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Election Aftermath: An Uncertain Future for Education Policy?

Published:  November 15, 2012

Conventional wisdom may say that the federal government should make way for states in education reform, but a week ago, voters didn’t seem to agree. In Idaho, voters rejected merit pay for teachers, limits on unions’ collective bargaining powers, and an expensive contract to provide one-to-one mobile computing devices to students and teachers. South Dakotans voted down similar measures to eliminate tenure and adopt merit pay. And in perhaps the biggest upset, Glenda Ritz, a teacher, defeated Indiana’s incumbent Superintendent for Public Instruction, Tony Bennett, an education reform superstar. Ritz received strong support from unions and Tea Party conservatives alike, who opposed Bennett’s initiatives to adopt the Common Core standards and assessments, develop an A-F school grading system, evaluate teachers based in part on standardized tests, takeover failing schools, and implement school vouchers. The only education initiatives that fared well were charter school­s, with both Georgia and Washington approving ballot initiatives.

If last week’s elections tell us anything about the fate of education policy over the next four years, it’s that parents – and the public as a whole – have little faith in education policy. And who can blame them? Which specific policies, from the federal government or from states, have improved their child’s experience in the classroom over the last decade?

Sure, there are better data than ever before about schools, teachers, and students. But it’s not always shared with parents in a compelling, personalized way. Yes, states adopted more rigorous standards for all students, not just those expected to succeed. But the general public is, in most cases, completely unaware of the standards and why they matter. And they’re definitely turned off by the idea that, even if students learn the same standards, there are different expectations for their performance based on race. Finally, new technologies have emerged that can engage students in learning experiences in remarkable ways. But they are overshadowed by standardized tests of little value that appear to take time away from real learning.

More so than public opinion toward unions or Common Core, last week’s election results appear to demonstrate the extent of public frustration with testing and “teaching to the test” in particular. In the No Child Left Behind era, teachers and school leaders have often felt battered, rather than empowered, by reform, and their views have seeped into the general public. From the Atlanta cheating scandal to Pineapple-Gate, testing is viewed – at best – as a necessary evil with enough influence already over the education system. Parents and educators (and voters) don’t necessarily take issue with merit pay or evaluations in their own right, but rather with the fact that these judgments will be based on test scores.

Education policy tends to involve rules, requirements, sanctions, and other left-brained tools and structures. However, these tend to conflict with the critical thinking, analytical, innovative right-brained skills and attitudes widely perceived as critical for success in the hyper-connected, 21st century world. Based on the last decade, government bureaucracies and structures – no matter how well-intentioned – often appear ill-fit to create educational settings where this kind of learning occurs.

So some parents have turned to charter schools, hoping that schools outside the authority of districts and states could break the hold of testing and create more productive, engaging school environments. But while growing numbers embrace the idea of charters, the same cannot be said for other mainstream education reform ideas like school takeovers or closures, teacher evaluations, and changes in HR policies like merit pay or tenure reform, based primarily on student test scores. For most parents, returning autonomy and authority to educators is a far more appealing proposition than increasing the significance of standardized test scores. While over 70 percent of the public has trust and confidence in America’s teachers, the opposite is true for government – and it showed in last week’s polls.

As for education policy wonks, this election should serve as a warning. Advocates and policymakers must do a better job of making the case for standards, tests, data, and accountability policies enacted by states and the federal government. One way to do this is by improving them – creating more sophisticated assessments, using and valuing achievement data beyond test scores, and improving how parents and the public access information about school quality. But maybe it’s also time to ditch the rule book and add some right-brained thinking to education reform.

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