Education System: Part Three

Frederick Hess
All right, there’s definitely common ground here, but also places where we’re just going to respectfully disagree. I completely agree that personalization and customization, made more manageable by technology, can make it more possible to meet the needs of all kids. And spending dollars smarter means we can do more for everyone. But I do get frustrated that pleasing sentiments and noble appeals too often impede our ability to talk honestly about some of the hard choices.

You asked some good, tough, fair questions. But just one clarification before I try to respond. First, I don’t see myself as part of any team. We all have leanings when it comes to political philosophy, but I see that as distinct from lining up with Democrats or Republicans. I’ve always worked hard to just speak for myself and not for any politician or party—that’s one reason why I’ve thus far never been an official advisor to any campaign or accepted appointment to any public post. All right, enough of that. I see two big questions you’ve posed. One is the role of schools in democratizing opportunity and ensuring that our nation’s children have a shot at the American Dream. The second is what self-proclaimed conservatives are doing on that score.

We absolutely agree with you about the calamity posed by the reality that many children are born into lives where the doors of opportunity are closed against them. We are similarly agreed that a crucial mission of schooling is to help open those doors. No argument here whatsoever. In fact, part of what’s so puzzling about the vitriol of the education debate is that, as you and I have previously discussed, nearly all participants accept both premises as a given. Most of today’s heated debates over accountability, charter schooling, vouchers, teacher evaluation, differentiated pay, and the rest are really about how to best promote those shared aims.

And I think that it’s fair to say that Republican presidential candidates didn’t offer much substance on this challenge in 2011 or 2012. Indeed, I think much of what the candidates put on the table, pretty much across the board, left a lot to be desired. That said, I’m not all that enthused by presidential candidates offering grand schemes for educational improvement. Given that the federal government doesn’t run schools but mostly writes rules and spends money, I’m dubious that Uncle Sam can do a lot of good. The feds can make states, districts, and schools do things, but they can’t make them do ’em well—and most of what matters in educational improvement is how you do it, not whether you do it. Finally, I think that current and recent GOP governors like Mitch Daniels, Bobby Jindal, John Kasich, Scott Walker, and Bill Haslam have absolutely been creative in working to free up funds and drive educational improvement. Now, it’s obviously fair to debate their ideas (I applaud efforts to narrow the scope of collective bargaining, create turnaround systems, expand vouchers, offer “course choice”, and so forth, while others will feel differently), but it’s hard to argue that they lack creativity or energy.

One big question here, circling back to an earlier exchange of ours, is how one thinks improvement happens. One school of thought is that real transformation is the work of “experts” and government officials promoting best practices. As a political scientist, I’m skeptical that such efforts, no matter how well-intentioned, tend to deliver. The problem is that large, established organizations tend to get bogged down in entrenched cultures, contracts, rules, regulations, expectations, and constituencies. Consequently, I think the crucial work for would-be policy reformers is to clarify outcome metrics and expectations, free up educators to spend funds in smarter ways, scrub away outdated constraints and red tape, encourage the emergence of new problem-solvers, and support the resulting efforts. This may feel “non-systemic,” but I find it the most promising course available.

One more thing. I wholly embrace your assertion that schools can and must be engines of opportunity, especially for children born without the advantages of affluence. And I fully agree that living in a democratic community entails sacrifices, that we have all benefited from the blessings this nation confers, and that all of us—especially the most fortunate—have an obligation to give back. But I think there are three places where we diverge in important ways.

First, I’d argue that the affluent are already paying substantial sums for the purpose of trying to educate all children well. If we’re asking them to pay even more, or to see time and attention shifted from their children, it seems reasonable to reassure them that these resources are being used wisely and well and that their contributions are not being taken for granted. I don’t know about you, but I don’t feel like advocates make much of an effort on either score. Instead, I find the concerns of these parents and taxpayers are often dismissed or belittled by reformers. Do you disagree?

Second, it seems to me that “gap-closing” has taken a moral imperative so far that it has lost interest in the needs of children who are already proficient or in learning that doesn’t close reading and math gaps. Thus, it’s been a brutal decade for foreign languages, civics, and the arts, which have been treated as frills. I’ve always thought that democratic schools have an obligation to cultivate the gifts of all their students, and I worry that a monomaniacal focus on gap-closing in the wake of NCLB has reduced the time or energy educators and policymakers spend asking how they might better serve all students. Do you disagree?

Third, American democracy has always been infused with a strong strand of Tocquevillian practicality. Appeals to the general good have always fared worse than appeals built on enlightened self-interest. I think this is generally a good thing, as it has tempered grand projects and airy schemes. And you’re absolutely right that there is a shared interest in providing opportunity to all kids, especially those born without advantages. But I’ve also seen reforms too rarely crafted with an eye to the win-win agenda that you mention. Do you think I’m being unfair, or do you agree that proponents could do a much better job on this score?

