Jonathan Chait Can’t Rewrite the Obama Education Legacy

Jonathan Chait (BookTV/YouTube)
It was undone by faith in one-size-fits-all federal directives, as well as by a refusal to take seriously conservative positions and concerns.

One unfortunate legacy of the Obama years was the flowering of a certain brand of self-assured intellectual leftism. Celebrating itself as fact-based and empirical, it asserted the right to determine which critiques were legitimate and which were “ideological.” This smug charade was particularly evident when it came to education, where Obama fashioned himself a “post-partisan” crusader committed to rational, commonsense reforms.

Over at New York magazine, liberal uber-pundit Jonathan Chait is hankering for a revival of that Obama show. In a recent column, he calls on Obama to return to the scene and save his “forgotten” education legacy, now under attack from ideologues on both sides of the spectrum. Sadly, Chait’s well-meaning urge to revive a center-left education platform resuscitates many of the missteps and tropes that undid Obama’s education agenda in the first place.

As Chait sees it, there are three broad approaches to education reform, with the “left-wing” and conservative approaches occupying the two extremes, and the “liberal reform position” in the sensible middle. Obama, of course, is the patron saint of “liberal reform.”

“Liberal education reformers, unlike their critics on the left, believe charter schools play an important role,” Chait explains, “and also generally believe that all schools need to have more ability to reward excellent teachers and fire low-performing ones.” Unlike conservatives, liberals believe that “the market alone is not enough to ensure charter school quality.” Topping off the differences, Chait also asserts, remarkably, that “it simply is an observable reality that the liberal reform position is far more sensitive to empirical evidence, and able to shape its preferences in response to data, than either of the other two positions.”

For a self-proclaimed empiricist, though, Chait’s offers an impressive number of tendentious — and flat-out inaccurate — assertions. For example, he characterizes Obama’s 2009 Race to the Top program as a “historic measure” that catalyzed a “‘marked surge’ in school reform, rooted in studying data and spreading best practices.” Yet Chait goes on to assert that that Race to the Top attracted “little attention,” in part because Obama “rarely mentioned his reforms,” to avoid upsetting teachers’ unions, and that “Republicans didn’t want to credit Obama with moving to the center.”

In reality, however, Race to the Top received a shocking amount of coverage for a federal competitive-grant program. A cursory LexisNexis search reveals that “Race to the Top” was mentioned more than 900 times in U.S. newspapers in 2009 and 2010 — including 199 times in the Washington Post; 138 in the New York Times; 40 in the Wall Street Journal; and 30 in USA Today. Far from downplaying Race to the Top, Obama eagerly touted it, including in his 2010, 2011, and 2014 State of the Union addresses. And it drew kudos from prominent Republicans including Jeb Bush, Newt Gingrich, David Brooks, and former U.S. education secretary Senator Lamar Alexander.

Similarly, Chait’s claim that Race to the Top fueled a “surge” in data-based reform and “best practices” is, at best, a partial and partisan reading of the facts. Of course, the $4.35 billion competitive-grant program did spur dozens of states to apply whatever empty promises were necessary to win. Applications contained hundreds of jargon-laden pages, pledging that states would adopt things like “scalable and sustainable strategies for turning around clusters of lowest-performing schools” and “clear, content-rich, sequenced, spiraled, detailed curricular frameworks,” complete with hefty appendices featuring duplicate pages, Maya Angelou poetry, and letters of support from anyone willing to sign.

Chait cheers Obama and the ‘liberal reform position’ for nuance and commitment to data even as he overlooks or misunderstands the factual record.

Enticing a handful of state bureaucrats to make promises, however, proved to be a flimsy lever for meaningful reform. By June 2011, the U.S. Government Accountability Office was reporting that most of the dozen winning states had already delayed or changed parts of their plans. By 2012, even the Obama-friendly Center for American Progress noted that all of the winning states had “delayed some part of their grant implementation.” What’s more, Race to the Top so monopolized states’ attention and tainted reforms with the stench of Washington directive that it ultimately may have done more to retard than to advance the cause of meaningful reform.

Chait goes on like this for 2,300 words, offering up a wealth of dubious claims. His generalized depiction of the “conservative” position on charters — conservatives “want to open up charter schools with as little regulation as possible” — suggests that he is wholly unaware of the healthy disagreement on the right about how much governmental oversight is appropriate for choice programs and charter schools. While Chait states that there is “clear evidence” that private-school vouchers “do not yield better outcomes,” the sum of “gold-standard” evidence on student outcomes is, in fact, broadly positive when it comes to voucher programs. Echoing critics of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, he cites the “unimpressive performance” of Michigan’s charter system as evincing the need for strong oversight — ignoring that even Michigan’s loosely regulated charters outperform the state’s traditional district schools. We could go on, but you get the idea.

Chait cheers Obama and the “liberal reform position” for nuance and commitment to data even as he overlooks or misunderstands the factual record. And he does it all with the self-assured, “post-partisan” fervor that took us right back to the salad days of 2012 — back before the travails of the Common Core, the flop of teacher-evaluation reform, the $7 billion failure of School Improvement Grants, a plateau in student performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and pushback against Obama’s ham-fisted school-discipline reforms combined to take the shine off Obama’s education record. As one of us concluded a few years ago, in the 2015 National Affairs essay, “The Real Obama Education Legacy”:

Barack Obama came to office at a time of broad bipartisan support for education reform. And he managed to simultaneously exploit and fracture this goodwill. His aggressive approach politicized nearly all that it touched, leaving in its wake unnecessarily divisive national debates over issues like Common Core and sexual harassment on college campuses. . . . His administration’s excessive faith in federal regulation, lack of time for the niceties of federalism, and contempt for critics helped undermine . . . support for reform more broadly. Perhaps above all, Obama’s education legacy shows that good ideas executed poorly can prove not to be such good ideas after all.

We appreciate Chait’s earnest attempt to champion a middle path on school reform, something sorely missing on the left in our ResistanceTM era. But Obama-style school reform was undone in no small part by a troubling faith in one-size-fits-all federal directives, as well as by a disheartening refusal to take seriously conservative positions and concerns. If Chait is any indication, there’s little evidence that Obama’s devotees have learned anything from this — except that they’d really like an excuse to dig out those old “Hope” and “Change” posters.

Frederick M. Hess is director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. His books include the forthcoming Bush-Obama School Reform: Lessons Learned. Grant Addison is program manager for education policy at AEI.


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