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Reform in a Recession

Tough economic times were an impetus for action. But what’s next?

Making lasting change to a large educational system isn’t easy even when jobs and resources are plentiful. 

But the last few years, since the beginning of the Great Recession—and especially since the wind-down of the federal stimulus program—have shown that making progress is extremely difficult during tough economic times. Whether reform efforts will stall out before the economy begins to rebound is anybody’s guess.

There are things that can get done during hard times that might otherwise be too difficult or unpopular to accomplish. A crisis should never be wasted, as Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel likes to say.

Indeed, the Obama administration’s health-care reform law and the massive spending bill known as the stimulus (with billions for schools) were enacted in large part due to the surge of energy that came from Washington following the economic crash.

And, tucked into the stimulus was the $5 billion education initiative known as Race to the Top, which encouraged states to begin to make a slew of difficult changes such as eliminating charter school caps and adopting the Common Core.

However, concerns about the reality of reforming schools in recessionary times have been on the rise. Thanks to the recession, rising child poverty rates and the spread of poverty to the suburbs have brought new challenges to larger numbers of schools. Upward economic mobility—long the ultimate rationale for improving public education—has stalled, raising questions about the fundamental underlying benefits of focusing on education reform (as opposed to, say, wages, jobs, or child care). Recent experience shows that in the aftermath of crises, policymakers and everyone else are just as likely to hunker down as to push for risky changes.

Perhaps the best example of this phenomenon is the repeated failure of Congress to revamp the 2002 federal education law No Child Left Behind. Following the passage of Race to the Top—and absent the promise of a substantial influx of additional federal education funding that’s accompanied reauthorizations in the past—Congress found it easier to allow the administration to provide “waivers” to states (and a handful of California districts).

Another vivid example of how difficult it’s been to push for reform during uncertain economic times comes from the pushback against Teach for America, the national nonprofit that recruits and places Ivy League graduates in classrooms for two years. Tolerated if not welcomed by career educators, the program’s presence has become increasingly controversial in districts where TFA members compete with classroom veterans for jobs—or where TFA alumni argue against seniority and tenure rules that favor credentials and years of service over energy and perceived performance.

So where does all of this leave us?

In a perfect world, reform advocates and critics would both adjust their agendas somewhat, agreeing to one that is still primarily school-focused but also includes broader antipoverty elements, and uniting to make needed changes. There is broad agreement around the need to expand early childhood education, for example.

Less ideal but still possible is that educators and reform critics could continue to push back powerfully against efforts that they see as unwise and unjust, as they have in Chicago and elsewhere, blocking changes or even rolling them back.

The only outcome that seems unlikely is for reform efforts to emerge from the recession entirely unchanged. The core reform agenda—expanding the numbers of charter schools, rating teachers based on student achievement—has been tarnished too thoroughly during these recessionary years to remain unchanged going forward.  


—Fall 2013— 

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