Two Speeches

Although the latest glum international-education data weren’t even released until this week, last week brought a pair of provocative and contrasting speeches about the state of American education in 2013, both of which repay close attention—in part so that you can consider the differences between them.

On September 30, U.S. education secretary Arne Duncan spoke at the National Press Club. The following day, Louisiana state superintendent John White spoke at AEI.

Both men are very smart, very experienced, and very committed to a radically better education system for young Americans. Both were taking stock of the reform movement, education politics, Washington’s role, and much else. They shared several common themes. But they also differed in big ways.

Commonalities first.

*Both deplored political polarization, paralysis, and Washington gridlock.
*Both noted that on-the-ground realities found outside Washington include some remarkably positive education developments that Beltway-based politicos and media seldom even notice. (Duncan referred multiple times to Washington’s “alternative universe,” inhabited also by non-Washingtonian “armchair pundits” who favor “blogs, books, and tweets” that transmit their biases rather than reality.)
*Both took heated umbrage at the view—they didn’t name Deborah Meier, Diane Ravitch, the Education Policy Institute, or the “Broader, Bolder” crowd, but it’s clear that’s whom they had in mind—that education can’t do poor kids any good until economic and social reforms render them unpoor. (White spoke of “pandering fatalism about the education prospects of the poor.” Duncan denounced those who say, “We have to address poverty first before schools can improve student achievement.”)

Their differences, however, are more important—and more interesting. Three struck me as particularly notable.

The most obvious—and not too surprising, considering their present jobs—is their conflicting view of the federal role in education. Duncan savaged Congress for dysfunction and dithering—and acknowledged that state and local leaders are doing good things without waiting for Washington—but also spent a fair amount of time congratulating the executive branch (and his own agency) for its leadership and wisdom.

John White, on the other hand, fingered federal policy and regulation as the source of much that ails American education—and he wasn’t just talking about Capitol Hill. He views Uncle Sam as an obstacle to needed change that’s at least as formidable as “our impenetrable schools of education” and others in the “unaccountable monopoly.” For example, “More than half of our state’s jobs are technical, requiring an education after high school not a university degree. But Carl Perkins funds a scattered set of activities for high school kids, not a workforce engine for the twenty-first century….And in my state, 29 percent of students with disabilities graduated on time last year. But IDEA keeps on calling for report after report, form after form, without really demanding we find a better way.”

He tallied 103 “annual reports required for submission by the federal government of our local school systems,” plus “175 annual statewide reports Louisiana [must submit] each year in the consolidated state performance review”—not including “program-specific reports for IDEA, Race to the Top, School Improvement Grants, and on and on.”

Second difference: Duncan mostly beat up on Republicans and anti-reform pundits (on both left and right), while White had very strong words for education reformers themselves. Duncan really let ‘em have it, but what he said was predictable, while White’s remarks were seriously interesting and challenging for people like me. He declared that reformers have won the air war but are losing the ground war, in no small part because they haven’t adjusted their strategy:

Over a decade, we reformers went from small-time advocacy to seeing our ideas through the halls of Congress. We now oversee not just classrooms but entire state education systems….How we manage our newfound authority in a populist time prone to resenting authority is a critical and tenuous question. Our most important responsibility as reformers is no longer just to clamor for change but to sustain and expand the positive direction of our nation’s education system. The greatest risk we face in doing this is not the validity of our ideas but the pitfalls of authority itself….We reformers, no different from anyone else with authority, risk becoming part of the establishment we resist: well funded, doctrinaire, and more focused on policy than action…

This reasoning leads White to place heavy emphasis on implementation, which he says reformers have largely shunned. (Rick Hess makes a similar point in a fine new National Affairs essay, “The Missing Half of School Reform.”) And by implementation he doesn’t just mean putting new programs into action. He also means dismantling the rigidities of long-established, seemingly impenetrable bureaucracies, their pet programs and entrenched staffers, and the interest groups that block change. (“In my state, half of our students show up in Kindergarten able to count to twenty and recognize twenty-six letters. But the federal government sent $120 million to organizations to run Head Start programs in Louisiana last year with no accountability for getting kids ready for Kindergarten.”)

Duncan, by contrast, seems to think implementation is happening everywhere it can and that what’s needed most is for politicians (Republicans, mainly!) to stop sequestering funds for swell programs like Head Start.

Third difference: White hits hard on the barriers presented by today’s education governance arrangements, which he terms “the plumbing of public education” and the “deep deficit in capacity to change that exists within local school systems.”

He traced this to school-board politics (“stale”), state and federal over-regulation, and the absence of a “unified strategy and an organization to support one”—meaning that districts for the most part are “not ready to implement the revolution in technology, labor, and curriculum [that] reformers envision.” He made clear that this could get worse, not better, as reformers add more layers of their own rules, more mandates, and more emphasis on compliance rather than flexible, coordinated implementation of big-time changes in ingrained practices and structures.

The most disabling condition in public education is not incompetence but learned passivity. It is taught to educators through a distant, fragmented system of governance that exercises power downward, crushing the flow of authentic ideas upward. In this time of such massive implementation, reform leaders need to focus on replacing the leaky, duct-taped plumbing of our passive education system….To not focus on this is to fall victim to the hubris of past reformers, who failed to see that legacies are made through great people and great organizations rather than great policies and programs.

Meanwhile, Secretary Duncan seems largely preoccupied with policies and programs—and politics.

What to make of all this? After all, VIPs (and wannabes) give speeches all the time at places like AEI and the Press Club. My own takeaway: While Arne Duncan is absolutely right to be dismayed by the political/policy gridlock, a higher priority for reformers’ attention over the next ten years or so ought to be the less sexy, less newsworthy implementation and governance issues that John White posed.

-Chester E. Finn, Jr.

This first appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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