Earlier this week I hopped on the Red Line in the middle of the afternoon to attend a screening of the education reform documentary Waiting for Superman at the Gallery Place movie theater downtown. It’s a resonant, skillfully made film, a pitch-perfect representation of education reform in 2010. And arguably the most striking aspect was the near-total absence of No Child Left Behind, which is mentioned only in passing as one more failed federal plan.
This reinforced an idea that’s been nagging me for a while now: Some time in the last two or three years, we moved into the post-NCLB era of education reform.
It didn’t used to be that way. When I began working on education policy full-time in the early 2000′s, the center of gravity in education reform sat with the coalition of civil rights advocates, business leaders, and reform-minded governors of both parties who pushed NCLB through Congress in 2001. To find that same hum of ideas and influence today, you’d head straight for the annual New Schools Venture Fund Summit and its confluence of charter school operators, TFA alumni, urban reformers, philanthropies, and various related “edupreneurs.” It’s a different world with a different mindset, and this has real implications for public schools.
Why did this happen? First, because NCLB didn’t work very well. The federal government is good at distributing money. It can fund research, provide information, and set standards. It has a significant if limited capacity to prohibit people from doing bad things. But it is very difficult for the federal government to make state and local governments do good things they don’t want to do. And that’s where NCLB fell down. You cannot create a regulatory apparatus that mandates, via adherence to enforceable rules, the transformation of bad schools into good ones.
Enter New Schools, Teach for America, KIPP, and the rest. The civil rights advocates were reluctant to jump on board the charter school movement, because it smacked of right-wing voucherism and they were having a hard enough time managing the intra-liberal politics of opposing organized labor. This turned out to be a serious strategic error. While NCLB turned out to be sadly ineffective at turning bad schools into good ones, the best charter school people figured out how to create good and occasionally great schools from scratch.
Philanthropists and journalists began to visit these schools, which tended to be staffed by TFA corp members or people cut from a similar cloth. Education is complicated and people get frustrated by the seeming hopelessness and ambiguity of it all. The best charter schools had a galvanizing, clarifying effect. In a confusing world, people knew–knew–that here, at last, was something that worked. So they began to open their pocketbooks and their notebooks and inject financial and reputational resources into the new education organizations, valorizing their leaders as heroic figures in the struggle to help children learn.
Teachers unions, meanwhile, also miscalculated on charters. They largely got away with opposing NCLB by positioning themselves against business interests and a Republican president. Fighting the heroic personae of the Dave Levins and Mike Feinbergs of the world was much harder, because it meant being against the great charter schools that people knew in their bones were making the world a better place. The parallel rise of mayoral reform efforts in heavily Democratic cities like New York and D.C. meant the unions had to engage simultaneously on two rhetorical and policy fronts. Over time, the mayoral control people and the New Schools people got to know one another and figured out that even if their respective approaches to education reform sat at opposite ends of the centralized / decentralized spectrum, they had many common convictions–and enemies. It was only a matter of time before, in the form of people like Michelle Rhee, the two groups would converge.
The New Schools approach also had the great benefit of being an open system that invited new organizations and ideas into the fold. There’s a great deal of personal and intellectual cross-pollination among these organizations. Relatively low start-up costs and a flood of new philanthropic money from information-age rich people who prize exactly this way of thinking meant that dollars could be found to back ideas, energy and purpose.
The civil rights / business / gubernatorial model, by contrast, has roots in the morally-charged advocacy of the civil rights movement and operates through a combination of direct lobbying and high-level rhetorical suasion. A surplus of organizations, ideas, and people is actually a hindrance to the focused advocacy this approach requires. A certain respect for experience–and an expectation of toeing the party line–is assumed.
All of this is playing out in the Washington, DC education policy environment today. Every attempt to move ESEA reauthorization forward has faltered, because it means having a brutal political argument over a set of accountability system design issues that people care less and less about as time goes by. And while I doubt he would put it this way, U.S. Secretary of Education (and mayoral control alumnus) Arne Duncan has embraced a post-NCLB vision of federal education policy. In his implementation of ARRA via Race to the Top, SIG, I3, etc., as well as in his “blueprint” for reauthorization of ESEA, Duncan has shown little interest in continuing the project of federal accountability for every child nationwide. Instead, he has focused on identifying the worst schools in America and replacing them with better ones while injecting accountability and talent into the teaching profession. These are precisely the collective aims of the organizations that convene at the New Schools Summit every year. The Department of Education itself is full of high-level staffers whose way of thinking was formed in the New Schools culture.
And while I’m sure Duncan also wouldn’t put this this way, he’s actively contributing to the steady and increasingly successful rhetorical and political attack on the various maddeningly stupid personnel practices that teachers unions continue to defend. Weakened by their unapologetic opposition to the heroic and defense of the indefensible, teachers unions are struggling with the famously difficult task of managing an organized retreat.
I have mixed feelings about all of this. On the one hand, I think the federal government is shifting toward a role in education that fits better with what it can plausibly accomplish: creating and catalyzing standards, investing in information systems, research, and innovative practices, focusing its limited (in the grand educational scheme of things) resources on the students and schools that need help the most. And I, too, have been galvanized by great charter schools. If you honestly believe that helping non-profit organizations give a high-quality education to impoverished children is a bad idea, we have little to discuss.
At the same time, the short- and mid-term implication is little or no attention to students in roughly the 20th to the 70th percentile of school quality, however defined. Charter school networks are unevenly distributed geographically, and even the best can’t grow exponentially over a sustained period of time. Many state departments of education balked when they were legally required to improve the worst schools. How many are going make hard choices when they simply have the option of improving mediocre schools?
In any event, the education world has changed and it’s not going back. I suspect it will take some time for people to internalize this and decide what comes next.