Barack Obama is a champion of education reform. So is Mitt Romney. Even in the midst of an extremely polarized political season, the former Massachusetts governor has offered praise for Arne Duncan, President Obama’s secretary of education, and for the Obama administration’s Race to the Top initiative. The same is true of Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, who has emerged as the GOP’s leading point person on fixing America’s schools. To those who lament partisan rancor, this might look like very good news. But it’s not. Rather, it is an indication that our conversation about “education reform” is pretty vacuous.
The reform label applies to at least three broad ideas: (1) standards-oriented reform, or let’s have more testing and accountability; (2) human capital reform, or let’s have better teachers; and (3) choice-oriented reform, or let’s use “backpack funding” that will allow public education dollars to follow the student wherever she chooses to enroll, whether it’s a neighborhood public school, a public charter or (perhaps) a voucher-eligible private school. Many people who love one kind of reform hate the others, so saying you’re “pro-reform” doesn’t mean very much.
That shouldn’t come as a shock. There is something about public education that starts Americans gushing and makes them sentimental and unrigorous. Hardly anyone disagrees with the late R&B songstress Whitney Houston, who believed that the children are our future and that we should teach them well and let them lead the way. Schmaltz is deployed on all sides of the debate – from teachers’ union members who insist that those who oppose across-the-board pay hikes don’t care about kids to voucher proponents who specialize in heartstring-tugging tales of inner-city youth.
It’s not just schmaltz that limits our ability to think clearly about public education. Frederick Hess, an education policy scholar at the center-right American Enterprise Institute and one of the smartest think tankers I know, has argued that we’re also hamstrung by our collective fixation on schools as instruments for achieving social justice.
The stubborn gap between the graduation rates and achievement levels of white Anglo and Asian American students on the one hand and Latino and African American students on the other is a real problem, particularly as the Latino share of the population surges. But by viewing public education first and foremost through the lens of this “achievement gap,” philanthropists and legislators have, in Hess’s view, prioritized raising reading and math scores of the weakest students to the detriment of reforms that could boost performance across the system as a whole.