Bipartisanship Necessary for Vital Education Reform
By Bruno Werneck '13
The relatively rapid acceptance of the national education standards that governors and state school chiefs agreed to in May, which categorize and delineate common standards for curricula in both the humanities and sciences, have left President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan ecstatic. Secretary Duncan has publicly announced that he is more convinced than ever that the Race to the Top program and its associated legislation will do much towards rebuilding and revitalizing the United States’ seemingly broken primary and secondary education system.

The verdict is still out concerning the cost-benefit analysis of the national education standards and both opponents and proponents of the plan have become increasingly verbal about the topic in the past few weeks. Like most issues, educational reform is not black-and-white and cannot be treated with narrow-mindedness. Rather it is helpful to look at the history of education reform and to trace and understand the route it has followed over the years.

Standards-based education, contrary to popular perception, has not always been an American legacy; it is, in fact, a novelty conceived of and promoted only in the past few decades. In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, educational reform stressing standardization, which called for concrete and quantifiable measures on a grade-level system, evolved out of the more ambitious outcomes-based educational model. This second system essentially sought to raze the American educational system and restructure classrooms to ensure highly individualized instruction and an emphasis on ipsative assessment. Depressed by substantial implementation failures and declining support, and spurred by the influential Reagan-commissioned report “A Nation at Risk,” the outcomes-based model was scrapped and replaced by the more ‘progressive’ standards-based model in the early 1980’s.

Yet in the past few years the standards-based model has met with bitter criticism and faltering support. The perceived inadequacy of the Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act, with its stringent adequate yearly progress measures and lack of sufficient funding, has contributed to increased calls for reconsideration of the incumbent system. With his Race to the Top initiative, Obama has worked to reimagine the standards-based system and has made it exceedingly clear that, as always, education reform is an issue that must be addressed collaboratively by members on both sides of the aisle.

However, detractors of Obama’s education agenda, the Race to the Top program, and the new series of recommendations announced in March have by and large failed to understand the necessity for concerted action and many have plainly misconstrued the issue. Conservatives suggest that Obama’s initiatives are only the latest in a series of liberal efforts to foster and fortify the ‘government monopoly’ on public schooling and have argued occasionally for a switch to a free-market model. Others are adamant that national standards create an atmosphere of mediocrity and inspire localities to entrench subpar, more easily achievable standards. Still others are persuaded that localities should be the governing authority on the issue of educational standards and that jurisdiction on the area should be devolved to local governments.

Liberals are also guilty, if not more so, of treating the issue of educational reform as if it existed in an antiseptic vacuum. Among criticisms promulgated by liberals, some of which are indeed worrisome, are notions that Race to the Top will compel teachers to limit their curriculum in order to ‘teach to the test’; detract attention from other areas of study, especially the arts; and ultimately, reduce the ability of students to think and act creatively. According to this narrative, the United States would essentially be ushering in an era of mindless automatons intent only upon mathematical and scientific endeavors.

Admittedly, the Race to the Top initiative and its associated legislation carries with it certain faults and will inevitably have unintended consequences. Yet there is no reason to believe that the program cannot be made to address substantial gaps that No Child Left Behind has left in its wake.

For one, we could stand to raise our standards to global competitiveness before complaining about the excess of skilled mathematicians and scientists. Furthermore, petty bickering concerning the hypocrisy of red-leaning states applying for federal monies simply confuses the issue. More than ever, the most expedient path to a more structured, efficient and inclusive educational system in America is to, once and for all, leave politics and ideologies out of the discussion.

As with all solutions, Race to the Top will not redress all the inadequacies of the current educational system. But it is inarguably a uniquely promising idea that should be afforded a greater degree of support from Republicans and Democrats alike. The standards-based model is time-tested and time-proven; instead of working to overhaul the system we should join together in perfecting it.

Issue 05, Submitted 2010-10-06 03:05:19