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Nov 3, 2006

Neo-progs wanted: Toward a new educational progressivism

In the even of the elections, I am thinking politics. The policy of school improvement through accountability enjoys remarkable bipartisan support for over two decades. In the last presidential elections, John Kerry’s position on education boiled down to making minor amendments to No Child Left Behind act. While there is nothing inherently wrong with consensus on a major policy area, it does not seem right in this particular case. Educational thought had traditionally been bi-polar at least from the times of Rousseau, if not beginning with rival educational systems of ancient Athens and Sparta. It just does not seem healthy to have only one vision of educational reform, for the lack of clear alternatives rarely speaks of an unopposed policy’s strength. The Democratic Party lacks clear agenda not only in education; it is a part of overall crisis of American progressivism. However, the crisis may be especially acute in education. How do we find ways of developing such an agenda?

Although the majority of educational theorists could be safely classified as progressives, there is a curious refusal to engage with the defining issue of contemporary K-12 education, the issue that drives the “Era of Excellence” reforms. Of course, there is no lack of attempt to define new progressive educational policies. However, most of these attempts do not deal with the real problem.

The real problem everyone avoids is that funding public education does not seem to pay off. Hanushek and Rivkin (1997) report that expenditures per pupil have been increasing 3.5 percent per year for hundred years, adjusted for inflation. While there has been a dramatic expansion of K-12 schooling, there is no evidence that quality of education has improved as, or very modest gains. The resources allocated to education do not bring reasonable returns. Moreover, the difference in resources between schools does not seem to explain achievement gaps between students of different classes. The strength of accountability movement should not surprise anyone. It is clear that without some control of how money is spent, there is no point in investing in public education. No responsible policymaker will remove accountability measures and go back to the era of purely quantitative spending increases.

Most importantly, the Democrats tend to slip back into the mode of blind investment strategies that have spectacularly failed in the past. Paying more to teachers or upgrading school buildings are not going to bring any tangible results unless there are some strings attached to it. In fact, the evidence I’ve come across shows that salary raises do not necessarily improve student performance.

This is not meant as a criticism of Democrat politicians only, simply because it is not a job of a politician to produce theory. The incoherence of both Republican and Democratic educational platforms is an indictment of educational theorists. The critiques of the current accountability reforms abound, and there is no lack of suggestions about alternative forms of assessment. Yet it is my contention that educational theory has not squarely faced the problem of accountability philosophically, and has not done its homework to propose a plausible alternative. We, educational scholars, simply have not done our homework, and when policy change has become inevitable some twenty plus years, ago, we were not ready with a set of ideas politicians could have used. The testing spree then was simply a default position, the best available model of accountability to adapt.

The neo-progs, like the neo-cons, should be a breed very different from their parent party’s patriarchs. Bill Clinton is a neo-prog; not just a centrist. He and a number of his followers believe that progressive social agenda can and should be achieved with more efficient government and with reliance on self-regulating market and market-like mechanisms. The role of the government is to regulate with double purpose: both to ensure public interests are protected (like in environmental, safety, social safety net concerns), AND to make sure the markets are stimulated and do what they do best, self-regulate and innovate (their globalization policies, building of cyber-infrastructure, etc.). Unfortunately, the Clintonites seem to be losing ground to more traditional liberals within the Democratic party, who can muster a lot of anger against the conservatives, but not able to offer anything new for decades now. Unfortunately for us, the Clintonites were never able to expand their way of thinking into education. Clinton himself has offered next to nothing in the educational reform area, but as I said, it is not his fault. Goals 2000 was a bit ridiculous version of America 2000; oh well…

The libertarian wing of the Republican Party favors the vouchers solution, which does not have much of empirical evidence to support it, and which is successfully blocked by Democrats at the national level, and in most places locally. The solution has some appeal to me, because it does use market mechanisms to improve education. It will not work though, because to the lower classes, education is not a consumer good or service. For market of schools to work, there needs to be a strong consumer demand for better schooling. While middle and upper class have reasons to demand (and are able to get) better school, for lower classes that is not the case—not because of any cultural or social deficiencies, but because without going to college, high school completion does not really pay off monetarily. As college degree looks less and less likely, the completion of K-12 education looks more and more like a burden and an obligation than an opportunity. Poor people are rational economic agent, just like the wealthy, and their circumstances dictate different choices.

So, what could be a platform for the educational neo-progs?


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