Sunday, September 24, 2017

ESSA: No Answers in Washington

Betsy DeVos went to talk to all the rich, white Republicans at the Mackinac Island leadership conference last week. “The time of ‘Washington knows best’ is over,”she said, and for non-fans of DeVos, it would be easy to retort, "Yeah, now that you and your boss are there, we're pretty sure Washington doesn't know a damned thing. Har!"

We're pretty sure Betsy doesn't know best, but then neither did John King, and the number of things Arne Duncan didn't know were also legendary. So let's not pretend that there was some golden age when the US Department of Education provided wise and informed leadership to America's schools. Looking for great education leadership for the Secretary of Education is like looking for true love on The Bachelor-- it's not impossible, but as the years and iterations pile up, it looks less and less probable.

This is the background that got us ESSA, the current mish-mosh of laws and regulations governing US education. Congress set out to create a law that deliberately pushed USED out of the room, and the John King's USED set out to interpret the law through regulations that let USED climb back in through the window, and then the whole thing was handed over to an administration whose only clear policy goal seems to be "Make things look as if Barack Obama was never actually President at all."

In the meantime, the law's birth was attended by the usual pack of profiteers, making sure that there was language in there somewhere to give their favorite fat piggies access to the public trough. So personalized [sic] computerized learning and social impact bonds and data-mining young humans and de-professionalizing the teaching profession and charter giveaways all have an open door in there somewhere. And of course ESSA continues the devotion to test-centered schools.

As I wrote in 2015, ESSA solves nothing. But it does change the venue of the debate, and that's not a bad thing. I would much rather deal with my state legislature than try to get a member of Congress to listen to me. I would much rather have bad choices affect one state instead of fifty. I would much rather have the corporate stooges scrambling back and forth between fifty states than let them do one stop shopping for lawmakers in DC.

DeVos has encouraged states to stretch the rules to the breaking point and see if the feds (ie her department) will stop them. Nudge nudge, wink wink. Heaven only knows what this will mean, or which states will have the cojones to try.

But it underlines that there are now at least fifty education debates, and they each have their own issues. Some states are under siege by personalized learning advocates. Some are being pressed hard by charter fans. Some are hard at work dismantling teaching. And almost everyone is staging a different version of Common Core Kabuki Theater.

I was someone post of being discouraged, that they thought a few years ago that we might win this. I don't want to be a bummer, but no-- this fight will never be won. It's a marathon, a race against people who have a lot of money and want to get a lot more. I don't envision a day when they say, "You know what? We just give up."

I hate warfare metaphors, but I'm reduced to one here. We will win battles. We will lose battles. There will always be more battles. I like ESSA because it decreases the chances that one battle will be critical to everything. Eggs and baskets and all that. There will be no answers in Washington.

The shape of the resistance is changing, and it will continue to change. Local concerns will loom larger than national ones, and that in turn will loosen the ties that have bound liberals and conservatives together. We can potentially waste a great deal of time and energy arguing about who is really on which team and who gets to wear which team jersey (and if it makes you feel any better, the reformsters have been caught up in similar debates).

We are still going to need each other, for support, resources, information. But relationships all across the world of the ed debates are changing, and they're going to change more.

I've never much cared for calls for "unity." It always seems to mean "Shut up and agree with me." But I think we each have to remember what we value, work toward that in the ways we do best, and support people where our values coincide (while recognizing that there will rarely be 100% agreement). There is a comfort in Big Movements, because they usually come with Big Leaders, and lots of folks are comfortable finding someone they can just follow all the time. But my sense is that we are moving toward a time of many smaller movements, with many normal human sized leaders, linked together, but fighting more local fights.

Know who you trust. Know what you believe. Pay attention. Stay rested and ready. Every win matters.


  1. You're in your political scientist/predictive sociologist mode today, Peter! Deeply insightful as usual.

  2. I read ESSA differently. I think that "a return to local control" is a slogan to stop the anti-Common Core movement.

    From the Department of Education homepage on ESSA: The law "requires—for the first time—that all students in America be taught to high academic standards that will prepare them to succeed in college and careers."

    States are free to choose any "college and career ready" standards they would like.