Which of the Above?

The '08 election: another high-stakes standardized test

By Stan Karp

Illustrator: Randall Enos

Illustration: Randall Enos

Presidential elections are like bad multiple choice tests. There are no perfect answers and the best choice usually comes from the process of elimination.

True, this year’s test seems relatively easy. Only a very slow learner could still doubt what the Republicans are offering: an endless “war on terror;” unregulated corporate greed; and relentless attacks on social programs, the environment, and what’s left of the Bill of Rights. If you liked George Bush, John McCain’s your man.

As for the Democrats, Barack Obama should probably be on the ballot twice: once as the charismatic new leader whose call for “change we can believe in” just might resonate with enough voters to elect the first African American president and stretch the boundaries of U.S. politics, and once as the latest Democratic nominee whose centrist balancing act might not survive the cash-driven media circus that passes for electoral democracy in the United States.

While a Democratic victory is no guarantee of substantive change (see the 2006 congressional elections), after nearly eight years of Bush and No Child Left Behind, there’s no denying how shifts in presidential administrations can have major impact on public education at every level.

This year, campaign debate on education policy has followed a familiar pattern. Early polls found that education ranked high on the list of voters’ concerns. Well-funded business and foundation policy groups developed high-powered campaigns to promote “discussion amongst America’s leaders about the need for education reform” (see “Ed in 08”) and prepared dueling policy prescriptions that competed for candidates’ attention. The two large teacher unions played central roles in the primaries and then endorsed the Democratic nominee with varying degrees of enthusiasm.

But once the campaign begins in earnest, the fog of real and manufactured issues and the media’s attention deficit disorder tend to push education policy to the side, where it’s consigned to party platforms and website issue pages that few read. Nonetheless, differences on education, like those on healthcare and other social policies, remain campaign dividing lines that will have real post-election consequences.

In June, two statements, with lists of prominent endorsers from the academic and policy worlds, framed competing directions for federal education policy and drew attention from both campaigns. The “Broader, Bolder Approach” (www.boldapproach.org) initiated by the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, addressed education in the context of broader social issues. The group ran statements in major U.S. papers criticizing the narrow assumptions of NCLB and “the limitations of a schools-only approach” to closing achievement gaps and raising academic performance.

“School improvement, to be fully effective, must be complemented by a broader definition of schooling and by improvements in the social and economic circumstances of disadvantaged youth,” the group’s statement read. “The potential effectiveness of NCLB has been seriously undermined, however, by its acceptance of the popular assumptions that bad schools are the major reason for low achievement, and that an academic program revolving around standards, testing, teacher training, and accountability can, in and of itself, offset the full impact of low socioeconomic status on achievement.”

The group called for expanding complementary efforts to reduce class size, raise teacher quality, and promote better assessment practices while investing in the health, economic, and community development of students and their families. This “Broader, Bolder” approach was endorsed by a wide range of education reformers (Pedro Noguerra, Deborah Meier), policy academics (Richard Rothstein, Diane Ravitch), and former government officials (Janet Reno, Joycelyn Elders). [See website for complete list.]

The same week, the Education Equality Project (www.educationequalityproject.org), co-chaired by New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein and civil rights activist Al Sharpton, framed things quite differently. EEP’s mission is to “insist that our elected officials confront and address head-on crucial issues that created this crisis: teachers’ contracts and state policies that keep ineffective teachers in classrooms and too often make it nearly impossible to get our best teachers paired up with the students who most need them; school funding mechanisms that ignore the reality that students are supposed to be the primary focus of schools; and enrollment policies that consign poor, minority students to our lowest-performing schools.” The antiunion, pro-voucher, pro-privatization implications of the statement were inescapable. The list of endorsers echoed earlier efforts to coalesce an alliance of neo-liberal reformers (roving schools chief Paul Vallas), conservative politicians (ex-Governors Jeb Bush and Roy Romer) and sectors of the education and civil rights lobbies that have become increasingly sharp critics of public education (voucher advocate Howard Fuller, the Education Trust, and Newark, N.J., Mayor Corey Booker).

And there’s John McCain. Seeing an opportunity to hitch a ride on an issue that one recent analysis noted he “hardly ever discusses,” McCain endorsed the EEP statement and explicitly called Obama out because his name was “still missing.” McCain’s endorsement was consistent with The American Prospect’s assessment that “generally, McCain’s pronouncements on education seem calculated to buttress other aspects of his agenda, such as privatization of public services.”

