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How to Talk About Education

It's the new year and, with the holidays behind us, time to start posting again. So here goes.

DR was struck, in looking through the latest Washington Post poll, how poorly Bush is doing on the education issue. In this poll, his approval rating on education is down to 47 percent, 8 points lower than his late October rating and by far the worst of his presidency. And this rating is in mid-bounce, as it were, when most of his other domestic ratings have gone up at least a bit in response to the positive mood generated by Saddam's capture.

Why the poor education rating? Apparently the public is less than enthralled with the results so far of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, where states either tend to have huge numbers of failing schools or standards so loose that proficiency doesn't mean anything (exhibit A: Texas says that 85 percent of its fourth-grade students are proficient, yet the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the gold standard for student testing, says only 27 percent are). And, of course, nobody's got any money to improve the schools and fix problems because of almost universal state budget problems.

As DR has argued before, the policy train wreck the NCLB is fast becoming is potentially a huge liability for Bush and a big opportunity for the Democrats. But (and here's the tricky part), that's only going to be true if the issue is handled correctly.

The big problem for the Democrats will be resisting the temptation to simply denounce NCLB as a failure and leave it at that. That would be a big mistake. Polling data could not be clearer that the public supports holding schools accountable for meeting standards and does not wish to depart from such an approach. Therefore, Democrats must strenuously avoid appearing uninterested in holding schools to standards and only interested in more spending on education.

As with affirmative action, this is another clear case of "mend it, don't end it". Voters want to know how you're going to help students meet standards, not how you're going to discard standards and provide more resources to schools.

But, provided they maintain the public's commitment to high standards and stringent accountability, Democrats will find a receptive audience for proposals to give schools the resources they need to modernize to meet the needs of today’s students. That includes universal access to pre-school and after-school, a dramatic commitment to increased teacher quality and ensuring that every student can continue their education beyond high school. This, in turn, will mean changing the ways schools operate, recruit teachers and provide services. A modernization program on this scale will go far toward branding the Democrats as the party of the future, whereas giving up on standards and just calling for more spending will make them sound like the party of the past.


This is right on. Democrats need to realize that a very significant part of the "base" of voters are the most likely to be generally attracted to "voucher" type arguments, precisely because they are the parents trapped in the least capable schools, and have the least ability to command options. One aspect of NCLB is that such children have transfer rights to better performing schools. The problem is that while thousands have signed up for transfer, only a handful have been accepted by better schools. A promise of transfer rights is no guarentee a different school district has any incentive to accept a transfer applicant.

Democrats would be wise to argue that "testing" should not be exclusively about rating schools, but it should also be individualized diagnostic testing, that triggers interventions as appropriate. Efforts were made in the Senate to incorporate this in NCLB and they failed. Talking up this in a clear way would be useful. Do the right resources get delivered to the children who need them as a result of competent measurement?

Democrats do need to develop a clear policy regarding the very large matter od Educational Funding -- realizing that the Feds pay less than 10% overall, and the state and local governments -- which have a much narrower tax base -- pay 90+% of overall costs, and in economically difficult times, education at all levels takes greater cuts. It is time to take up this issue as a core party policy, and stop nibbling around the edges. We now have 20 years of state court efforts to equalize funding across districts, with quite unequal results, we have a public that will vote to reduce class size when asked -- but a political establishment quite unwilling to face the costs, even though research indicates class size to be a critical variable in school effectiveness. Likewise, we know that Parential Engagement with teachers and schools to be a critical variable in educational success -- but again efforts to act on that information have been piecemeal at best. The Democratic Party needs to articulate these policy points in a unified national vision that integrates ideas about comprehensive funding with a vision of what ecucation should be that reflects the gross frustrations of our base voters.

I'm not sure about the other canidates, but for the past year Howard Dean has been criticizing NCLB because it's an unfunded mandate, while making the point that standards and accountability are still essential. In fact, it's difficult to see any daylight between Dean's position and the advice offered here.

Here are some specifics from deanforamerica.com:

"Once children begin school, we must continue to support their development. President Bush’s ‘No Child Left Behind’ Act leaves students to falter at the starting line. Standards and accountability are important, but rigid and unrealistic mandates, incentives for lowering standards, burdensome sanctions, over-reliance on testing, and demoralizing labels are not. Despite good intentions, it has devastated many of our poorer school districts and forced property tax hikes across America. In Vermont, I worked toward high standards, enlightened assessment, and accountability for our schools. I was committed to well-funded school reform and Vermont is now a national leader in education.

