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Jun 9, 2017

The end of the educational reform?

Here is my report from AACTE’s Day on the Hill event. Democrats are in a defensive mood; their priority is to preserve whatever education funding they can in response to the administration’s aggressive cuts proposal. The legislative branch in general seems to have lost appetite for educational reform. The only new initiative comes out of Jack Reed’s office. It is a bill to reform the Title II of the Higher Education Act. Some improvements to the TQP program, report streamlining, incentives for states to close down poor teacher preparation programs. This is hardly revolutionary, or even ambitious. The era of big by-partisan reform efforts seemed to culminate in the Race to the Top and NCLB waiver programs. The administration voucher initiative is unlikely to receive support among democrats and many Republicans. The idea is not new, have been thoroughly researched and found ineffective, and just politically hard to implement because of the states’ control over much of educational funding.

The pause can be explained by a combination of two things: The President does not have education as his priority, unlike the four Presidents before him. And even if he had ideas, the administration seems to be paralyzed anyway. However, I think there is a second, much more profound reason: no one has ideas anymore.

In the last half-century, there were only three big ideas for education: choice, technology, and accountability. All three turned out to be duds (For more detail, see this book, when it comes out). The school choice concept had all the markings of a brilliant economic reform. However, have no evidence it works. The positive effect is at best, minimal. The accountability may have some limited positive effects on student learning, but again, not nearly of the scale the reformers were hoping for. In addition, it has significant side effects, including the suppression of grass-roots innovation, which are hard to measure. The information technology does not yet seem to affect the academic achievement. The global education community has tried the three reforms in various combinations, with about the same negligible result. What is next? - Literally, no one knows.

Correction; the ideas people have seem to be a bit plain, a bit boring, a bit common sense. For example, in educator preparation, we have known teacher induction to be the weak link (the economics of it does not work). Well, try to push a massive education bill through the House and the Senate, focusing on induction. Good luck. We also have learned from well performing countries that teachers do better if they have independence, more control over their work, meaningful professional development, opportunities for team work. OK, how do you legislate that? Pass a law to respect teachers? Mandate getting rid of useless PD, and replacing it with good PD? Somehow, none of these seem politically feasible. The other large chunk of the real agenda is addressing children’s lives beyond school – poverty, chronic stress, health, nutrition, family support, residential desegregation. Yet no one had at the federal level had an appetite for such things for a long time. In fact, all the educational reforms were implemented in hope that the government won’t be doing the hard things.

I am not pessimistic. The challenges we have are actually exciting. How do you improve education without the Federal government? How do we formulate ideas for change that don’t just make sense to educators, but also engage wider political forces? How do we make education an agenda item?

These are times to think big, to think fresh, to shape the future.

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