Republicans Resuscitate Dead Education Talking Points

Jeff Bryant

Getting a Republican presidential candidate to extend a compliment to Barack Obama is about as rare as getting an economist to admit he miscalculated the housing bubble.

But late last week, the education trade newspaper Education Week noted that a reporter from Politco had just caught Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney citing the current administration’s “education initiatives,” specifically “merit pay” and “school choice,” as something that Obama had “done right.”

Whereas previous front-runners in the Republican presidential primary — particularly Rick Perry and Herman Cain — have expressed strong antipathy toward the Obama administration’s interventions into local schools, the two candidates currently residing at the top of the ticket — Romney and now Newt Gingrich – are easily the most friendly toward the Obama administration’s fondness for old reform ideas like choice, merit pay, and charter schools that hail back to the Reagan years.

But it’s pretty clear by now — especially with the dawning of the post-No Child Left Behind era in education policy — that hardly anyone has any idea what these talking points mean any more.

In the above-cited Education Week piece, for instance, crack reporter Alyson Klein was left completely “perplexed” by what Romney meant by the Obama administration’s preference for “school choice,” since the Obama administration itself hasn’t been consistent on the matter.

What’s meant by “merit pay” has also become watered-down to the extreme. States that want to implement these systems to pay teachers based on “results” are finding it to be extremely difficult to turn these proposals into reality. First, because these schemes require extensive new testing mechanisms to provide the “data” for evaluating teachers, many states — Ohio, for instance — don’t know where the funding will come from.

The Department of Education is trying to incentivize the adoption of elaborate teacher evaluation systems that are required to make merit pay possible. Through competitive grants — like Race to the Top and School Improvement Grants, and waivers for states to escape the onerous requirements of NCLB — the feds dangle the prospect of cash for change in how states evaluate and pay teachers. But how states spell out their teacher evaluation plans in their funding applications is decidedly “murky,” as yet another Education Week reporter recently discovered.

Furthermore, states increasingly find that the money being offered by the feds isn’t enough to pay for these policies — as was certainly the case with California.

And when these elaborate plans roll-out on the ground, the results are proving to be disastrous, witness Tennessee.

Even education reform’s most ardent enthusiasts are slowly coming to the conclusion that what constitutes “reform” in the current political debate is little more than meaningless talking points.

Writing on his own blog, Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute recently lamented that he no longer knows what a “pro education reform message means.”

Is it “pro-reform” to push ahead with teacher accountability systems whether or not they’re ready for prime time? Are “reformers” wedded to a litany of federal activities, whether or not they’re likely to play out as intended, like trying to direct teacher evaluation systems and school improvement strategies from the Department of Education? As best I can tell, the answer is “yes,” though I’m not sure why.

Why indeed!

Nevertheless, observers across the political spectrum continue to push the empty rhetoric of school reform with fervor. Writing recently at New York magazine, Jonathan Chait proclaimed Race to the Top to be “arguably the most significant reform of public schooling in the history of the United States.” So much for Brown v. Board of Education.

It’s not like there’s nothing of substance that an astute politician couldn’t wrap her hand around regarding schools and our children’s education.

What’s playing out down here on the ground is that schools are continuing to see their budgets slashed and burned at alarming levels.

What this means if you’re a parent in Texas is that your kid’s elementary school no longer teaches arts and foreign languages and your children’s classes have increased dramatically in size.

What this means is that our schools no longer teach social sciences virtually nation wide.

In the meantime, our government continues to drop untold billions of dollars on unproven “reforms” like kindergarten entrance exams and virtual schools.

“Well you can’t blame us,” education reform backers like to counter when they’re being called to task for the fact that they are sucking up all the oxygen in an increasingly restricted airspace. But this is extremely disingenuous.

In the business world — that mythic land where education reform supposedly originated — there’s a concept know as “opportunity cost,” and the tab for these policies is way too high.

Reformers like Hess make the excuse that when their failed schemes crash and burn it’s not because the reforms themselves were flawed but because too many people with “impassioned good intentions” mucked everything up.

In this values-free view of the world, the only Very Serious People that should be allowed in the room are spreadsheet wielding technocrats who speak the current lingo of the day.

Well, here’s a “good intention” they may want to try out: First do no harm.

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