Perry Bacon, Jr. is a relatively new columnist at the Washington Post. He joined the Post a year ago and writes about national and state politics and race. His latest column in the Post startled me and perhaps others, because the Post editorial board has been an enthusiastic supporter of the worst kinds of punitive corporate reform. The Post editorial board frequently defended No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and the teacher-bashing by Michelle Rhee and Arne Duncan. Seldom was a contrary view expressed, except on Valerie Strauss’ Answer Sheet blog, which was a haven for critics of the failed reforms based on testing, punishment, and privatization.

The article begins:

America’s decades-long, bipartisan “education reform” movement, defined by an obsession with test scores and by viewing education largely as a tool for getting people higher-paying jobs, is finally in decline. What should replace it is an education system that values learning, creativity, integration and citizenship.

Joe Biden is the first president in decades not aggressively pushing an education agenda that casts American schools and students as struggling and in desperate need of fixing. He has not stated that “education is the civil rights issue of our time,” a sentence said by presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump. His administration has backed policies, such as an expanded child tax credit, that view giving people more money, not more education, as the main way to reduce poverty.

There is a push from experts and politicians across partisan lines, including from Biden, to get employers to stop requiring college degrees for so many jobs. There is also a growing defense of college students who study English, literature and other subjects that don’t obviously lead to jobs in the way that, say, engineering does.

An education gospel is being dismantled, one that was 40 years in the making. In 1983, the Reagan administration released a report called “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform.” It warned that America’s status as an economic powerhouse was under threat because its students were doing so much worse than those from other industrialized nations on standardized tests. That report put education reform on the national agenda and explicitly tied it to economic growth.

But this education fixation wasn’t just about the economy. The two parties couldn’t agree on racial policy. Democrats wanted more funding and explicit policies to help Black people and heavily Black areas to make up for past discrimination, and the Republicans largely opposed them.
What Democrats and Republicans could agree on was making education a priority. So Republican politicians, particularly Bush, pumped more money into schools, as Democrats wanted. And Democrats broadly adopted the view that education was the main way for Black people to make up for the effects of racism, thereby shifting responsibility for Black advancement from the government to individual African Americans, as Republicans wanted.

Eventually education, particularly getting a college degree, became viewed as the primary way for economic advancement for not just Black people but people of all races who weren’t born into the middle class.
The result was a bipartisan education fixation for much of the period between 1990 and 2016. It included the expansion of charter and magnet schools as an alternative to traditional public schools; an obsession with improving student test scores; accountability systems that punished schools and teachers if their kids didn’t score well; increased government spending on college loans and grants as part of a movement to make college essentially universal; and a push for Black students in particular not to just get college degrees but ones in “STEM” fields (science, technology, engineering and math) that would help them get higher-paying jobs.

This agenda was racial, economic and education policy all wrapped into one.

The problem is that this education push didn’t work. While the number of Americans who have graduated from high school and college have skyrocketed in the past three decades, wages and wealth haven’t grown nearly as much. Black people in particular haven’t seen economic gains matching these huge increases in education levels.

The remainder of the column nails the point: the education reform movement of the past few decades is a failure. It’s time for fresh thinking, centered on the idea that education is first and foremost about learning, not test scores.

But if the real aim of education policy is no longer really economic and racial policy, what should its goals be? Neither party seems to have a clear answer. Most Democrats defend teachers, a core party constituency, and extol public schools and community colleges, trying to shed the Democrats’ reputation as the party for graduates of Ivy League schools. But they don’t have a broader theory of education policy.

The Republicans are doing something much worse. At the state level, they are largely abandoning public schools and instead aggressively pushing universal voucherlike programs for K-12 education to help as many families as possible to enroll their kids in private and/or religious schools. They are also casting K-12 public school teachers and in particular college professors as propagandists who impose liberal values on students. At the college level, Republicans are trying to force out left-leaning faculty and push campuses to the right.

I certainly prefer the “teachers, professors and public schools are good” perspective (the Democratic one) over “teachers, professors and public schools are bad” (the Republican one). But neither is a real vision for American education.

Here’s one: Our education system should be about learning, not job credentialing. Schools and universities should teach Americans to be critical thinkers, not automatically believing whatever they heard from a friend or favorite news source. They should make sure Americans have enough understanding of economics, history and science to be good citizens, able to discern which candidate in an election has a better plan to, say, deal with a deadly pandemic. They should foster interest and appreciation of music, arts and literature.

They should be places where people meet and learn from others who might not share their race, class, religion or ideology. Our schools and universities should of course also provide people the core skills for jobs that actually require higher education. They should provide a path to becoming a doctor, lawyer, professor or any profession that requires specialized training without going into debt.

What our education system should not be is 16 years of required drudgery to make sure that you can get a job with stable hours and decent benefits — or a punching bag for politicians who have failed to do their jobs in reducing racial and economic inequality.