Not so long ago, conservatives like education policy pundit Rick Hess thought the impact of education reform should be judged first and foremost by how reform affected student achievement, student attainment and educational access. However, in a sprawling 6000-word broadside against the educational “legacy” of the Obama administration, Hess’ assessment lacks any analysis of how outcomes for students have actually changed in K-12 education and higher education during the Obama years.
Hess devotes much of the article to blaming the administration for political pushback to reforms he and many others have pushed for years, rather than crediting the president and Education Secretary Arne Duncan for following through on their promises and achieving what Hess and others couldn’t. Somehow, Hess completely ignores the role that extremist right-wing politics has played in manufacturing the resistance. In Hess’ view, it’s all the administration’s fault.
Reading the article makes me think that “new” Rick Hess needs to talk to “old” Rick Hess. For New Rick Hess, assessing Obama’s legacy is all about style, not about results. “The Obama years,” he concludes, “have illustrated that how presidents tackle education may matter as much as whether they do.”
Old Rick Hess, on the other hand, virtually wrote the policy playbook the Obama administration followed when it took office. In a 2004 speech, Rick Hess first called for national standards, echoing conservative beliefs that date back at least to the Reagan administration.
As Hess put it, “Washington ought to establish clear and uniform expectations regarding student mastery in reading and math at the fourth-, eighth- and perhaps twelfth-grade level.”
In the same speech, Old Rick also concluded that, “The performance of schools and districts should be judged primarily on how much students are learning while in school—not on the absolute level of student achievement.” For the last seven years, Secretary Duncan has been arguing for measuring “gains” rather than “proficiency.” Old Rick can take credit for getting there first.
Old Rick also called for “a triage model that distinguishes among schools more effectively than does the current system.” This sounds a lot like the current administration’s “priority” and “focus” schools, a policy that New Rick Hess often derides as Washington over-reach.
Old Rick renewed his call for national standards and national assessments in 2007, writing, “With a consistent metric, call it a national standard, accompanied by national tests, everyone’s performance can be fairly tracked and compared.”
A few months before Obama took office, old Rick essentially repeated the call for national standards, saying, “Agreement on what constitutes “proficiency” would seem the essential starting point.”
In 2009, just one week after President Obama was sworn in and two weeks before Congress funded the Race to the Top competitive grant program, Old Rick was promoting reforms the Obama administration would soon embrace. He called for “competitive grants,” “for those states and districts that voluntarily commit to school overhauls…[and] voluntarily commit to effectively provide options.”
Old Rick declared that this approach “offers political cover for state and local leaders who want to push reform, while allaying concerns in high-performing suburban districts fed up with federal mandates.” Five years later, New Rick decided that political cover from Washington doesn’t work.
It is baffling that Hess’ piece completely ignores any impact or changes in outcomes for students that occurred during the Obama years. There’s not a word about the jump in the high school graduation rate to an all-time high, the huge increases in college access for minority students, especially Hispanics or any reference to NAEP scores and college attainment edging up to record highs. What would New Rick have said if high school graduation rates, NAEP scores and college access and attainment had all stagnated or declined during the Obama years?
New Rick’s analysis of the Obama administration’s impact on state policy and K-12 classrooms is equally lacking. He mentions the Common Core State Standards primarily to fault the administration on process grounds, though he concedes that many more states adopted the Common Core standards because the administration provided incentives for states to adopt the Common Core.
Isn’t it a good thing that more states adopted higher standards and are using better assessments today because the Obama administration helped incentivize the adoption of the Common Core? Old Rick would have thought so. Conservative champions of education reform, like business leader Lou Gerstner believe the implementation of the Common Core marks an epic change for the better in K-12 education. New Rick apparently disagrees; what matters now is process, not results.
Similarly, isn’t it a good thing that more states take account of student growth and performance in teacher evaluation today because of the Obama administration’s policies? Or does Rick now believe that the old status quo of ignoring student learning in teacher evaluation was preferable? Rick’s analysis never asks or answers the obvious compared-to-what question. Whatever the flaws of the current policy, were we better off with the previous policy, where 97 percent of teachers were all rated the same? Instead, Rick criticizes the administration for “turning encouraging developments into divisive fads.”
Repeatedly, in New Rick’s take on the Obama administration’s legacy, educational policy is conceived by Arne Duncan in a political vacuum, divorced from the dysfunctional political environment in Washington. In Rick’s absurd rendition of congressional politics, the Obama administration drained “a substantial reservoir of bipartisan goodwill,” while GOP leaders on the Hill like Senator Lamar Alexander and Congressman John Kline are all eager to reach bipartisan consensus.
While they offer sage cautionary advice to Secretary Duncan, the “Obama administration’s taste for invasive regulations and divisive freelancing” kills the strong bipartisan commitment to reform. This mythical bipartisan Congress just forced out rock-ribbed conservative House Speaker John Boehner for being too liberal, yet it’s still Arne Duncan’s fault for going too far.
Somehow, Hess never mentions GOP-driven congressional gridlock on almost every issue; the multi-year sequester of education spending; repeated threats to shut down the federal government; and knee-jerk opposition from Tea Party conservatives to virtually all of Secretary Duncan’s policies.
I served in the Obama administration, working for Secretary Duncan. I welcome fair-minded assessments of the administration’s impact on education. This isn’t one of them.