For nearly three decades, education politics have been dominated by a conflict over inputs versus outcomes. Some say public schools and teachers need support and resources to adequately educate all students. Others argue measures of achievement and efficiency prove our education system is simply not up to the task of educating all students - that is, schools and teachers need to work harder and be smarter with the money and resources they have to produce better outcomes.
Thus far, the outcome crowd has almost always won these debates. But that might be changing.
On both the white-hot frontlines of this year's political campaigns and the cubicles of data mavens and think tank wonks writing education policy, there is evidence of a sea change that may break out of the funding versus accountability dichotomy and re-center education politics on a more holistic vision of what schools and students need.
A Top-Down Agenda
The outcome crowd has been dominant from the top down.
Beginning in the 1980s, politicians, policy makers, and business elites pointed to measures of student "proficiency" in reading and math, a yawning gap between how white students and their black and brown peers score on standardized tests, and mediocre results for American students taking international exams as proof that schools and teachers were failing students and communities.
Gradually, political leaders in both parties made "raise the bar" the mantra for education policy.
The attacks on schools resulted in a federal agenda to govern education based on test scores, an agenda that was both a product of policies in reform-minded states like North Carolina and Texas and an encouragement to historically high-performers like Massachusetts and New Jersey to impose new standards and more stringent accountability.
Their crowning achievement was the bipartisan federal legislation called No Child Left Behind that required states to use quantitative outcomes – mostly student scores on standardized tests in reading and math, but some other measures – to determine whether schools met standards. Results also had to be broken down into racial, ethnic, income, and ability student subgroups. A school “passed” if all of its student subgroups met the academic thresholds and the school's other measures weren't declining. A school “failed” when even one subgroup missed the threshold.
NCLB required states to subject chronically failing schools to intervene by either taking over operation of the school, firing all or part of the school's staff, handing the school over to a charter management firm, or closing the school.
A revision of NCLB in 2016 eased federal pressures somewhat – new legislation known as Every Student Succeeds Act gives states more leeway over school intervention strategies – but governance based on the all-mighty test scores still remains the standard in determining failing schools.
But there are now clear signs the accountability argument has become unsustainable.
When teachers in red states across the country walked off the job earlier this year, it sent a powerful message to politicians that the accountability argument had run into a dead end.
The teachers’ actions brought to light to many who weren’t aware that education funding has not recovered from the Great Recession, and the majority of states fund schools less now than they did in 2008, and teacher salaries have been mostly flat or down since the 1990s. Teachers pointed to not only the lack of funding but also to the gross disconnect between the accountability agenda and the deteriorating conditions of their students, their schools, and their communities.
There's strong evidence some politicians are listening.
In numerous primary elections this year so far, progressives surged to victories in Democratic contests in key House race by discarding the party's platform crafted by operatives in Washington, DC and Wall Street. Candidates are instead basing their issue campaigns on cues from their local constituents.
The changing dynamic in the Democratic party will undoubtedly shift candidates more toward the funding-input side, as polls consistently show voters want more education spending, even if it increases their taxes.
K-12 funding will be a "wedge issue" in midterm elections this fall, says a report in Education Week by Daarel Burnette. Winners are taking "strong stances on how (or whether) to shore up their schools' coffers, and their messages seem to be resonating with voters," Burnette observes.
But the failure of the accountability agenda goes beyond politics.
The whole idea that more intense accountability will produce greater gains in student achievement, regardless of funding and resources, is not only losing its currency in politics; it's proving to be bad policy.
According to a new study by researchers at two leading universities, states under NCLB that pushed their accountability agendas the hardest had mostly disappointing results. Setting ambitious goals and putting pressure on schools to reach them led to only small improvements in eighth-grade math and no improvement in fourth-grade reading.
Even among the various subgroups the accountability agenda had been professed to address, more stringent NCLB implementation led to only small improvements in eighth-grade math and possibly in eighth-grade reading achievement, but no effects on fourth-grade math or reading.
This is not to dispense with accountability altogether.
The report finds states that had little to no accountability for schools previous to NCLB were more apt to show improvements after they adopted more stringent standards, and the gains were largest for certain disadvantaged student subgroups. But even these gains eventually plateaued.
The report authors conclude that all the efforts to pressure schools to improve test scores had benefits that were "minor" at best, despite the high expense of the programs and the ill-will they fomented among teachers and communities. "Ratcheting of test-based accountability pressures alone is not enough to sustain improvements in student achievement," they write. "Schools and teachers also need additional resources to improve instructional practice."
Clearly, it's time to break from an accountability-only agenda that is both bad politics and bad policy.
But while the authors' call for a "Goldilocks" solution of getting the balance between accountability and support "just right" is an improvement over the status quo, it's doubtful that policy leaders who got us into the quagmire over outcomes versus inputs should be entrusted with proposing a better way forward.
New leaders being thrust to the forefront of politics by a surge from the progressive left seem to get that too.
Instead of clinging to the ideas of deeply invested "experts," they're listening to voices in their communities who reject the old trade-offs between this agenda or that and call instead for an agenda for the common good. This revitalized populism from the left has united behind policy ideas like Medicare for all, free college, and reigning in Wall Street. Yet it remains to be seen what policies will unify new progressive leaders on K-12 schools. But at least they're on the right track.