Eduwonk And Hess As Scapegoats?

Writing in The American Prospect Richard Rothstein and Larry Mishel discuss the rush to blame schools for, and expect them to solve, competitiveness challenges “Schools As Scapegoats.” I don’t agree with all of it but they raise some fair points about some of the hyperbole that surrounds this issue. Kevin Carey and I made a similar point here in the CSM and Kevin’s outstanding post on the Rothstein – Mishel article is a must-read. It should be noted that educators exacerbate some of this because many, while not believing the hype about schools and the economy, see it as a way to get more resources for schools. You hear the rhetoric at a lot of the establishment conferences and meetings, too. That said, while we need to keep it in perspective, I do think there are some real problems looming because of our inequitable schooling system. If I didn’t I’d work on other issues.

But, Rothstein and Mishel are smart guys and I can’t imagine they’d be deliberately misleading so they must have farmed out some of the research to assistants for the piece because they write that:

The American Enterprise Institute’s Frederick Hess and former Clinton White House domestic policy staffer Andrew Rotherham jointly write in an AEI article that “study after study shows an America unprepared to compete in an increasingly global marketplace.” They worry that the urgent “competitiveness agenda” could be derailed if we are distracted by a focus on equity-improving outcomes for disadvantaged students. Attention will now have to be turned, they conclude, to further improving the technological savvy of those already primed to succeed.

Yes. In fact, we worry so much that we never wrote or concluded that in the issue brief cited or the full PDK article it’s adapted from. Why? Well, either because (a) we were paralyzed with worry or (b) because Hess and I don’t agree on which agenda should take preference when hard choices have to be made. Hint: it’s (b). The point of the piece wasn’t to make a case either way but lay out the tensions between the two, which we do agree are too often minimized in policymaking and policy talk. You saw that manifest itself in part of the recent No Child Left Behind debate on the Hill (for instance how much the accountability provisions should consider the achievement of high achieving students) and also in the ongoing debate about NCLB and gifted students. Since this isn’t the first time that people have ascribed a view to Hess and me based on the article without actually reading what we wrote, what we concluded is here:

“Ultimately, the seeming inability to settle on a coherent [education] agenda is due to a simple truth: schools exist to serve both the equity and the competitiveness agendas—and many other agendas as well. Our desire to ignore this banal reality, to “fix” the equity problem, and then to “solve” the competitiveness problem fosters grandiose ambitions and hyperbolic claims that will inevitably come up short. Schools are meant to serve a staggeringly diverse population of students and a raft of competing needs. Buckling down somewhere will almost inevitably mean easing up elsewhere. The best we can hope for is an incremental, awkward stagger toward meeting a stew of public and private objectives.

The truth is that we cannot do everything. This means accepting disagreement and abandoning the tempting dream that we might reach consensus on what needs to be done if only good-hearted souls would examine the right data. It also means acknowledging that every policy decision will yield both winners and losers. What we need in 2007, 2008, and beyond is not bland reassurance or misguided efforts to paper over real divides, but honest and informed debate about whose needs take precedence at a given moment, what to do about it today, and what to leave for tomorrow.”

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