2017: The year we could come back together again

Last month, I explained why 2016 was “The Year We Came Apart”—both the nation, and the education reform movement. Now, rejuvenated by the holiday break, let me suggest that 2017 can be the year we come back together again.

No Pollyanna, I. On virtually every issue, Americans remained sharply divided. We won’t magically find new middle ground in contentious areas like abortion, Obamacare, taxes, climate change, or much else. Within education reform’s big tent, disagreement is also here to stay. We’ll continue vigorously to debate one another on matters big and small—about the appropriate role of standards and testing; the pros and cons of various approaches to accountability; how much deference to show parents versus oversight agencies when it comes to judging school quality; and on and on.

Nor should we ignore the threat that the Trump presidency may pose to our democratic norms and values. If his authoritarian impulses turn into authoritarian actions—rounding up law-abiding immigrants, discriminating against people on the basis of religion—we must stand up to him and push back.

So the sort of “coming together” I envision is not about glossing over real disagreements or rolling over when faced with a bully. It’s about using democracy to resolve our differences the best we can, while building bridges between the “two Americas” that have come into sharp relief—a liberal, urbanized, mostly coastal, and generally more affluent one, and a conservative, rural and exurban, generally poorer, heartland one. Let me suggest three principles we should all try to adhere to—and what they could mean for education reform in the months ahead.

The first is compassion. Much of 2016’s acrimony came from people of all backgrounds and walks of life who felt disrespected, ignored, left out, or unseen. There’s a whole lot of pain out there, and at least a bit of it could be soothed by acknowledging it in one another. Take the emotional debate over policing in our cities. My analytical brain tells me that shootings by police are extremely rare and only seem more common because of the ubiquity of smartphone videos and the attention drawn by the Black Lives Matter movement. But that misses an important point. When my African-American friends tell me that they feel afraid to walk on the street for fear of getting shot by cops, that’s a reality that deserves understanding and compassion. Likewise, our police officers (and their families) deserve some serious understanding and respect for putting their lives on the line every night, in a job far scarier and more stressful than our own, in situations where good judgment is easily tested.

Feeling people’s pain, Bill Clinton style, won’t solve our problems, but it’s an essential first step to seeing each other’s humanity, so we can move on to tackling the policy issues at hand.

Those of us in education reform can do better at this. Let’s seek to understand the powerlessness that teachers experience when reform mandates trickle down from on high. Let’s truly see the African-American communities that may lose their low-performing yet cherished neighborhood schools—not to mention some needed grown-up jobs—due to harsh accountability policies or competition from charters. Let’s appreciate the view of Tea Party parents, too, families that feel besieged by a popular culture that’s alien to their values and that want some measure of control over what is taught in their children’s schools. Let’s listen to the ambivalence of working-class parents when we preach that college is the only path to status and success in America today.

The second principle—a cousin of compassion—is humility. Rick Hess said it well the other day when he wrote that “reformers, officials, and pundits need to take care not to get too impressed with ourselves. Blathering on panels, testifying to legislatures, writing op-eds, advising governors, and appearing on radio or TV can give one an inflated regard for one’s import or knowledge.” It’s true that teaching kids who live in poverty, running a highly effective school, and turning around a failing district are incredibly tough jobs. “Blathering on panels”—not so much.

I cringe a bit when recalling a younger self, declaring that “we know what we need to do, we just need the political will to do it,” thumping my chest about the moral imperative of “leaving no child behind.” We know some of what to do, sure, but by no means everything. Our schools can’t do it all—not when too many parents struggle to do their part. We won’t close the wide gaps in our society—not overnight, not even in a generation.

That’s not an argument for despair, inaction, or slipping into the comfortable, fatalistic view that the K–12 system can’t really do any good until some sort of large societal revolution takes place. But it does argue for realistic expectations. Individual schools can achieve breakthrough results. But at scale in a big country like ours, progress is inherently incremental. That’s much better than no progress at all, a thought worth bearing in mind in coming months when states publish their draft ESSA accountability plans, which must include multiple targets on achievement, graduation, and much else. Reformers should resist the urge to attack objectives that are less than Utopian—while rejecting those who would settle for the status quo. We might look to states that have made big gains in recent years—Tennessee and Louisiana come to mind—to see what’s achievable. Small steps forward, moving toward but not expecting “transformation” anytime soon, that’s what we should seek.

The final principle is subsidiarity. A Roman Catholic precept, much beloved by Burkean conservatives, it posits that authority should be devolved whenever possible to the lowest level—to those closest to the action. In education, it could be read as an argument for “local control”—but with the important caveat that parents, teachers, and principals, not elected school boards, are closest to the action that matters. They don’t have nearly enough authority today in most places.

This principle is important because it aligns with human nature. People are more bought into a project when they have real say about it. That’s much of the genius behind charter schools, which, when state laws get it right, allow school leaders true autonomy and allow teachers to choose schools that align with their personal philosophies. And it’s the genius behind school choice, which gives parents agency as choosers, consumers, and de facto owners of their children’s schools.

That’s not to say building-level control and parental choice are the only strategies that reformers should embrace. Even most adherents of subsidiarity will acknowledge that there are some benefits to scale and to externally-monitored, results-based accountability. Help and assistance—especially from the state level—will continue to be useful, especially if it is truly a voluntary offering (ahem, curriculum!). But mandates about who should do what and how they must go about it should be kept to an absolute minimum.

Many progressives in the ed-reform world will balk at subsidiarity as common ground, since they tend to reform through the prism of “civil rights.” And civil rights, so goes the thinking, must be aggressively enforced via federal power on grounds that some states and districts can’t be trusted to take rights seriously. Thus their disappointment with the Every Student Succeeds Act’s devolution of power to the state and local levels.

This mindset, in my view, for all its past accomplishments, now points down a dangerous road. For it rests on an assumption of guilt on the part of educators, local officials, and state leaders, as well as overconfidence in the reformers own technocratic ability to interpret patterns in data and identify solutions. In other words, it dispenses with both compassion and humility. Thus, for example, disparities in suspension rates by race are seen as prima facie evidence of discrimination rather than symptoms of social ills that strike some groups in America harder than others.

Being guided by subsidiarity doesn’t imply a surrender of civil rights enforcement. Much to the contrary. It would recognize the need for checks and balances, and would take seriously complaints of actual discrimination—of children penalized more harshly, barred from gifted-and-talented programs, or steered away from Advanced Placement courses—because of their race, gender, etc. But it would examine each case based on its own facts, rather than using the fig leaf of “civil rights” as an excuse for Washington to micromanage America’s 100,000 public schools.

Conservatives should remember, however, that subsidiarity isn’t just about devolving power out of Washington, but out of state capitals, too. Lawmakers wearing red need to be willing to hand authority over to blue mayors, city councils, even school boards, if we’re serious about empowering communities. And if those communities want—for example—to take action to curb suspensions and expulsions in their own cities, they deserve deference.

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Compassion, humility, and subsidiarity: it doesn’t exactly have the makings of a stirring slogan, like TFA’s “One day all children…” or even “No Child Left Behind.” But it’s a decent formulation for the coming year. Or if you want to keep it to a phrase you’ve already internalized, KIPP’s motto will do the job, too: “Work Hard. Be Nice.”

Let’s get to it.

Michael J. Petrilli
Michael J. Petrilli is the President of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.