The Real Challenge in Education Reform
The start of a new year, along with the November election's results, may prompt those interested in the future of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act -- or No Child Left Behind -- to wonder whether or not reauthorization is a real possibility in 2011. The President's reach to newly energized Republicans resulted in some December victories that created some momentum for the Obama Administration going into the new year. The tragedy in Tucson prompted renewed calls for civility and less partisanship; albeit at a high and heartbreaking price. And there are rumblings that Democrats and Republicans might sit with each other when President Obama delivers his State of the Union address. Bipartisanship was the key to President George W. Bush's education victory in 2001. Could the chemistry be there to create consensus on education reform in 2011? Perhaps.
But it would be wise to consider some of the other elements that might color the character of education politics and policies in the new year. Along with a new congress, thirty-six governors were elected or re-elected last November, along with a number of state legislatures. They will have a say in what happens in education going forward; and they should, given education remains, thankfully, primarily a state and local responsibility. Complicating things is the economic straight jacket Washington and the states find themselves trapped in. History teaches us that education policy often comes wrapped in financial incentives; with the money come the strings. But there just isn't much money to spend in Washington. And in many states, where balancing budgets is a requirement, it is belt tightening time.
So at a very basic level, while there is real interest in moving education forward in 2011, it will remain difficult to do. Congress and the Obama Administration will probably begin to seek some common ground. But with no money and both parties still interested in claiming education as their issue while seeming to embrace bipartisanship, the first steps forward will be tentative, at best. And at the state level, trying to push education reform will run up against fiscal realities that will test the most creative leadership in state houses and school houses everywhere. For education reformers at the state and local level, the mantra going forward might very well be "Nothing stimulates the imagination like a good budget cut."
But there is a deeper problem confronting education improvement in this country. It sits below and beyond anything the way policy or politics might play out in Washington or the states. It is a very human problem. Simply put: Our political leaders, elected and appointed, at every level of government, seem to lack the courage and the will to confront the truth about just how bad things have become in so many of our nation's schools. For years, beginning with the standards and accountability movement and running through No Child Left Behind and Race To the Top, the data on student and school performance has been consistent and telling and alarming. Every new governor has fashioned him or herself as an education governor. Every new state chief has embraced the need to reform. Washington has sought to lead a national discussion on real change. And it is all really getting us almost nowhere. We have learned that much of the "progress" being reported in the states isn't really progress at all but the product of shifting standards and expectations so that more kids pass and more schools pass: lowering the bar so that things look better when things really aren't. This is what prompted President Obama and Secretary Duncan to call for a "Race to the Top." But the grand competition and much heralded results aren't even really results. They are really nothing more than plans. Moreover, in some places they are plans created by administrators, politicians and policy makers no longer around; replaced by November's election results. Is it realistic to think they will carry out the ideas of their predecessors? Is it realistic to think the Obama Administration will take back the money of they don't? And even if the ideas are implemented and the money spent, will real, authenticated change and improvement in education have taken place, or just more data manipulation to make it look that way?
Government is a human enterprise. It is, as the Founders often noted, a reflection of human nature. It can reflect the best in us and the worst. Public officials want to improve education, promise to improve education and honestly work to improve education. But when they fall short they too often try find ways to paint a brighter picture than the reality would permit. They don't want to disappoint those who have put their trust in them; they can't allow themselves to be seen as having failed at their mission. The accountability movement -- standards and assessments and transparency -- was supposed to make it easier for America to come to grips with the depth of the problems confronting education in this country. And for all its shortcomings and faults, it has helped. But until we develop the political will to acknowledge what the facts and data tell us instead of trying to edit away the truth, real education reform and improvement will remain elusive. And while we might begin to feel better about our schools and our students and ourselves, we will continue to sacrifice our children's and nation's future on the altar of our own self-esteem.