#hourofteach (or, Will the Last Philanthrocapitalist Turn Out the Lights?)
Here is an odd thing about Washington. The education bill is hardly an arcane piece of legislation, like revisions in the capital-equipment-depreciation schedules or intercontinental-ballistic missile basing. Ninety per cent of the schoolchildren in America are going to take the tests it requires. And yet, when it comes down to the crucial point in the negotiations, the community of people who know and care about what’s going on with a bill like this is quite small — intimate, really. That’s because Washington’s master narrative — what gets talked about at parties and on television public-affairs shows — has to be kept simpler than any bill of this importance can ever be.
– Nicholas Lehman, Testing Limits (07/02/2001)
The United States Congress, in what has been advertised as a rare show of bipartisan lawmaking, has passed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), and it is all but assured President Obama will sign the law (UPDATE: President Obama signed the bill into law on 12/10). From the general perspective this looks great — the United States Congress is known for its historic gridlock, so passing high-profile legislation with such ease is indicative of a good thing, right?
Assuming agreement equals better education is more about the relative difficulty of the United States Congress than it is about the positives of ESSA. A closer look at the literature shows a recent history of bipartisan agreement on education, starting around the time of the No Child Left Behind legislation, the same legislation our 2015 bipartisan collective considers problematic and ineffectual. NCLB, a much-derided hallmark of the George W Bush presidency, was at once time highly celebrated and seen as the apparatus for equity in educational outcomes for students across the nation. The same platitudes for Every Student Succeeds were, 14 years ago, effused upon No Child Left Behind. When did Eurasia become Eastasia?
Historical amnesia is a dangerous thing — it enables mainstream press outlets to celebrate the bipartisan support of ESSA that was required to curtail NCLB, which was only 14 years ago a celebration of bipartisan collaboration. This is troublesome but continues to be the standard for the Culture of Takes. There is not a widely accepted primer on the history of educational policy (and subsequent reform) in the United States. This lack of common understanding means we as a society turn to the tropes and stories of our culture, which celebrate an assumed Path of Progress tied to a cultural ethos of the American Dream. Education is the means to emancipation. For some, that means ESSA is a success because it pushes back on standardized testing, pushes back on metrics as supreme indicator of teacher achievement, pushes back on bureaucracy.
“Stop the testing” is a good refrain, but there is also a refrain of “stop the government” and “Don’t Tread on Me” that sees emancipation not as a tool of equity and access but rather as a tool of libertarianism and objectivism. ESSA is a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, which was a part of President Johnson’s War on Poverty, governmental policy to provide social welfare as part of the Great Society. In short, the states were considered part of the problem for education, and had been since 1870 when Congress first considered federal education legislation. There was precedence for such legislation; Congress had supported the Morrill Land-Grant Act, the Hatch Act, and the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act (GI Bill), federal efforts to both work with the states as well as independently to provide educational opportunities in more equitable ways.
It is difficult to argue the relationship between the inconsistencies of states in providing education with the historical growth of federal education intervention. This makes the last 40 years of federal education policy unsettling. When President Carter called for the Department of Education to be cabinet-level in 1979, it was widely decried by Republicans, and one of Ronald Reagan’s campaign planks was to abolish it upon entering office. It should be noted that Reagan’s wish to abolish the Department of Education was not in an effort to provide districts greater influence on their practices, but to utilize the state as the apparatus from which to control the district, similar to his actions as Governor of California. As President, Reagan cut much of the funding to the Department of Education, oversaw the workplace-focused fear treatise-as-policy A Nation at Risk, and his Secretary of Education William Bennett called the social science linking educational inequality to poverty a bout of sociological flimflammery. Ironically, it was Democratic governors such as Bill Clinton and Ann Richards who began the push for testing and accountability on a large-scale level as a means of tracking efficacy, a pragmatic pushback to the Abolish the Department of Education call that provided GOP interest groups such as the Chamber of Commerce a foothold in education reform. NCLB was the logical conclusion of the testing and accountability metrics measures started by the New Democrats post-Reagan.
