John Thompson: Hechinger Report Explains the Reagan Roots of Obama Reform Efforts
Many or most problems in urban education are rooted in Ronald Reagan’s “Voodoo Economics.” Yes, schools declined after the 1973 Energy Crisis started the deindustrialization of America. But, Reagan’s “Supply Side Economics” accelerated the tragedy by offering tax incentives for closing still-profitable factories. Families cratered in the face of the subsidized and rapid destruction of jobs, erasing so many hopes.
The implicit message of Sarah Garland’s Hechinger Report, Why Is a Reagan-Era Report Driving Today’s Education Reform?, is that the failure to improve schools is also rooted in Reaganism.
Garland notes, “the Republican-driven revolution is being driven home, as never before, by a Democratic president.” She recalls that many of the proposals in Obama’s RttT and SIG programs seem to be “copied right out of the 1983 report [Reagan’s A Nation at Risk.]
Garland begins by linking the dubious policy of value-added evaluations with A Nation of Risk. I would gladly lay the blame for today’s testing mania on Reagan, but in the only weak part of her thought-provoking piece, I don’t think she nailed down the case for such a linkage. Clearly, however, Garland is correct in her observation, “the Obama administration appears to be doubling down on the standardized testing that critics say was a misinterpretation of A Nation at Risk.”
Similarly, Garland illustrates the test and punish mentality when quoting Chester Finn. Finn supports testing for teacher and student accountability because, “If there’s no sanction or punishment for not learning, then why work harder to learn more?”
I wonder if there is a reason, besides avoiding pain, why human beings might teach and learn?
Obviously, President Obama and Arne Duncan doubled down on the testing component of President Bush’s NCLB, but I am very grateful to Garland for the reminder of how much of a debt that Obama’s and Duncan’s policies owe to the Reagan era. It’s not just the way that both reform eras were built on fear about exaggerated education crises. She recalls the emphasis on teacher quality, longer school days, and standards. She even gets Duncan to admit that A Nation at Risk influenced his policies.
The most intriguing question that is implicit in Garland’s narrative is whether there is a connection between the magical thinking of today, where “High Expectations!” supposedly trump all, and the faith-based, Voo Doo-type mentality of Supply Side Economics. If you believe that Reagan could cut taxes, increase spending, and still reduce the deficit, then the Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) has a school reform silver bullet for you.
The article’s best single observation illustrates the converse of such logic. Since Reaganism, too many policy people have tried to roll the dice in the expectation of some sort of cheap and easy solution for complex problems. But Garland cites the doubts of algebra teacher, Arielle Zern, “I don’t think there are just these few things that we change at every school and we improve every single school in the nation.” Repudiating the quick fix mentality that has become so much worse in recent decades, “There’s not one 100 percent solution, there’s one hundred 1 percent solutions.”-JT (@drjohnthompson) Image via.