One of the things I love most about the education reform movement is our willingness to look critically at ourselves—our strategies, tactics, outcomes, and more—and argue about whether we need to adjust course. That we do so out in the open tends to drive the advocacy wing of the movement crazy, as it complicates their lives, but disputation seems built into our DNA. And so it is that articles declaring “the end of school reform” pop up regularly—maybe not so often as petunias but certainly more frequently than seventeen-year cicadas.
Right on schedule, then, comes the latest declaration of reform’s demise, this one from two of my very favorite people in the whole world: my mentor Checker Finn and my good friend Rick Hess. Writing in National Affairs, they ask if this is “The end of school reform?” and answer that reform has “come unglued in the face of polarization and populist backlash.”
It’s worth reading all 5,000 words; the authors provide a compelling history of the reform movement’s rise and fall, with many smart insights about compromises that the left and right made to keep the coalition together—and why those compromises eventually became untenable.
But more needs to be said, some of it more optimistic than Checker and Rick. Here I offer four insights of my own.
First, I argue that their essay isn’t about the “end of school reform” so much as the end of the bipartisan ed reform coalition—what Rick and I used to call “the Washington Consensus.”
Second, I contend that the Consensus’s demise was caused primarily, though not entirely, by forces outside education, most critically the populist backlash to the Great Recession that still hasn’t burned itself out.
Third, I note that, despite rocky days for this consensus, education reform continues apace—and continues to rack up victories for kids. (This is good!)
Fourth, I acknowledge that we’d be better off with a new Washington Consensus than without it, and offer some ideas on how to rebuild it. Here I depart from another worthy colleague, Daniel Buck, who is happier than I am to welcome a new reform agenda that is stridently populist and partisan.
I. The end of the Washington Consensus
Rick and I described the Washington Consensus way back in 2006—when we were already watching it weaken. Let’s roll the tape:
The term “Washington Consensus” originated in foreign policy circles. It refers to ideas that enjoy widespread support among political elites across the ideological spectrum. No matter which party is in power, so long as the Washington Consensus stays in place, policies change only in minor ways.
There is now a Washington Consensus in education. It has been entrenched since the middle of the Clinton Administration, was integral to the crafting of NCLB in 2001, and for the most part remains intact today. It embraces three big ideas. First, that the nation’s foremost education objective should be closing racial and economic achievement gaps. Second, that excellent schools can overcome the challenges of poverty. And third, that external pressure and tough accountability are critical components of helping school systems improve.
These ideas took shape as a series of federal mandates, most visibly enshrined in NCLB. States had to set academic standards in English language arts, math, and science; to test students annually in math and reading and regularly in science; and to create accountability systems that would not only report results, but also intervene in chronically-low-performing schools in very specific ways—the law’s “cascade of sanctions.” Meanwhile, as NCLB was debated, enacted, and implemented, the charter school movement expanded rapidly, and the best of these schools—what used to be grouped under the moniker of “No Excuses”—epitomized the three big ideas in flesh and blood while also working school choice into the reform agenda.
As Rick and I explained sixteen long years ago, support for these ideas, and the policies they birthed, was weaker at the state and local level. It was a Washington consensus, held by presidents and committee chairmen, secretaries of education and their top staff. It was not shared by rank-and-file lawmakers at the federal or state level—much less local school board members and educators in the trenches.
To be sure, parents and the public would voice support for various aspects of the reform package. Yes, there should be “accountability” in education. Of course, schools should have “high expectations.” It’s obvious that no child should be “left behind.” Parents should be able to pick their kids’ schools.
Such views turned up in polls and surveys—but they weren’t strongly or widely held. After all, surveys also reported widespread parental contentment with their own kids’ unreformed schools.
What’s remarkable, in hindsight, is how many policy victories reformers won despite relying almost entirely on elite-level support. Then again, that support was through the roof. Four American presidents, from George H.W. Bush through Barack Obama, embraced most or all of the reform package. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush did so as part of an explicit push for voters in the center. Collectively, presidential leadership—with an assist from key Congressional stalwarts like Ted Kennedy, John Boehner, and George Miller—gave birth to Goals 2000, the Improving America’s Schools Act, No Child Left Behind, and Race to the Top, and with them federal support and cover for standards-based reform, charter schools, and more.
What also helped was the fact that the public wasn’t opposed to most of these reforms. They might not have been clamoring for change, but they weren’t dead set against these changes either; disinterested to neutral was more like it. Perhaps because, to that point at least, and for better and worse, the reforms didn’t have much impact on the vast majority of schools—especially those in affluent middle-class neighborhoods. Alas, that was not to last.
II. The Great Recession (and some reform overreach) killed the Washington Consensus
In Rick and Checker’s telling, it was the “peak technocracy” of the Obama years that killed the school-reform coalition, especially the Common Core standards and the populist backlash it sparked. That was part of it, of course, but I would argue that my friends have the causation backwards. The populist backlash came first, and Common Core became an easy early target. And that backlash was birthed by the Great Recession.
After all, it’s not like NCLB wasn’t technocratic. And it wasn’t like there wasn’t a fierce backlash to its testing and accountability provisions—some of it well-founded, given the law’s ham-handed design. Yet throughout the Bush Administration, the Washington Consensus remained intact, with reformers on the right and left staying firm about the importance of holding schools accountable, even if some of us conceded problems with the details of the law or its implementation.
