The Middle Path of Reform
A contrarian approach is perhaps endemic to the reformer. If A is the problem, then it is natural to assert anti-A as the solution. In the realm of education, if we have been losing ground as a nation, and if the skills gaps among racial groups have not been closing, then the obvious choice of legal reform efforts, beginning in the 1980’s and 1990’s, has been to blame the highly regulated system of public educational bureaucracies. If such educational systems were A, then the solution, for the reformer, must be the anti-A of choice, competition, and accountability to loosen the stasis of ineffective systems. Thus was born the state assessment movements of the 1990’s which culminated in the federal choice and accountability No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation of 2002, the charter school movement which began in the 1990’2, and the rise to preeminence of accountability educational leaders such as Michael Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein of New York who began reforms in 2002, and Michelle Rhee of Washington, D.C., who was appointed Schools Chancellor in 2007.
However, in 2010, Rhee and Klein are no longer Schools Chancellors, significant reforms and flexibility to NCLB are being advocated by President Obama, and the charter school and choice movements are struggling to determine how to replicate the results of highly successful charter models more broadly. Although successes exist, there are a myriad of frustrated reformers originally arrayed with weapons of Harvard Business Review terminology, data-driven instruction, and high expectations who have been slain on the battle field by entrenched interests, the lack of human capital for extremely difficult work, and psycho-social and academic barriers, especially in the urban context, which are rooted in depth beyond what human beings can face with any level of comfort.
The United States is undoubtedly moving into another epoch in educational reform. The question is: Will we continue to manifest bipolar disorder and revert back to A, or will a dialectic of A and anti-A yield a uniquely informed synthesis? One could argue that it is precisely such synthesis underlying President Obama’s Blueprint for Reform for the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (NCLB is the current version of this legislation), as well as his competitive grant program Race to the Top under the American Recovery Reinvestment Act. In his educational approach, Obama seeks to unleash local ingenuity through competition, walk the federalism tight rope by encouraging, but not requiring, states to adopt common national assessment standards, and maintain accountability for school performance, but with more funding for school improvement.
But the middle path of synthesis is not compromise. It is a third way (or a fourth way, etc.), and thus its thoughtful substance threatens deeply the worlds of A and anti-A. Recent political history, of course, has overtly challenged visions of complexity. As the current political landscape collides with the next wave of educational reform that is upon us, we can only hope that synthesis is possible. If one is a supporter of the Obama vision–and I am–then one must believe that the tortoise must outlast the hair. One must have the integrity and resilience to maintain faith when the fears of the world have necessitated a reversion to anti-A. One must have the courage to live in uncertainty and seek complex solutions to the almost unbearably complex challenges we face.