Perhaps characteristically, Obama’s campaign had prominent advisors on both lists. Linda Darling-Hammond, a leading progressive academic and advocate on teacher quality issues, endorsed the “Bolder, Broader” approach while Andrew Rotherham, former Clinton advisor and influential neo-liberal analyst who co-founded the “Education Sector” think tank and authors the centrist policy blog Eduwonk (www.eduwonk.com), signed the EEP statement. Both Darling-Hammond and Rotherham have been rumored as possible education secretaries in an Obama cabinet. Another potential candidate, Arne Duncan, the CEO of Chicago Public Schools (remember when they called them “superintendents”?) was the only person who signed both statements.

As for more specific proposals, Obama has called for an $18 billion increase in federal education spending ($10 billion for pre-K programs including Head Start, and $8 billion for K-12 programs like after-school and dropout prevention). He has proposed a $4,000 tax credit for college tuition in exchange for 100 hours of community service. Obama has also declared his support for public charter schools and for some forms of merit pay, though he has called for using broader measures than tying bonuses directly to test scores, for example, paying teachers for continuing professional growth and having educators help define the criteria for performance-based experiments.

McCain continues to endorse the traditional wedge issues that have defined right-wing attacks on public education for decades: school prayer (including calls for posting the Ten Commandments in school buildings), abstinence education, and calls for teaching creationism and “intelligent design” along with evolution. Despite strong English-only sentiment in Republican circles, however, McCain has supported some bilingual education programs. But he has also denounced the “Dream Act” which would have provided a path to educational opportunities for young people who entered the U.S. before the age of 16 without legal status.

By contrast, Obama’s multicultural history and sensibility have, at times, led him to public positions on issues of race and language that are unprecedented for a mainstream candidate. For example, at a July campaign appearance in Powder Spring, Ga., Obama reportedly said, “Instead of worrying about whether immigrants can learn English — they’ll learn English — you need to make sure your child can speak Spanish. You should be thinking about how can your child become bilingual. We should have every child speaking more than one language.” In an age of English-only referendums and anti-immigrant hysteria, turning such sentiments into federal policy would be a major development.

McCain seems to enthusiastically support any school that doesn’t have a P.S. (for “Public School”) in front of it. He wants to maintain flat federal spending on education, but direct more of that funding to voucher programs, private schools, charter schools, home schooling, and “virtual schools.” One of McCain’s education advisors, Lisa Graham Keegan, is a former Arizona superintendent of education who was tied to the current Bush administration’s scandalous misappropriation of $77 million in federal funds to promote school privatization and has since become a web school entrepreneur. McCain wants to invest $750,000 in such “virtual schools.” Another McCain advisor is Eugene Hickok, former assistant secretary of education in charge of NCLB implementation for George W. Bush.

What to do about NCLB remains the pivotal federal education issue. Bashing the widely unpopular federal law was a staple of primary stump speeches, especially on the Democratic side. But neither candidate has called for outright repeal and both have been vague about the specific changes they’d seek in any reauthorization effort. While Obama has attacked NCLB’s underfunding and acknowledged the “demoralization” the law has spread among teachers and schools across the country, he has endorsed the law’s fundamental premises and pledged to “improve NCLB’s accountability system so that we are supporting schools that need improvement, rather than punishing them.” What sort of changes an Obama administration would propose in NCLB’s notorious “adequate yearly progress” dragnet and its punitive sanctions for “failing schools” may well depend on who wins the internal policy wars in any potential future administration.

McCain also touts NCLB as “invaluable,” but for both budgetary and ideological reasons is likely to reign in federal intervention mandates and return responsibility for managing the now well-entrenched system of “test and punish” to the states. At times McCain’s rhetoric on education seems almost intentionally harsh and unappealing: “Now is the time to demand real, new reform earned through discipline, grinding work, tough choices, and leadership.” Sounds like after-school detention for everyone.

There’s no doubt the stakes in the 2008 election are high, far beyond education policy, important as the impact on schools may be. Even more than in 2004, a Republican victory amidst continued war, growing economic crisis, and impending ecological catastrophe would again raise doubts about the ability of the U.S. electoral system to make even modest “course corrections” as it heads for disaster. Perhaps it’s another example of “low expectations,” but one could make a reasonable case that electing the first African American president, a former “community organizer” whose campaign, at times, has included at least echoes of real grassroots political mobilization, is the most one can hope for from a U.S. presidential campaign.

The campaign is sure to bring its share of “teachable moments” and, throughout, will be a good time to remember John Dewey’s caution that voting is one of the least important things a democracy needs from its citizens.

Stan Karp (stan.karp@gmail.com) is an editor of Rethinking Schools.