Some Random Thoughts Post November 6

Regardless of your ideological or political preferences, this year’s election results were a powerful reminder of what’s special and perhaps unique about the American system.  Just over the bridge from here, “swing-state” Virginians swung toward President Obama and elected Democrat Tim Kaine to be their Senator, while in the Richmond area they overwhelmingly voted for Republican (majority leader) Eric Cantor.  Up the road, our friends in Maryland approved gay marriage, rights for immigrant children – and casino gambling.  Californians, seemingly fed up with years of education cuts, supported Governor Brown’s plan to raise taxes to support needed reinvestment in what was once among the best university systems in the world; and they rejected the proposal to abolish capital punishment.  In Florida, where we still are waiting to see where the state’s swing will land when the final votes are counted, an initiative to overturn the prohibition on public funding of religious organizations failed; as did a proposed amendment that would have banned use of state funds for abortion.  (Maybe I’m out of touch, but I don’t think I would have predicted these outcomes from Floridians!) Voters in DC expressed their concerns for good government by approving draconian measures authorizing the Council to expel members for “gross misconduct,” requiring the mayor or a council member to resign immediately if convicted of a felony, and prohibiting elected officials convicted of felonies from ever holding office again.

I could go on, but the basic point is this: many Americans still tend to vote largely on principles that transcend conventional party-line distinctions, and in the aggregate seem willing to adopt measures and elect leaders they like almost without regard to standard political affiliation.  For a succinct summary nationwide, see this Washington Post article.

In education we saw some of the most fascinating examples of this complexity in American political culture.  For example, as described in this very interesting summary, reforms that “push for charter schools and grading teachers in accordance with their students’ standardized test scores…” didn’t fare very well.  Especially interesting, though, is how voters in Connecticut (solid blue) and in South Dakota and Idaho (solid red) seemed to agree, “pushing back controversial measures that would have ended an elected school board, abolished teacher tenure and instituted merit pay.”  To what must have been the amazement (and chagrin) of certain elements of the reform movement, “South Dakotans voted down a package of Gov. Dennis Daugaard (R) that would have ended teacher tenure and paid teachers in accordance with performance … Sixty-eight percent of voters turned it down after the state’s teachers union got enough signatures to put the law on the ballot.”

Interpretations of these and other results will surely occupy substantial real estate in the blogosphere for months to come; the bottom line, though, is that the great American educational “hodge-podge” (a phrase attributed to former Harvard president James Conant) seems to be very much alive and well. Is it any wonder that efforts to define and implement “national standards” (not to mention national tests) are so challenging?  How the accountability movement will be affected by this latest round of voting remains to be seen.  My view is that accountability is not a bad thing, as long as it doesn’t get dialed up so high that it suffocates trust and undermines genuine improvement; see my Education Week commentary if you want to know more about my feelings.

In other areas of education policy there are at least two very big issues looming.

One, the future of affirmative action and diversity initiatives in higher education, may be shaped significantly by the Supreme Court decision in the Fisher case, expected most likely in Spring 2013.  Professor Liliana Garces, a national expert on this issue, and I had the pleasure of being in the court for the oral arguments, which focused on some technicalities of law and which also evoked for me some concerns about the role of measurement in public policy. My recent post to Voices in Education, the blog of Harvard Education Publishing, explores this question of public policy and quantified assessment in various realms of society, including education.  There are others at GW who have a strong interest in the case, such as Professor Alan Morrison (Law), who posted this in the National Law Journal. You might also want to check out Century Foundation blogger Richard Kahlenberg’s latest attempt to argue for non-race based preferences.  For the most thorough and compelling argument in favor of continued diversity, see the amicus brief that Liliana organized on behalf of social scientists.

And finally, debate over the current and future status of Pell Grants, a now 40-year old program aimed at enabling low-income students to attend college, will continue to be a high priority.  GSEHD Senior Fellow Sandy Baum is considered perhaps the leading expert in the country on this issue, and her most recent blog is an eloquent call for reasoned public policy. In the same issue of the Chronicle, AEI analyst Andrew Kelly makes a strong argument for continued and better research on the topic, which certainly sounds like a reasonable proposition (and several of us are indeed working on ideas for research in this important area).  Sandy’s analysis provides a welcome antidote to the overwrought rhetoric in the public debate over college access, affordability, completion, and attainment, and makes a compelling case for better data and more rigorous research as the basis for reasonable and smart policy options.  Nothing less is at stake than the future of America’s two-century commitment to inclusion and high standards in all aspects of our “human capital” mosaic.

November 8, 2012

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