The debate on education
IN THIS presidential primary season, the issue of education has been like Sherlock Holmes's dog that didn't bark. Education is so far off the radar screen that, in an Associated Press-
The real reason education has been ignored is that other issues have taken precedence. I blame the American media and public for their short attention span and for their inability to focus on more than a few issues at a time. The headlines are focused on Iraq, terrorism, the economy, and healthcare. Therefore, candidates center their messages on these topics while their positions on education get little thought or attention.
When education does enter national political debates, it's highly polarized and not fruitful. Conservatives lambast teacher unions and public school bureaucracies for attending to their own needs instead of those of the children. They propose tough sanctions for nonperforming schools. And they suggest vouchers, charter schools, and other strategies for bringing choice and market-based competition. Liberals blame poor school performance on insufficient government funding. They warn that the conservative proposals will undermine public education and leave low-income and minority students isolated, ignored, and exploited by unscrupulous providers. With the battle framed in this way - markets versus government - there is no room for compromise, subtlety, or hard-nosed attention to policy details.
But there's another reason why education has been shortchanged this election season. Both parties have recently become more internally divided about the key issues of charter schools and the No Child Left Behind Act.
Democrats, who used to argue against charter schools (casting them as vouchers in sheep's clothing), increasingly see charters as a benign and promising form of public school reform. Republicans, who once could rally around the get-tough aspects of No Child Left Behind, are growing irritated about the negative impact of high-stakes testing.
This internal ambivalence is making it risky for the candidates to use the tried-and-true formulations that have worked in the past. Ironically, while this is helping to keep the issue in the shadows, it could set the stage for more pragmatic, less divisive, and ultimately more effective deliberation later on.
Rather than thinking of charter schools in terms of market forces versus government, charter schools can be highlighted as an evolving arena of education innovation that can lead to a more flexible and effective public school system. Dialogue about No Child Left Behind should move beyond the cardboard images of greedy unions versus profit-hungry education and testing sectors. Instead, it should focus on a more moderate position: how testing, done well, can be a diagnostic tool for teachers and a source of valuable data for parents and citizens trying to make informed decisions for their children and communities.
We also must address the alarming misuse of policy studies. No more cherry-picking of studies that favor one extreme or the other. Instead we should focus on the collective wisdom that emerges from a variety of studies conducted in different places, at different times, and with different methodologies. No more searching for sure-fire panaceas. We need productive thinking that considers the forest and the trees. This means combining close attention to details of policy design and implementation with wide-angled consideration of the nonschool factors that are deeply implicated, such as the role of concentrated poverty, poor housing, family and community support.
Is this going to happen? Maybe. Whether the Democratic candidate is Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, there will be a positive place for charter schools in the education positions on the Democratic platform. As for the Republicans, John McCain has been elusive on this issue, but is almost certain to combine loyalty to the broad themes of accountability and choice with modifications of the No Child Left Behind formulas where they pinch suburban voters and states'-rights adherents.
The next administration must resist the temptation to trust advocacy as research and quick fixes as sound solutions. By giving education the treatment it deserves, we can have a more sensible conversation, but only if we, the voting public, show that we won't settle for less.
Jeffrey R. Henig, professor of political science and education at Teachers College, Columbia University, is author of "Spin Cycle: How Research is Used in Policy Debates: The Case of Charter Schools."