The Politics of Education Reform

Article excerpt

Respect existing power bases and make administrators accountable if you want to see better schools.

The recently released Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), which made international comparisons of math and science performance among fourth- and eighth-grade students, strengthened the case of those who are calling for ambitious reform of U.S. education. U.S. fourth graders did relatively well in science and about average in math; eighth graders did slightly better than average in science and slightly below average in math. These findings are consistent with other assessments of U.S. student performance.

The TIMSS study also provided new and valuable information about the relationship between instructional practice and student performance. The message to U.S. educators was clear: science and math education needs to be better focused and more rigorous. Although one can still hear arguments that international comparisons are not fair, that the diversity of the U.S. population or the pluralistic nature of its political culture makes it impossible to replicate the coherence found in other countries' schools, or that U.S. schools are already improving at an acceptable pace, the reality is that the majority of the public, of elected officials, and of educators believe that change is needed. The task is to determine what changes are necessary to make a real difference to students and how reform can be achieved in the U.S. political culture.

The evolution of U.S. education reform

U.S. elementary and secondary education is a vast and extraordinarily complex enterprise that seems to defy simple generalizations. However, the two central imperatives of U.S. educational governance are dispersed control and political pluralism. I have chosen my words carefully here. I use "dispersed" control rather than the more conventional "decentralized" control because I do not think that control of education is actually decentralized in the United States. The notion of local control of schools is, I think. largely inaccurate and outmoded, especially in light of the direction education reform has taken in the past decade. The idea of political pluralism is more straightforward. It captures a fundamental principle of U.S. politics-that political decisions and actions are the result of competing groups with different resources and capacities vying for influence in a constitutional system that encourages conflict as an antidote to the concentration of power.

The story of U.S. education reform since the early 1980s is worthy of either a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta or the theater of the absurd, depending on your tastes. In 1983, the National Commission on Excellence in Education releases A Nation at Risk, focusing public attention on a "crisis" of low expectations, mediocre instructional practice, and menacing foreign competition-thereby legitimating a nascent education reform movement that has already begun in a handful of states. From the beginning, it is fairly clear that there is little the federal government can actually do to fix this crisis, because the ideological climate is running against a strong federal role. By the mid-1980s, with many states gearing up to take on the issue, the National Governors Association, under the leadership of a politically ambitious Governor Clinton of Arkansas, promotes the idea of a "horse trade" - greater flexibility and less regulation for schools and school systems in return for more tangible evidence of results, reckoned mostly in terms of student achievement. This is followed by another spate of state and local reforms aimed at deregulation, government restructuring, and fighter state monitoring of student achievement.

In 1989, an extraordinary event occurs: President Bush and 50 governors meet in Charlottesville, Virginia, to draft national goals for education. This Education Summit inaugurates an all-too-brief period in which there appears to be broad bipartisan support for some sort of national movement to support explicit state and local goals and standards. …