Defending No Child Left Behind? Education Reform Hits the DNC
Hillary Clinton addresses the National Education Association July 5, 2016, in Washington, DC. (Screengrab via NEAABS / YouTube)
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A coalition of education reformers gathered on Monday this week at the Democratic National Convention (DNC) in Philadelphia for a "Camp Philos" event hosted by Education Reform Now, a sister organization of Democrats for Education Reform (DFER). They discussed the typical topics of the education reform movement -- accountability, school choice and so-called public charter schools -- but their event also throbbed with the recognition that policies have been met with increasing resistance in communities across the country. Together they strategized about what the education reform agenda in the Democratic Party should be, going forward.
The city of Philadelphia is a particularly appropriate setting for such a meeting -- it's been the site of budget cuts to public education, school closures and charter expansion, and subsequently, a resurgence of progressive union organizing. I walked past a shuttered public school building, now up for sale, to get to Camp Philos. I work as an after-school teacher in two public schools in New York City, and to me, the sight of the desolate building was gut-wrenching. Huge old school buildings are often the beacons of a neighborhood, their playgrounds overrun with kids of all ages all summer. This school, in contrast, was deserted and ghostly.
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Just two weeks prior, DFER President Shavar Jeffries had called the finalized education platform "hijacked" and an "unfortunate departure from President Obama's historic education legacy," but now speakers were emphasizing the importance of uniting behind Hillary Clinton and working together with other stakeholders in education, including teachers unions.
Clinton had recently spoken to both the United Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, said Ann O'Leary, senior policy advisor to Hillary for America, and had told them that "we really need to make sure to end these so-called education wars and put our ideology aside and look at how we problem-solve." The group of education reformers at the DNC reluctantly cheered, and O'Leary added, "Yeah, you can clap for that!"
O'Leary called for unity between public school teachers -- "who oftentimes are being asked to do so much more than we ever asked teachers to do in the past" -- and reformers who "said it's not good enough." She argued that "great charters all over this country" are "laboratories" whose practices can be replicated at both charter schools and "traditional public schools."
Surprisingly, O'Leary, along with Delaware Sen. Chris Coons, defended the merits of the widely reviled No Child Left Behind education law and Clinton's early support of it. Both O'Leary and Coons painted the bill, which Clinton and Obama criticized during the 2008 presidential campaign, as a well-meaning bill that, despite its emphasis on testing, has had positive results for accountability. "For all of its problems, it exposed uncomfortable realities in America's classrooms," said Senator Coons. "It refused to lower our nation's expectations in any school, and demanded that every child in America [get] the education that he or she deserves."
"High expectations" and "accountability" are two of the fundamental premises of education reform, and they were both revisited throughout the day. One of the movement's primary mechanisms for "accountability" has been to test students and use the results to evaluate their teachers and their school. Under No Child Left Behind, schools with consistently low test scores were subject to mass teacher firings or a takeover by private management, but the new Democratic platform explicitly Defending No Child Left Behind? Education Reform Hits the DNC: