Lessons from Bush and Obama education reform efforts

Earlier this week, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) hosted a forum that asked researchers and policymakers what education reform efforts, under the Obama and Bush administrations, have taught us about K-12 education. The day-long event was chalked full of experts including four panels with researchers from higher ed institutions like the University of Virginia and Brown University and former Department of Education officials like Joanna Weiss, who was chief of staff to Arne Duncan and Nina Rees, the first deputy under the secretary for innovation and improvement at the U.S. Department of Education. The day finished with closing remarks and questions from current ED Secretary Betsy Devos.

Each panelist presented their takeaways about the lessons learned in education policy through the Bush and Obama presidencies. One lesson that a few of the panelists touched on was capacity building at the local level and effective implementation. Sara Dahill- Brown from Wake Forest University presented her research on the education reforms since 2000 from the State Education Agency’s (SEAs) perspective. She found that increasing the responsibilities of SEAs without addressing the resource constraints that can result from these new demands, can have a negative effect on the actual implementation of education reform at the local level. Constraints around implementation and “scaling up” were echoed by another panelist, Dr. Robert Pianta, Dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia. He noted that during these two administrations, smaller scale reforms were found to have positive impacts on students, but there was a disconnect when these ideas were generalized to a larger area. He recommended further research on policy implementation to learn where the disconnect is occurring between “evidence and practice.”

Another common theme was the role data has played in monitoring student achievement and teacher effectiveness to hold educators and schools accountable. The first panelist of the day, Dr. Devin Carlson from the University of Oklahoma found that “test based accountability increases test scores in reading and math” after reviewing several national and state level data sets. However, he went on to say that these test score gains may not correspond to similar learning gains, and that the focus on testing for math and reading has taken away time from other subjects. Nevertheless, by gathering data on these subjects through test scores, we were able to better understand the level students are performing in math and reading. Matthew Kraft from Brown University also noted that No Child Left Behind took the first step toward collecting data on teacher quality. Education reform under President Obama took this a step further by improving how teachers are evaluated and providing a rubric for classroom observations. This trend has provided a large data source for principals, policymakers and researchers to better understand what makes a good teacher, and to pinpoint specific areas where teachers need improvement.

The day concluded with Devos. In her closing remarks, she emphasized her plans to depart from Bush and Obama’s emphasis of the federal role in education policy to instead focus on policy from a more local level. I think that there were several lessons from the past administrations that now apply to the localization of the education policy, particularly regarding policy implementation and local education capacity, which can hopefully help guide this new wave of education reform so that we can learn from the past and avoid making the same mistakes twice.