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Is Reform Really Stalemated -- And Is Early Childhood Really That Easy?

Most folks have responded to this week's Nick Kristof NYT column (Beyond Education Wars) by focusing on two main things brought up on the column: the vicious in-fighting on education that's been going on for a while now and the possibility that the combatants (liberals, moderates, Republicans, and conservatives) could rally around early childhood education.

Many --including TWIE contributor John Thompson -- think Kristof is onto something. And they may well be right.  But left by the wayside is Kristof's claim that reform efforts are really stalemated (that everyone agrees as much), and to a lesser extent the very real obstacles that have kept political factions from rallying around early childhood education for several years now and may continue to do so.

Let's all take a look at both those things before packing up and pivoting (or thinking that others are going to). I am sad to report that I'm not so sure that the stalemate or the consensus are as clear as Kristof and others might wish them to be.


Is reform stalemated, as Kristof asserts?  I think that lots of folks involved in the battle would argue that it isn't, 

A pro-reform guy I know recently described what was going on as a "rout."  And there's a case to be made that despite setbacks and internet opposition the reform agenda continues to chug along, absorbing hits and making accommodations.

Liberal teachers and advocates might point to Chicago and New York as places where reform ideas are being pushed back -- and to the pressures being put on Hillary Clinton to move further left as evidence of their renewed energy. Just the fact that anyone's asking if she's going to support Common Core or parents opting out of testing is a sign. 

My own take is that, while concerns about the reform agenda have risen sharply in recent years, and social justice/economic inequality ideas are much more prominent now than they were three years ago, the real-world events taking place generally still favor the reform approach. That could all change, and no doubt there have been challenges and setbacks, but until and unless reform opposition broadens and deepens it seems like reform efforts will continue to move ahead - albeit in a softened, gentler mode stylistically.

Agree with me or not, the point is that the opponents don't necessarily agree that things are stalemated, and as a result may not be so eager or willing to put down their swords and do something else.  

In some ways, education opponents have a vested interest in continuing the conflicts, which engage and strengthen their supporters. Where would Diane Ravitch be if she didn't have Arne Duncan to beat up? What would Joel Klein or Sandy Kress do with their time if they didn't have the NEA or AFT to complain about? It's not so easy to stand down, or to convince your followers to do so -- though such a thing might be real leadership.


The second question that's got to be addressed about the Kristof column is whether early childhood education (ECE, as some call it) is really all that much of a consensus, in terms of design, implementation, funding, and all that rest.  Others are much more expert on this than I am, but my sense is that there's less agreement there than meets the eye. Pondiscio, Williams, and others have written about this in the past, as have I.

The case for early childhood is appealing.  It includes the recent ESEA markup in the Senate, the ECS report touting increased state spending in the neighborhood of $600 million, public polling data, and academic research.  There are a bunch of funders -- Kellogg Foundation, Packard Foundation, the Buffet’s, Bezos’ -- who are longtime supporters. The First Five Year Fund is still around (I think, right?). Media interest has been on the rise, and pretty much every national reporter at #EWA15 was at the Heckman panel earlier this week.
But previous Obama-led efforts to increase federal spending on ECE have fallen flat, and the merest hint that ECE is a strong issue for Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign means that it won't pass unchallenged by the Bush and Rubio campaigns.
I'd love to be wrong, and may well be, but my initial take is that there's much more battling to be done before opponents agree to come to the negotiations table (insert Game Of Thrones allusion here?) and also some thorny political and logistical issues to be addressed before early childhood education can be considered an "easy" alternative to focus on.

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You are assuming that the harm done by school reform to poor children of color isn't that severe. We who have been in the classroom have seen the damage. That's why we fight.

So-called "reformers" will pack up and pivot the minute the funding dries up, and not before. We see with -- for example -- the parent trigger how the advocates (on the parent trigger side) are trying to swing around to wring every dollar out of their funders with new and different tacks, and jettisoning their original leaders. Extrapolate that to every so-called "reform" project. It's all about the money and nothing but the money.

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