21st-Century Education Policy Enters Its Afternoon Rerun Stage

It’s good to be back. While I was on blog break, talking about my new Bush-Obama School Reform volume and reading the post-election education policy punditry, I was struck by something: 21st-century education policy has staggered into its afternoon rerun stage.

This reference would’ve made intuitive sense a few years ago but may feel a bit dated today, so I’ll explain. Traditionally, hit television shows went through a few stages: The early excitement when they offered fresh plots, developed a fan base, and caught fire. The hit years, when the storylines were gripping, new episodes a big deal, and the stars omnipresent. The slow decline, as ratings sagged, the narrative got stale, and fans tuned out increasingly desperate plot twists.

And then, finally, there was the afternoon rerun stage—when a once-beloved show wound up in syndication on TBS, its intro and closing sequences compressed to allow for more commercials, the naughtier bits trimmed out, and episodes often aired out of sequence. Of course, by this point, the scarred episodes and scrambled plotting wouldn’t much matter, because the whole thing was mostly wallpaper—something to have in the background while tapping away on a laptop or waiting in an auto repair shop.

Well, after years of prime-time play with Oprah, “Education Nation” glitz, State of the Union applause lines, and political relevance, 21st-century education policy has reached its rerun stage. How can we tell?

The magazine-cover names have left the show, and the stand-ins simply don’t draw the attention or adulation that greeted the heyday cast. (Heck, Washington, D.C., can’t find anyone who wants to be superintendent.) After more than 15 years of “meh” results, viewers have tuned out. Most tellingly, familiar, once-potent talking points are now recycled haphazardly and with little context. One day, there’s an urgent, impassioned defense of accountability. The next, there’s an op-ed insisting that teacher evaluation reform worked much better than anyone imagined. A day later, there’s an amped-up, but largely ignored, press release announcing that someone is rating state Every Student Succeeds Act plans. It all feels disjointed and half-hearted, as if the advocates and communication specialists are distractedly thinking, “This stuff used to be hot! Where did everybody go?”

A funny thing: There are tiny, roving bands of education policy diehards who still obsess about the reruns with the same brassy certainty once reserved for No Child Left Behind (NCLB) or the Common Core. (Even these diehards now mostly eschew played-out brand names in favor of generic celebrations of “standards” and “accountability” and “innovation.”) And they’ve now discovered the merits of listening to practitioners, worrying about research-to-practice pipelines, and embracing capacity building. Along the way, they’re reviving some prime-time classics from the 1980s and 1990s, the same series which NCLB helped usher into rerun exile two decades ago.

For what it’s worth, I find all of this a natural and pretty healthy development. After all, as I observed in Letters to a Young Education Reformer, 21st-century education policy had lost its way as it became disconnected from an appreciation of policy’s limitations, broader parental and community concerns, and the primacy of practice. So, finally moving the whole shebang to reruns was inevitable.

Meanwhile, the search is now on for the new “new thing.” And plenty of pilots are being avidly pushed for the part. There’s career and technical education, social and emotional learning, personalization, early childhood education, and much else. The thing is that none of these really have the narrative sweep that helped turbo-charge the NCLB/Race to the Top era. Those may emerge. Or some of these efforts may morph into a larger, more absorbing show (as happened with accountability and school choice, circa 2000). Or, in a polarized nation dominated by a six-hour news cycle and with a lot on its mind, it may be a long time until a new education show captures the public imagination. We shall see.

— Frederick Hess

Frederick Hess is director of education policy studies at AEI and an executive editor at Education Next.

This post originally appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.

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