Through that lens, ESSA’s maneuver of US education policy from federal back to state oversight makes sense and is very concerning. While ESSA drapes itself in the well-worn mantra of equity and access for all, the underlying current is to allow the free market to dictate what throughout history has been a social structure. This is why the actualities of the plan support non-traditional pathways to teacher preparation and certification, workarounds to degree requirements for teachers, and easing of restrictions on teacher education programs, among other free-market solutions. ESSA celebrates innovation in how the United States trains teachers, but innovation here is used not as a colloquial shake-up of the system for omnibenevolence, but in the disruptive reality where an easing of restrictions (here in regards to those who prepare teachers) allows for a lower-quality of worker to replace the status quo. Kenneth Zeichner, Professor Emeritus of Teacher Education at the University of Washington, elaborates in a critique of ESSA for the Washington Post:
Imagine the federal government supporting medical preparation academies or other professional preparation academies where the faculty would not be required to have the academic qualifications required by the states and accrediting bodies. Colleges and universities that prepare teachers are required to meet state, and in some cases also national accreditation body requirements for faculty and are able in many, if not most cases, to employ current or recent teachers and administrators as course and clinical instructors.
To imply that individuals with current and recent teaching experience are unable to be hired to work with teacher candidates because of the existence of academic qualifications for teacher educators is a false argument that has been constructed to enable those non-university programs with few or any faculty with advanced degrees to gain access to this federal money.
Government does not move fast; we know how this plays out because it has already happened. The public-private partnership between Udacity and the California State University system (via San Jose State University) is a prime example of the ecstasy and the agony of the State as arbitrator. Students were performing lowly, with minority students making up a sizable percentage, and tuition costs were going up while state funding streams were going down. In the spirit of solving the things in the quickest of time, California Governor Jerry Brown chose not to engage the education, social welfare and policy experts with the California State University system and instead went, hat in hand, to Sebastian Thrun of Udacity, who three years prior was a Google fellow working on a driverless car but had been catipulted by the media into a position of expertise on educational technology. The idea was for Udacity MOOCs to provide low-cost, entry-level courses that would kickstart student achievement and success. But the courses were failure, performing worse than the original SJSU courses the technology was primed to fix. This was determined by Thrun to be the fault of the students, and he moved Udacity to provide business and career training. Recent efforts to address the problems of minority students at SJSU have not received the same applause.
Silicon Valley is heavily invested in how the United States educates its children, sold as a public good but bearing the marks of a Silicon Valley good for skilled workers and monetary investment in systems and services. Digital learning by and large serves those who already do well in traditional/analog learning spaces. The states which have adopted digital and/or online schools and programs of graduation have seen great troubles with these wares. Undeterred, investment continues in the technology, because the problem must be one that can be figured out through the fail fast methodology which works great for debugging software, so why not adopt it in a sociocultural setting where the experiences of children are what is to be debugged. PR becomes about celebrating the intrepid warriors on the front line instead of putting all of this in an historical context, meaning we can expect to see #hourofteach as a means to increase interest in the teaching competency. These promises and pressers embolden government to continue to abdicate its role in asserting education as a high financial priority that requires similar levels of oversight and bureaucracy.
This is not an endorsement of the status quo, but it is a repudiation of political change that amounts to kicking the can. I am on record many times for saying education will not save the world. That does not mean it is not a local and public good, however. Based on our history with educational reform, I do not trust the State’s Rights klaxon as a means to give power back to the local level, but rather a means to support arguments of meritocracy and libertarianism. We have the evidence that such measures do not work, but we lack a shared and known history to bolster our arguments against the push. This leaves ESSA, the most recent reauthorization of one of the most progressive public policy pieces of legislation in human history, less on a path of progress to what Jurgen Habermas would call the public sphere and more towards the apotheosis of an Ayn Rand novel.