Playground Politics

American education policy isn’t the problem. It’s education politics that needs to change.

By Clay Risen

Tagged EducationUrban Policy

Last November, President-Elect Barack Obama and his wife went shopping for schools in their new hometown, Washington, D.C. And while a few pundits urged them to send their daughters to local public schools, no one seriously expected them to–after all, Washington’s schools are among the worst in the nation; their math and reading test scores are at the bottom of state-level rankings, while a mere 43 percent of ninth-graders will graduate in five years.

The rest of the country isn’t sitting pretty, either. The 2006 national graduation rate was 69 percent, with most big states turning in numbers in the low 60s and several, including Florida, with rates in the low 50s. Only about 75 percent of high school graduates attend college, where 28 percent of students still have such poor reading skills that they require freshman remedial education. Indeed, even more telling than graduation rates is achievement levels: Among the 30 industrialized countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, American students recently ranked 15th in reading, 19th in math, and 14th in science.

And while even the poshest suburban public schools have their shortcomings, the problem is largely an urban and economic one. A study commissioned by America’s Promise Alliance, a nonprofit founded by Colin Powell, found a striking gap in graduation rates between urban and suburban schools–while 75.4 percent of suburban students graduated from high school, that number dropped to 58 in urban school districts. The Department of Education’s National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) found an inverse correlation between the number of students qualifying for subsidized school lunches and a school’s math and reading scores. And things aren’t getting better: Repeated studies by Nobel laureate and education expert James Heckman found that, despite trillions spent on education programs, the gap between non-Hispanic white and minority graduation rates has hardly narrowed in 35 years.

The causes for the disparity are legion. Urban students tend to be poorer, and they tend to come from broken or at-risk homes, factors hardly conducive to school achievement. But they also suffer from poorly funded, managed, and staffed school districts. Because the nation funds schools through localized tax structures, suburban schools on average can afford better technology, teachers, and facilities than urban schools. And while inner-city schools can occasionally attract young, idealistic teachers, they have a hard time keeping them–according to the NAEP, the highest-poverty schools also had the highest number of teachers with less than five years’ experience. Those who stay often have fewer skills and poorer academic achievement levels than their colleagues, who are able to secure desirable berths at suburban schools.

The country’s education crisis is not without responses: The charter school movement, education vouchers, teacher merit pay, inner-city teacher fellowships, No Child Left Behind, parent “academies” to develop better study environments at home–the list goes on, and it continues to grow. So too does the number of think tanks, nonprofits, and manifestos pushing reform agendas. Some advocate niche but necessary items like better computers; others advance sweeping programs to remake the nation’s education landscape. Some plans are well thought-out, others are poorly conceived; many are burdened by ideology. No one has the right answer, but everyone keeps looking.

If education reform is flush with ideas, why does so little get done? The problem, ultimately, isn’t one of policy, but of politics. For more than a decade, the public education world has been split roughly into two camps. One holds that educational progress will only move forward after changes are made in inner-city students’ family and extracurricular life; the other holds that reform must focus with laser-like intensity on teacher quality and accountability. The former tends to support more funding for existing programs; the latter more choice for parents, including charter schools and vouchers. The former is centered around unions and teacher colleges, the latter around nonprofit institutions and “civilian” reformers.

To an outsider, these positions have more in common than not, and they’re obviously aimed at the same goal of improving student achievement and graduation rates. And yet because the debate is as much political as intellectual, two approaches that should work in tandem are instead held in opposition.

The two sides in the education debate established their battlefield formations last summer with the release of two manifestos. The union-supported Economic Policy Institute (EPI) put forth “A Broader, Bolder Approach,” which included William Julius Wilson, Diane Ravitch, Julian Bond, and James Heckman as co-signers and declared that

there is no evidence that school improvement strategies by themselves can close these gaps in a substantial, consistent, and sustainable manner. Nevertheless, there is solid evidence that policies aimed directly at education-related social and economic disadvantages can improve school performance and student achievement. The persistent failure of policy makers to act on that evidence–in tandem with a school-improvement agenda–is a major reason why the association between social and economic disadvantage and low student achievement remains so strong.

At almost the same time, the Education Equality Project, co-chaired by the Rev. Al Sharpton and New York City schools superintendent Joel Klein, released its own manifesto, complete with A-list names (Cory Booker, Newt Gingrich, Michael Bloomberg) and a demand that politicians confront the crucial issues that created this crisis:

teachers’ contracts and state policies that keep ineffective teachers in classrooms and too often make it nearly impossible to get our best teachers paired up with the students who most need them; school funding mechanisms that ignore the reality that students are supposed to be the primary focus of schools; and enrollment policies that consign poor, minority students to our lowest-performing schools.