Pedro Noguera
Rick, before responding to your questions I want to let you know that I have appreciated our exchanges. I think frank, open, civil debate is essential to democracy and too much of the current discourse about education has become polarized in an unhealthy way that prevents us from addressing, much less understanding, the complexity of the issues. Although I disagree with you on quite a bit I appreciate your willingness to put your ideas out there and have a genuine give and take without cheap shots or name calling. So thanks for participating in this exchange with me.

Here are my responses to your last three questions:

With regard to your question about reformers and their accountability to evidence and results, I would respond by asking: which ones? The mantle of reform has been taken up by lots of people, many of whom are at odds with each other. However, I think you are right that much of what is presented as a reform agenda is not rooted in research or evidence. Nor do we carefully evaluate reform models once they have been implemented to learn from them before encouraging others to embrace them. This results in lots of wasted funds, both public and private. More often than not, reform agendas are primarily ideological and aimed at furthering a particular political agenda. This is true for the folks pushing to judge teachers by test scores and for the advocates of the common core. They selectively use research to defend their ideas while completely ignoring research that would raise questions about the merits of what they propose.

To be frank, I would prefer if education were truly a nonpartisan issue, treated like air travel or the water supply, and politicians were not allowed to tamper with it. It’s simply too important to allow politicians to control how and what our children will, but I guess making education less political is wishful thinking on my part.

Frederick Hess
Pedro, my friend, you raise important points here. I’d just interject three thoughts. One, I do think more than a few proponents of test score-based evaluation and the Common Core are guilty as charged, but I also think that many who denounce such measures—while calling for “de-tracking”, class size reduction, pre-K, or new spending—are at least equally culpable of overblown, grandiose claims.

Two, I think that many of the structural “edu-reforms” that we debate today are tough to “evaluate” in any compelling sense. While it’s relatively straightforward for a research protocol to eventually determine whether or not this new drug “works,” it’s hard for anyone to definitively say the same thing about single-payer health care. That’s because the indirect effects, mitigating conditions, moving parts, and lots of hard-to-track consequences makes the intervention and the outcome much more ambiguous. I think the same is largely true of most structural reforms to K-12 governance, funding, personnel policies, and organization.

Three, the air travel and water examples are funny, of course, because you and I both know how political even those debates do get. Whether talking fluoridation in the 1960s and 1970s, western water rights today, or the placement of waste treatment facilities, water can get immensely political—because it affects how people really live. The same is true of air travel, of course—most recently this spring during the sequester fight when air traffic control briefly became a national flash point in the standoff. So long as public education involves public funds and public employees making decisions about the public’s kids, politics will be with us.

With respect to your second question about the narrowing of the curriculum caused by the policy fixation with the achievement gap, I agree with you completely. I think many children have been short changed by the heavy emphasis on standardized testing and it disturbs me to see so many schools removing or reducing time spent on electives like music and art, or even core subjects like science and social studies because these subjects are not tested.

With regard to your final question about the need for policymakers to address the public’s broad concerns about education, I couldn’t agree more. Right now the reform agenda is focused largely on the education of poor children of color. This might be understandable given the sorry state of schools serving this population, but it’s short sighted to only focus on these issues. It leaves lots of people outside of the debates about the future of American education and it subjects some of our most vulnerable children to ongoing experimentation under the guise of reform. The fact is, many kids are bored in school and changes are needed throughout education. We need an education agenda focused on the role schools can play in addressing the big challenges facing our country: changing demographics, social integration, the decline of cities and more. Increasingly, American society will be characterized by an older white population dependent on a younger minority population to support them in their retirement. Does that worry you? It should, given how we’re educating those children now.

This is why I believe these types of exchanges are important. We face huge challenges as a nation and it will require lots of research, debate, problem solving and critical exchanges to figure out how to solve them.
Back to you Rick.

Pedro Noguera
Pedro, by way of closing, let me first say how much I’ve enjoyed and appreciated this extended exchange. We have agreed and disagreed (sometimes vehemently), but your thoughtful responses and measured tone have made for a conversation that’s been more about understanding arguments and finding points of agreement than trying to score points. And that’s far, far too rare in today’s education debates. One of the things I have always found heartening about our conversations is our ability to disagree without impugning one another’s decency, motives, or intelligence.

After all, schooling in a free nation is inevitably political. What we think schools should do and how they should do it depends in no small part on our views of family, government, religion, and other not-so-small issues. Oh, yeah, and it’s also a question of how we’re going to spend hundreds of billions of public funds on tens of millions of kids. We’re going to have different priorities and points of view. We’re going to disagree about what we should do and how we should do it. But the real test, is seems to me, is whether we can do this responsibly, civilly, and constructively.

Finally, it’s nice to see by way of closing that we’ve identified points of agreement on big, crucial questions. Most significantly, I think we both believe that we need to do vastly better by way of kids born into tough circumstances, but that we must also push back against policies which have pinched instruction and made the mission of “education reform” unduly narrow. In the end, I leave this conversation confident that people of goodwill can hash these issues out fruitfully, respectfully, and constructively…if we really want to.

The Editors

The Editors

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