"As President, I will also work to strengthen our schools with improved student health centers, a focus on parental involvement, recruiting and retaining outstanding teachers and administrators, and resources to fund key mandates. We must fully fund the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, increase funding for elementary and secondary education improvement, and oppose efforts to gut vocational education programs."

The debate must be labeled and defined by the Dems. NCLB is "Supply-Side Education", survival of the fittest. In education there is no room for a trickle down theory of voucher programs and testing standards to reduce the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students . Where school choice and meeting academic standards and abiding by policies set by the federal government will force schools to shape up to compete for students. Students should not be pawns in a policital game to force funding tied in to test scores with inadequate resources. Holding schools to standards is pointless if these schools lack resources to compete with more well funded school districts. As a product of public elementary school and parochial high school I can attest that the problem isn't educational, it's discplinary. In the schools of lower income areas we need smaller class sizes from the beginning to capture the minds and hold there attention. You can't back down from these principals because some poll says that these wrongheaded ideas are majority supported. The majority support comes from the messengers that the Republican machinery has not because they are actually sound ideas. It's amazing at the cowering done by the DLC attitude. If the DLC existed in the 60's you would advise the Democratic party not to support the civil rights movement because the majority of Amercians were racists or ignorant. If you want true policy ideas about what works in education you follow models that exist or new ideas not old ideas that don't. Label it and define it and call what it is failure - Supply-side Education. Trickle down learning leaves many children behind. We know what works smaller class sizes and funding to allow it to work. Or new ideas like looking into what's working in the the countries that are scoring high in Math and Science.

I like Matt Miller's idea to bribe the teacher's unions into accepting a more merit-based approach.

Ruy, your democratic majority continues to emerge:


As a former teacher, I see serious problems regarding teachers' unions and educational quality - yes, quality, no matter HOW you measure it. In researching results attributed to class size reductions, I discovered, first of all, that there is no clear consensus regarding effectiveness; studies are inconclusive, skewed, uncontrolled, confounded, etc. There really isn't any reason to believe that class size reduction is the most cost-effective way to improve education. OTOH, much research supports a direct correlation between teacher quality/curriculum and student outcomes. I can't support asking more from taxpayers for poorly supported reforms. Of course, if democrats were really serious about education reform, we'd be a lot more hesitant to blindly adopt programs simply because unions support them. Increased educational funding over the past decade has, especially in the most needy districts, failed to 'pay off' regardless of measure used. Comprehensive reform is required - that means teacher/school/district accountability, student/family accountability, and demonstrably EFFECTIVE allocation of resources.

As a former teacher you're an idiot. This is the problem with people like you. You refuse to look at the evidence and claim that taxpayer money can't be spent this way because this evidence that you never researched is inconclusive. Wake up dummy. Just because you hear Fox Opinion, Right wing radio, and other conservative outlets in the echo chamber claiming that it doesn't work doesn't give you an excuse to stop thinking for yourself. No study in signicant class reduction ever changed for the worse. Yes family accountability is part of the equation but some children don't have that support system. Teacher quality curriculum is something that would fall back on university's training the future teachers. If you have teachers entering the workforce who are not qualified to be teachers you are wasting time and money at the college level. What needs to be done is allocation of resources to begin implementation of this plan. It may take time but would be well worth the effort. Only so many applicants are accepted in certain programs of demand. In order to increase the load of teachers to allow class reduction to work the plan must be followed through on. Some idealogues like yourself just refuse to allow our future to do better than ourselves. We wrap ourselves up in patriotic fervor trying to say that we are so much better than everyone else. Than let's show everyone else how much smarter we are by solving our education problem with plans that work like class reduction. And instead of writing it off as not working do the research and find out that yes it does.


My bad! When you say, " No study in signicant class reduction ever changed for the worse," you are correct, if I'm getting your meaning here. But, why in the world would we pour money into a project that, at best, causes no harm? Maybe I am an idiot, but I thought the point of education reform was to improve education.

Empirical evidence provides no justification for widespread reductions in class size. Even if that data DID exist, there still would be no reason to believe that class-size reduction is the most cost/outcome-effective response to our current educational woes. Talk about throwing good money after bad!

Again you prove that you're moron. Let me spell it out for you. All studies show that significant class size reduction improve test scores especially among low income children where it is needed most. So now that I've proved that pouring money into this education reform works what will be your excuse. Again think for yourself and don't repeat the Republcian machinary echo chamber who only support govt spending on defense. Read and research the studies that you claim have have no "empirical evidence".