Years ago I spent some time interviewing Ted Sizer, who was as thoughtful an educator as you will find. Sizer was no fan of some key aspects of the 2001 No Child Left Behind law, but he had a plausible alternative. That set him apart from many critics, who lacked any serious alternative to a policy they didn’t care for. You probably didn’t hear a lot about Sizer’s alternative – you have to give parents choices – because it set the usual suspects’ teeth on edge. But Sizer appreciated how serious problems required serious alternatives.
A strange thing happening in the education sector right now is that we have plenty of arguments. Pretty much you name it and there is an argument about it. Some are about serious issues, to be sure. But they’re infrequently serious arguments. And we don’t have a big argument.
Whether you liked or hated things like Race to the Top, Common Core, Bill Clinton’s push on class size reduction, or the No Child law it was hard to miss how those initiatives created a set of politics that organized the conversation to some extent. The ante in the serious conversation was some alternative to whatever was being proposed or enacted. There were claims and ideas that could be falsified and debated based on evidence. Seems largely absent in much of today’s arguing?
Oddly (if you know my deep contempt for Donald Trump) this is one reason I was disappointed that the Trump Administration didn’t follow through on its commitments to launch a massive push for school choice in federal policy. I suspect I would not have liked some of their proposals but at least it would have forced a political debate and begged the question of, ‘ok, if not a radical expansion of choice, then what?’ Or maybe not, the Trump years and coverage of Trump were bananas. But you get the point, it might have sparked a debate or big counterproposals.
If we’re being honest the ESSA law, still the law of the land on much of federal K-12 policy, was the legislative equivalent of throwing in the towel. By the end of that debate it was the education version of Floyd Mayweather fighting Logan Paul. There was no real argument, it was mostly politics and boredom. President Obama didn’t want to be the last guy standing on accountability or reform, the Republicans had long since abandoned the idea, and with Senator Kennedy and George Miller gone the pro-accountability Democratic faction lacked a powerful champion.
Now, substantively, this has consequences. There is reason to be concerned about the law’s impact on equity. Not equity in its various new woke connotations. Rather, the basic idea that federal policy should be focused on ensuring that schools do right by the most underserved students, who historically and today are in general Black, Hispanic, low-income and special needs.
At the same time, we should also be concerned about how ESSA created a vacuum at the national level and took the pressure off of the states to lead with their own innovations. It’s hard to miss that the Biden pandemic relief package threw a lot of money to schools but the list of what schools cannot do with it is shorter than the list of what they can. Some states are leaning in but it’s more a function of individual committed leaders than a systemic approach. Meanwhile, schools are prohibited from using the money for one huge problem looming out there: Unfunded pension obligations. This, even as the legislation contained pension bailout funds for certain types of pensions in other sectors.
That’s life in a vacuum.
Absent big organizing debates, for instance choice, standards, or power sharing in a federal system the smaller arguments take on a tribal quality as education’s various clans squabble with each other. It’s SEL, it’s choice, no it’s standards! More CRT, no CRT! Big fun for the combatants, and big problems don’t get solved.
I’m not suggesting the answer has to come from Washington or be a federal play. Powerful state developed and led reforms can create an argument – standards based reform is a great example. But I’m suggesting that absent a big national argument of some kind, that creates some table stakes, we’ll continue spin as we have for years now and are today.
It is, of course, especially worrisome that this state of affairs persists at the very moment the country is having a national conversation on race, racism, and inequality. That schools are not more front and center in that conversation given the role of schools is not a great signal on the quality of our arguments right now – or perhaps on the power of those arguments to transcend politics in key moments as they have in the past. Sure, the politics have become more tortuous but you can’t lay it all on that.
We need to stop arguing, and instead have an argument or two.