But when W. left the White House for his Texas ranch, all that changed, at least on the Republican side of the aisle. With the economy in shambles, an unpopular war in Iraq grinding on, and Bush’s popularity in the toilet, his legacy came under fire, as well. Congressional Republicans turned against his “compassionate conservativism” (or what critics called “big government conservatism”) and reverted to their “limited federal role” stance on education. At the same time, the Democrats’ stimulus package—and generalized anger over the Great Recession—gave rise to the Tea Party movement on the right. We didn’t know it at the time, but we were witnessing the beginning of a full-fledged populist backlash—akin to what countries worldwide often experience in the wake of financial catastrophes.
President Obama and a handful of change-minded Congressional Democrats trudged onward, trying to use Race to the Top to push for one more major round of reforms. It would be the last hurrah. Rick and Checker are right that tying Common Core to Race to the Top funding was an enormous mistake. So, too, was pushing an ill-conceived teacher evaluation policy from Washington. Neither federally-mandated standards nor test-based accountability for individual teachers was part of the original Washington Consensus; they strained the coalition to the point of collapse.
Still, ill-minded reforms had come and gone before. What was new this time were the enveloping politics. As became clear by 2016, centrist candidates who worked across the aisle to get things done were not what the majority of the voting public wanted. Governance was out; a full-time culture war was in. The Washington Consensus was put on ice—and not just in education.
But here’s what’s essential to remember: The Washington Consensus was not the same as education reform. The consensus is gone (at least for now), but most of the reforms it birthed are still alive.
III. Education reform: “Not dead yet!”
It’s been half a decade now since we’ve had a president in office who embraced large parts of the education reform agenda. And there’s no denying that the Trump and Biden years have been extraordinarily challenging for the school reform movement (and everything else in America). “Negative polarization” is real, and it has infected just about all of us, whether we work on the Hill, in state policy roles, or in sundry ed reform organizations. Elected Democrats in Washington and around the country are increasingly hostile to charter schools, as seen with President Biden’s terrible proposed rules for the federal Charter Schools Program and the House Democrats’ continued attacks on that program. Republicans are at best indifferent to testing and accountability and on the warpath against any curricular materials deemed woke. Nobody is singing Kumbaya.
And yet. Let’s take a look at the real world, shall we?
- The charter school sector continues to grow, energized by the lackluster response of traditional public schools to the pandemic.
- The Common Core standards remain in place in a majority of states, even if they go by different names.
- Annual testing is still here—with better, tougher tests than we had a decade ago.
- High-quality instructional materials aligned to the standards continue to gain market share.
- And that’s not to mention the explosion of private school choice (mostly supported by Republicans) or the progress on school funding equity (mostly supported by Democrats).
And this is all very good! Especially in the wake of massive learning losses, we need kids, especially those from low-income families, to have access to excellent schools, including charters, to help them make rapid progress; we need schools aiming for college- and career-ready standards; we need to give teachers the tools to help their students reach those standards, most notably great instructional materials; we need the transparency of test results to know how kids, schools, and districts are doing.
In other words, as boring as it might sound, we need to stay the course—and in a great many places that’s what we’re doing. We need to stick with our current reform strategy, even—especially—in the wake of the pandemic. Keep growing charter schools. Keep expanding parental choice. Keep adopting high-quality instructional materials, and keep getting teachers trained up on them. Keep testing students regularly, and keep reporting the results. Keep being honest with parents and taxpayers about their students and schools are performing.
None of this stuff is easy; the details matter; implementation takes time. But the basic strategy is right. What could go wrong are the politics.
On that score, it helps that reformers ditched the two policies that led to so much heartburn a decade ago: the federal connection to the Common Core and the push for test-based teacher evaluations. There are lessons there, which I turn to next.
IV. Rebuilding the Washington Consensus
It doesn’t take a Ph.D. in political science to see that the lack of both elite and grassroots support for much of the reform agenda makes it incredibly fragile. That’s especially true for the part of that agenda we used to call “standards-based reform.” (Charter schools and other forms of school choice at least create real, live constituents in the form of parents who will fight like hell to preserve their kids’ schools and their right to make such choices.) In particular, it’s not clear that ESSA’s testing and accountability requirements, limited though they are, could survive the election of a president committed to eliminating them. Losing them would be an enormous blow, putting state-level policies on testing, reporting, curriculum reform, and more at risk nationwide. Combined with education’s overheated culture wars, assuming they continue to rage, we could see state officials throw up their hands and go back to the Dark Ages whereby every school district reverts to doing its own thing, including in the core academic subject areas.
So what might we do to avert such a fate? Energizing grass-roots support for standards-based reforms would be fantastic—but I don’t think anyone knows how to do that. The other option, then, is to try to bring back the Washington Consensus at the elite level, at least in some form or fashion.
Those of us toiling in the policy fields can help by working to rebuild relationships across the political and ideological spectrum, to resist the pull of negative polarization, to avoid culture-war distractions, and to work together again on common causes. We can be smart enough not to try to add divisive items to the reform agenda and/or those that are likely to go badly when implemented in the real world of schools and classrooms, akin to teacher evaluation circa 2010.
And then we need to get lucky. We need for this current spasm of populist, polarized politics to come to an end, and for the American public to elect an “education president” again. That’s not as fanciful as it might sound. Populist spasms of the past didn’t last forever. And I can think of five plausible candidates from each party who might run in 2024 who would embrace the whole ed reform package.
The paradox is that education is an inherently local matter, and yet presidential leadership matters enormously—or at least it has for the past forty years. And someday soon, with some good fortune, we might have presidential will on education reform again.