Exploring the Lessons of Bush-Obama School Reform

, Steven Koskulitz, Leave a comment

On Wednesday, September 26, the American Enterprise Institute hosted an event which discussed the lessons learned from education reform that occurred under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. The speakers on the panel included Michael Q. McShane from EDCHOICE(an education reform organization), Bethany Little from Education Counsel(an education consulting firm), Frederick M. Hess from the American Enterprise Institute, and Derrell Bradford from 50CAN(an education advocacy group).

McShane remembered that criticizing Common Core initially was frowned upon: “…noticing that, that kind of echo-chamber that was created, or this kind of us-vs.-them that showed up where kind of reasonable or legitimate criticism was dismissed as kind of hating on something or sour grapes. I was like, as we talk about other sort of areas of public policy, like, that’s not a recipe for success.”

He said that components of the reform programs are popular with Americans, but “…when they become real and actual people’s jobs are on the lines or actual schools are the things that we’re talking about, all of that sort of ‘happy talk’ I think falls apart.” He also said that the ideas for education reform were flawed in and of themselves, not the ‘implementation’ of them as some have argued: “…blaming implementation is not like a magic eraser that takes every bad idea away. I think that, like, if ideas can’t be implemented, that’s a problem with the idea.” While critical of ideas for education that were tried in the past, McShane acknowledges that they have “…left behind a lot of infrastructure that later folks are able to build with to do good things for kids.”

Little mentioned that a woman who had problems with No Child Left Behind talked to her and despite her criticisms still claimed that now people were paying more attention to special ed. kids in the wake of education reform. Little said: “And at that moment I realized the really important thing about the reform years, which is ‘they impact real kids, and they’re on the other end of the reforms and you’ve got to keep that in mind.’”
Little described herself as an ed. reformer, and said: “To me, being an ed. reformer means that you put the achievement of students at the center of the system design, and everything you try to do keeps data and evidence and research about how to do it better so that the student succeeds at the center of it”. She believes that this idea may have ‘taken root’ already or it will if it hasn’t already.

Hess talked about the progression of school reform from the older presidents starting with Carter to George W. Bush: “…it was a little bit of money and a lot of happy talk, and I think what really changed starting with NCLB and the Race to the Top was that the sticks and the carrots made this stuff, for good and bad, just much more real in the lives of educators and communities, and that’s I think why suddenly this stuff feels different than all those earlier efforts”. He said education reform was taken very personally by people, and that this made it difficult to disagree about the reform policy: “….it wasn’t just that these were reasonable debates about how to do education, but these were people who were giving their hearts to something, and why would you be stabbing the team in the back?”

Bradford argued that “…over time you get the same sort of historical cycles…” and that he does think that education reform has been similar over time: “…it’s important to know that Bush and Obama, that’s actually what Clinton did, that’s… sort of what FDR did…” He perceives from parents and believes that the correct way to move forward with education reform is to focus on condition setting. “Instead of saying ‘this is the kind of charter school that is excellent, we should be like: chartering is a tool for creating things that are excellent, let’s see what you do with it’”. He also said: “…the more the reforms require the system to change, the less effective they work. The more they sidestep the system, the more effective they work.”