I get lots of emails from aspiring ed-policy wonks, so this first bullet is for that wayward crew. Understanding the annual federal-budget dance is key to your decent into wonkery. The pre-release, behind-the-scenes process is really quite interesting—e.g., negotiations between the Department, White House, OMB, and other associated agencies. That culminates in a series of documents (from formal congressional submissions to accessible fact sheets) that provide a picture of the administration’s priorities, or at least what the administration wants to public convey as its priorities. (This is just Phase 1; Congress takes over from here.) You might want to spend 30 minutes familiarizing yourself with these products and their contents—you can get your feet wet on this annual ritual and impress your friends at dinner parties! (“Once again, ED’s trying to make a go of TLIF, huh?”)
Per the budget request itself, the initial documents are generally purposely gauzy and vague; this is, after all, partially a public-relations exercise. So there’s only so much we can know until all of the gory details are released. But here are some quick thoughts: More for i3? Quietly chugging along but very interesting ARPA angle. Money for charter replications? Great, but how about the DCOSP? High school redesign? Start new schools, don’t remake old ones. Flat-line-formula grant programs (Title I, IDEA)? Meh. Another push for TLIF? I’m a TIF fan, and these changes are generally good with me. More turnaround
Foreign policy isn’t all that Margaret Thatcher and her team had in common with Ronald Reagan and his. The 1980s also saw much crossing of the Atlantic—in both directions—by their education advisers, too. Bill Bennett, for example, hosted U.K. education secretary Ken Baker on multiple occasions, and the Downing Street staff team, too. We reciprocated.
The 1980s saw much crossing of the Atlantic by education advisers.
Photo from the Wikimedia Commons
The U.S. and the U.K. were both awakening to being “nations at risk,” due in no small part to the parlous state of their public education systems, and reformers in both countries were pushing for big changes—changes that their respective “education establishments” didn’t want to make.
On both sides of the sea, standards, assessments, accountability, and school choice were surfacing as ideas, and becoming policies and programs. The teachers’ unions didn’t want any of this, but it was beginning to happen anyway, as was the gradual disempowerment of what the Brits call “local education authorities”—and the delegation of greater authority to the school level.
It happened faster on their shores, mostly because the central government in London wasn’t gridlocked—the Tories were in firm control at the time—and because its decisions were (and still are) the ones that counted. (At
There’s a lot of interest in this question in ed-reform circles today; Alexander Russo sketches the line of thinking here. It’s understandable, considering how successful proponents of gay marriage* have been in changing public opinion, state statutes, and, perhaps soon, constitutional law on the issue. If only education reformers could be so lucky!
Some of the lessons being bandied about include the following:
- Picking one issue and rallying the whole movement behind it (gay marriage instead of gays in the military, for example)
- Reframing the debate (in this case, from “gay rights” to embracing the “responsibilities” that marriage brings)
- Making sure that movement leaders keep a low profile
So can we make a plausible education analogy? I think it’s a stretch, and not just because ed reformers love to appear on magazine covers. Gay marriage is fundamentally a moral issue. Legalizing it doesn’t cost taxpayers any serious money; it won’t balloon the deficit; there are no “vested interests” in terms of employee unions protecting their pensions or rapacious corporations seeking to make a fast buck. It’s simply a matter of inclusion and freedom on one side, tradition and gut feelings on the other. It’s a classic social issue.
Not so with education reform. Though all sides of its debates try to claim the moral high ground and use moralistic rhetoric, making schools work better is largely a management/service/governance challenge.
Take the question of “picking one issue” to rally around. Which would
Sir Michael Barber is no stranger to education reform—indeed, he is well known to serious policy reformers, education leaders, and wonks in the U.S. and around the globe, thanks to his key roles in British reforms under Tony Blair, his penetrating analyses of diverse systems while at McKinsey, his writings on “deliverology” and other education topics, and—most recently—his work as “chief education adviser” at Pearson.
What practically nobody (outside Pakistan) knew about Barber until a week or two ago is that he has also served these past three years as “special representative on education in Pakistan” for Britain’s Department for International Development (the U.K. counterpart to USAID). In that capacity, he has spearheaded a remarkable ed-reform initiative—indeed, an education transformation, albeit just getting beyond the pilot stage—in Punjab, the largest province in Pakistan with 94 million people. Considering that nearly all the news about Pakistan that reaches American eyes and ears is so grim—political upheavals, terrorism, assassinations, floods, poverty, corruption, illiteracy—I was blown away to learn that Michael and his team of change-agents in the Punjab government, with help from several international donors, have been successfully beavering away at this hugely ambitious endeavor to bring a decent education to children throughout that vast chunk of south Asia.
Now he’s described that project in a short, readable book that is informative and
About the Editor
Michael J. Petrilli
Executive Vice President
Mike Petrilli is one of the nation's foremost education analysts. As executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, he oversees the organization's research projects and publications and contributes to the Flypaper blog and weekly Education Gadfly newsletter.
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