Strange Days, My Friend

These are strange days. I’m not even talking about the big strange—a new president whose inaugural address featured a quote from a Batman villain, talk of American “carnage,” and a day-after counter-demonstration that dwarfed attendance at his inauguration. If only to keep things manageable, I’m just thinking about the small strange inhabited by those of us focused on schooling and expanding opportunity for our nation’s youth.

Let’s briefly recap:

First, over the weekend, while doing his very best to stifle any notion he’s willing or able to grow into the presidency, President Trump offered up one clause in his inaugural speech that addressed education. He railed against “an education system flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge.” There are many searing, important points a president might offer when critiquing American schooling. This reflects none of them.

Instead, standing in the shoes of Washington and Jefferson, Lincoln and Reagan, President Trump opted for the language of a carnival barker. Yep, America spends a lot of money on schooling—and I’d argue that much of it isn’t spent well or wisely. But Trump’s purple prose ensured that the discussion afterwards would focus on dismissing his overheated language, rather than the issue of whether dollars are well-spent. The garish phrase “beautiful students deprived of all knowledge” sounded like a tenth-grader reaching for a big wrap-up to a high school debate—not a president sounding a clarion call of change in an inaugural. Meanwhile, U.S. News & World Report’s Lauren Camera notes that, when signing the order officially nominating Betsy DeVos to be U.S. Secretary of Education, Trump didn’t seem all that sure what job he was nominating her for.

But we’re going to have lots of time to deal with President Trump. So let’s set him aside for a moment.

The other thing that has made our little world strange in recent days has been the litany of developments suggesting just how hollow the last administration’s agenda turned out to be. Last week, just hours before the Obama administration folded up shop, the Institute of Education Sciences reported that the $7 billion dollar School Improvement Grant program (SIG) was a complete flop. Back in 2009, then-Secretary of Education Arne Duncan had hoped this key initiative would yield “transformation, not tinkering,” aiming to “turn around 1,000 schools every year for five years.” More than just a single program, the failure of SIG represents the Obama administration crapping out on a central policy effort—one that Duncan called arguably the administration’s “biggest bet” just days before leaving office in 2016. Following in the not-so-proud footprints of Comprehensive School Reform and NCLB school restructuring, it was only the latest in a long series of failed federal efforts to boost outcomes in struggling schools.

Former Obama staffer Chad Aldeman took to the pages of Education Next to observe that Obama’s aggressive push to revamp teacher evaluation turned into something of a hash in an unusually honest mea culpa (full disclosure: I’m an executive editor with EdNext). Noting that teacher evaluation was a crucial lever of Obama-style reform, he observes, “Progress was uneven, hampered by both design flaws and capacity challenges. And the changes were unpopular, helping generate a backlash against much of the reform playbook for the last few decades—as well as a strong federal role in education policy writ large.”

The single educational bright spot of the Obama years, especially after some really dismal NAEP results, has been record-setting graduation rates. Of course, it turns out that graduation rates are frighteningly easy to game. All school systems need to do is give enough credits to students who wouldn’t have previously received them and, voila. About that: last week, L.A. School Report noted that Los Angeles’s record-setting graduation rate of 75% benefited from a ton of massaging. Turns out that, in the nation’s second-largest school system, 42% of LA Unified’s 2016 graduates required some kind of credit recovery. L.A. School Report observes, “The quality of those courses, in which most of the work is done online and over a shorter period of time, has been questioned by LA Unified watchers as well as those within the district, including the school board president.” When compared to earlier graduation rates, the veracity of this dramatic increase seems even more unlikely. As L.A. School Report points out, “Twelve months ago, district data showed that just 54 percent of seniors were on track to graduate.” So, our one big educational bragging point in recent years may be due to admirable efforts . . . or bureaucrats blatantly manipulating the numbers.

The path ahead is uncertain, and the one we just left turned out to be a pretty dubious choice. I don’t know what comes next, but we’ll all be well-served to keep our wits about us.

—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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