Both positions seem reasonable. Sharpton, Klein, and others are right to point out the poor state of the nation’s public school faculties, and their focus on improving teacher quality and teacher accountability is as an obvious step toward improving the state of inner-city schools. At the same time, EPI and others are correct to focus on the broader environment in which lower-income students move–and too often fail. It seems bafflingly obvious that change must come both inside and outside the classroom.

And yet almost immediately, the two statements were rendered mutually exclusive by their adherents. Michelle Rhee, the hard-charging chancellor of Washington, D.C. public schools and a signatory of the Education Equality Project, told me last summer that blaming a students’ home life for their poor performance in the classroom is just an excuse by teachers unions to keep the status quo. Meanwhile, her opponents–including the local teachers union–attacked Rhee and her focus on teacher accountability as a stalking horse for anti-public education conservatives.

The debate now engulfing the Washington public school system is a perfect microcosm for everything that is wrong with the reform discussion. Rhee has spent more than a year locked in combat with the union over a new contract that would wean teachers off tenure, place them in a merit-pay system, and link salaries to test scores. Better student testing would mean more money for the teacher; poor student performance, on the other hand, could lead to the teacher’s suspension or even termination. The union refused to put the proposal to a vote of its membership and demonized Rhee in the press; Rhee didn’t do herself any favors by publicly castigating the union–and, by extension, her employees–as intransigent, anti-student status quoists. By the end of the year, neither side would speak to the other, and Rhee was implementing a plan to unilaterally remove teachers she deemed subpar. The result is deadlock, at a time when rapid improvement is vital.

Neither side is blameless. Rhee and her Education Equality colleagues are often too eager to reject policies that address anything other than teacher quality and too hostile toward anything that smacks of establishment thinking, from unions to teacher colleges. But they’re not entirely wrong–while many of the signatories to EPI’s “A Broader, Bolder Approach” manifesto are well-intentioned, too often this wing of the education sector acts as a proxy for those who prefer the status quo to the disruptive changes that true reform would bring.

And yet the result is a painful paradox: At a moment when education policy is making real strides, our education politics is stuck in a narrow, short-sighted, antagonistic framework, in which each side would rather paint the other as anti-student than admit that it might actually have something to contribute. What we need, then, is not better education policy, but better education politics.

New education politics would, first and foremost, require all sides to recognize the validity of each other’s thinking and appreciate the goals they are seeking to achieve. Rhee is not the avatar of racist white developers who want to turn Washington into a yuppie playground (as her legions of critics around the capital contend), and the unions are not corrupt and anti-student. Each side also has to recognize their own limitations: Reformers from Rhee’s circle are too often coming from outside the system, and they have little insight into what it takes to really make a classroom work, having spent most of their time as analysts and nonprofit administrators. But unions and teachers also have to recognize that, though they believe they have students’ best interests in mind, they themselves are biased toward protecting their own jobs, even at the expense of students.

A better education politics would require each side to concede certain policy principles. While teacher accountability is a vital element of reform, for example, it is important to recognize that teachers are also workers, parents, and taxpayers–not automatons who can be expected to sacrifice everything to student achievement. Nor should we expect them to invest the energy and time it takes to build lasting relationships with their students if they are spending all their time worried about their job security. While some aspects of teacher tenure and job protections ought to be relaxed, turning teachers into at-will employees is asking too much. Conversely, teachers need to recognize that they are not just another class of workers, and that they cannot always make the same demands that, say, the Teamsters do. Districts need the flexibility to ask a little extra from them.

What are the chances of something like this actually emerging? So far, Obama–whom observers during the campaign worried was trying to have it both ways, making vague statements to shoot the rapids between the Scylla of the unions and the Charybdis of education reformers–actually seems to understand the need to reshape the debate. Arne Duncan, his education secretary, is one of the few education leaders able to straddle the divide between the two camps and develop programs that address both the classroom and the educational milieu beyond the school walls (he signed both of last summer’s manifestos). His selection shows that Obama grasps the need to bring all sides together, not to minimize dissent but because everyone has something to contribute.

Education policy debates can, and should, continue. But only when the different sides stop demonizing one another will anything actually get done; until then, fights over reform principles and school-district control will make education progress a battle of inches, with students the only guaranteed losers. Obama, then, must play an important role as negotiator and as conciliator. This does not mean being a disinterested mediator–it is important that he and Duncan have clear views on what makes for effective policies. However, it does mean creating an environment in which all sides can access their better angels and admit that they are all working toward the same vision: better schools and better student results. This is Obama’s challenge.

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Clay Risen is an op-ed staff editor at The New York Times and the author of A Nation on Fire: America in the Wake of the King Assassination.

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