Class And Schools And Politics

For a look at a big debate in education circles today see this Harvard Family Research Project Interview with Class and Schools author Richard Rothstein. See also this response to the meta-argument by CCCR’s Diane Piche.

In the interview, Rothstein argues that:

Currently, our national education policy expects something we cannot possibly achieve if schools alone are seen as responsible for student achievement. Our national goal is that all social-class differences in education outcomes will disappear by the year 2014. However, when 2014 arrives and gaps have not disappeared, we will judge that schools have failed. Policies will follow from that judgment. But most of these policies will not work, because we will have made an incorrect diagnosis of the problem and therefore formulated an incorrect or incomplete treatment as a solution.

This is a something of a rhetorical strawman, NCLB is about proficiency in math and reading on state tests for most kids, not the elimination of all social class differences across-the-board or in all outcomes as a sweeping statement like that seems to imply. It’s sort of a hysterical assertion, too. Here’s a prediction: Though there will be some progress, all of NCLB’s goals probably won’t be reached by 2014. And guess what? The sky won’t fall policywise, there will not be a big realignment around education because of the results or lack thereof, and the debate in the wake of this great deadline will look quite a bit like it does now! In fact, 2014 might be something of a snoozer except as a convenient peg for big-thinky type articles. Other things drive this debate. Seriously, will the pressure for vouchers, demands for more funding, or resistance to structural reforms in education change much if NCLB “works” or doesn’t? Goals like NCLB’s are important markers and important to driving policy but advocates on all sides tend to ascribe too much power to them to do great things or unleash great ills.

To the larger point, Eduwonk, like many, strongly supports better pre-k education, health care, and expanding other social services in low-income communities. However, pitting those goals against NCLB’s gap-closing imperative creates a phony war. First, because schools can do more now even in the absence of these things, and second because there are plenty of folks who support doing both so it’s not a binary debate politically or substantively except for those on the right and left who choose to make it that way.

In fact, one can envision a powerful left, center-left, and center-right coalition demanding resources and reform and isolating the harder right on the education issue. The center-left and to some extent the center-right (when they don’t go wobbly under NEA pressure) are on board with reform, but too much of the left — with noteworthy exceptions — refuses to budge on any reform that displaces any adult interest in public education. The reason? Obvious but too often unremarked on: Interest-group liberalism rather than reform liberalism.

Besides, once upon a time bold goals and fits and spurts of progress excited progressives. Now they get people scared about sinister policies they might unleash. Not the sort of narrative that gets Americans excited about or politically bought into the possibilities of change…

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