Can We Take the Fighting Out of Education Reform?

Maybe the education debate in this country has gotten too ugly. Maybe we’d all be better off if we just took a step back, remembered what’s really at stake, and tried to focus on facts and evidence, not our own ideology.

That sure sounds like a good idea, doesn’t it? And so one group of education reformers is going to try to make this happen. According to an article in the Washington Post:

Into the fray steps Education Post, a nonprofit group that plans to launch Tuesday with the aim of encouraging a more “respectful” and fact-based national discussion about the challenges of public education, and possible solutions.

Peter Cunningham, the former communications guru for U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, is leading the organization, which is backed with initial grants totaling $12 million from the Broad Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Walton Family Foundation and an anonymous donor.

It will focus on three areas: K-12 academic standards, high-quality charter schools, and how best to hold teachers and schools accountable for educating students.

The author is right that the debate about education reform has grown difficult, but there’s little reason to think this new project is going to change much.

PeterCunningham

Note the funders. Also note that Cunningham (right) was the Education Department official who once wrote a widely-read piece in the Huffington Post explaining that Education officials were no longer going to talk to reformer Diane Ravitch because the woman had a bad attitude and resorted to “setting up straw man arguments.”

The real reason that talks broke down between officials like Cunningham and Ravitch, however, was probably that Ravitch was a prominent education reformer opposed to the education polices pursued by the Department who could argue pretty compellingly that they weren’t going to work.

It’s a common tactic of policy reformers to argue that we all just need to calm down and take a look at the facts. And then we can all come together and agree on solutions, right? Oh, and here are the facts, laid out nicely here in this little white paper my group created.

Common Core, the project to bring state curricula into alignment and improve the quality of American education by requiring common, high-level examinations, resulted from a bipartisan agreement between the nation’s governors, who consulted with teachers and subject experts to create the standards. And now it’s criticized as an intrusion of federal power.

The No Child Left Behind Act, which introduced test-based accountability into American public schools, is widely attacked on the left as one of President George W. Bush’s failed policies. That law was a prominent bipartisan initiative, the Bush administration’s signature domestic policy, championed by liberal lions including Ted Kennedy and George Miller.

Good luck with Education Post, seriously. If Cunningham can actually create “respectful and fact-based national discussion about the challenges of public education,” good for him. But the reality is that groups full of politicians and opinionated reformers that start out as “neutral and fact based” quickly become fractious. Because the members don’t agree about solutions.

This isn’t likely to work. That’s because policy reformers don’t get along with other reforms working in the same area because they have serious disagreement about how to fix things. That’s OK. It’s really very hard to try to take the politics out of policy. You’re supposed to fight your enemies.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer