America’s Students Flounder while Education Reformers Virtue Signal

The school-reform movement’s best chance to get back on track is staring reformers in the face. Will they take it? And will it be enough?

Last week, the education-reform movement was given reason to despair when the release of the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) yielded dismal results, continuing a decade-long swoon in student performance. The 2019 NAEP, better known as the “Nation’s Report Card,” shows that the steady gains made in reading and math achievement in the 1990s and early 2000s stopped around 2009, and that achievement in both has flat-lined since.

Many culprits for this decade of stalled progress have been suggested, ranging from the Common Core to the Great Recession. We’d like to offer one more.

The U.S. is distinctive for its sprawling, decentralized system of schools, which are governed in large part by 50 legislatures and more than 14,000 democratically controlled school districts.

This means that, for better or worse, educational improvement is always a political project. The failure to improve schooling is thus, in part, inevitably a political failure. After all, improving schools nationwide requires enacting reforms across an array of contexts, and then executing, supporting, and sustaining those reforms in a patchwork of red and blue communities. This Tocquevillian challenge can be answered only with a broad, bipartisan coalition. We suspect that the dismal results recorded by the NAEP are partially due to a once-bipartisan school-reform community’s hard turn to the left.

Today, education-reform organizations and the foundations that fund them are overwhelmingly populated by Democrats. Earlier this year, we analyzed the campaign contributions of the employees at a wide swath of education-reform organizations, including Teach For America and major charter-school operators. More than 90 percent of the thousands of contributions we studied, made over many years, flowed to Democrats. It appears that school reformers today are more uniformly partisan than even the National Education Association, the largest teachers’ union — indeed, the largest union of any kind — in the United States.

This is a massive change from what the reform community looked like 20 years ago. Back in 2000, for instance, political-campaign contributions by employees at a similar sample of organizations were closer to evenly split between Democratic and Republican candidates. It’s hard to pin down precisely what changed — though it’s fair to say that it’s partly a tale of Republicans walking away from school reform and partly one of an emboldened Left driving Republicans out of the movement by prioritizing identity politics and heavy regulation.

Education reform over the past two decades has been marked by a single-minded focus on improving academic performance in schools that serve urban, minority students. This hyper-focus on struggling urban schools, precipitated by the passage of No Child Left Behind, taught middle-class, suburban, and rural Americans that school reform is mostly not about their children or their communities, and, we suspect, helped drive those Americans’ Republican elected representatives away from the cause of reform. When they see that policies have nothing to do with their constituents, elected officials tend to focus their attention elsewhere.

Whatever the cause of the shift, school reform has frequently played out over the past decade as an intramural fight among Democrats, with a small band of reform-minded Democrats taking on the teachers unions. In this conflict, the unions have enjoyed massive advantages in manpower and political muscle. While reformers have sought to win over the civil-rights community, leaders in that community have proven loath to abandon longstanding relationships with the Democratic establishment and its symbiotic partners in the unions. Consequently, a deep-blue reform movement has struggled to sustain earlier wins on issues such as charter schooling and school accountability

In seeking to win the intramural fight on the left, both union and reform Democrats have taken to one-upping each other by staking out positions farther and farther left on hot-button cultural issues. As they’ve done so, reformers have seemingly gone out of their way to alienate Republicans. Indeed, today’s reformers have been engaged in noteworthy efforts to soften school discipline, conscript schools into progressive battles over sexual orientation and gender identity, and enlist schools as outspoken advocates for DACA and critics of ICE.

All this has absorbed time and energy that could otherwise be devoted to more promising school-improvement efforts. Meanwhile, given that education policy is mostly shaped in the states, and that most statehouses have been red or purple during the past decade, it’s no surprise that it’s proven to be a lousy political strategy.

In a bitter (if ironic) twist, the shift has fostered a politically correct monoculture that has made it tough for reformers to notice or address the problems now infecting their movement. If school reform is to get back on track, would-be reformers need to rethink the nature of their coalition. Republicans need to get back in the game, of course, but it’s hard for them to do so when their potential partners are busy demonizing their views and values.

In short, winning coalitions aren’t formed by belittling potential partners; they’re built by participants who identify shared goals and together find opportunities to advance those goals. Whether a decade of stagnant academic outcomes is enough to prod reformers to do that, and whether doing that will be enough to get the movement back on track, remain open questions.

Jay P. Greene is the chair of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas. Frederick M. Hess is the director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.


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