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Impotent Liberalism

by Andrew J. Rotherham

A recent American Prospect package on education reform is well worth reading less because of what it says than for what it does not. Collectively the articles, most of which raise important points (particularly the emphasis on early childhood education -- look for a paper by PPI's Sara Mead on this issue shortly), show the incoherence and ultimately the impotence of modern liberalism when it comes to addressing today's educational problems.

For example, Robert Borosage, a leading liberal intellectual, offers the standard disclaimer that money alone is not a reform. Nonetheless Borosage then turns what could be an interesting essay on the enormous challenges public education faces and lack of support for meeting them into a call for basically more of the same, with an emphasis on the importance of the "common school." Romanticism about common schools in the face of what research shows about the demographics and outcomes of public education is an astounding feat of denial. Moreover it is a misdirection play to divert attention from the horrifying achievement gap that is one of the primary barriers to greater social equity and mobility today. We're all for more investment in public education, particularly in underserved communities, and would like to see greater support for public schools, too. Yet neither of these challenges should serve as a smokescreen for serious structural problems that result in a system that systematically undereducates minority and poor youngsters.

Similarly, the usually insightful Peter Schrag repeats some common attacks on No Child Left Behind that likely play well to much of the Prospect's readership but do not point to concrete solutions for the vexing problem of how to ensure accountability for underserved students in a heterogeneous system. Meanwhile, he buries a key quote by William Taylor of the Citizens Commission for Civil Rights that in a more rational debate would excite the liberal press and form the backbone of a true liberal critique of current educational policies. [For the record, here is Taylor, certainly no conservative apparatchik, "The federal government is doing a hell of a lot more for the states now than in the early years. A lot of the whining and bitching and moaning is coming from people who don't like the accountability provisions, so they're saying they don't have the money to do this."]

With some notable exceptions, it never seems to enter the calculus of today's establishment liberals that perhaps a system that works inadequately for too many poor and minority youngsters (and does so in all types of communities -- equity problems are not just the urban tail wagging the public school dog) needs broader reforms.

Could greater public sector choice and customization, more rigorous quality expectations, or improving our teaching force help address some of these problem and better meet the needs of America's diverse student body, particularly disadvantaged students? Of course, but these ideas all disrupt established adult interests in one way or another. As a frustrated school superintendent remarked sardonically to me recently when discussing his efforts to improve student learning in the crossfire of urban politics, "the attitude is that kids are just passing through, but the adults have to be able to get along because we have to be able to work here..."

Borosage's dismissal of phonics, reforming teacher certification, and testing as "conservative reforms" amply illustrates the sorry state of affairs. This characterization ignores the quantitative evidence pointing to phonics as an essential component of effective reading instruction. It also ignores the staggering lack of empirical evidence supporting current certification schemes, which the Education Commission of the States (hardly a conservative organization) recently pointed out.

Robert Kennedy made the case for testing and accountability almost 40 years ago when, during debate over the original ESEA, he pointed out that regular student testing is an essential part of federal efforts to ensure equity. Kennedy wasn't a "crank," to borrow Borosage's moniker, and certainly not a conservative. But he understood then what too many liberals forget today: schools are not the right unit of analysis, children are. Likewise, Albert Shanker, the legendary American Federation of Teachers president and school reformer (and another non-crank and non-conservative) also unapologetically favored testing, with consequences. Shanker also opposed numerous faddish reforms that today make many liberals swoon and didn't let romanticism get in the way of addressing hard realities. Both men exemplified real liberalism, the kind that holds the promise of helping the disadvantaged, rather than today's variety that is bold only so long as no interest group is left behind. Yes, for various positions they took, Kennedy and Shanker would likely be labeled "conservatives" in today's education debate.

The cause of this incoherence and exhausting affinity to tired shibboleths is painfully obvious -- interest group rather than ideas-based liberalism. Liberals have become beholden to institutions and organizations so today's liberal universe is essentially delineated by constellations of interest groups rather than core principles or ideas. In education the clearest manifestation of this is the remarkable consistency with which the interests of adults and the "system" trump those of children and the infrequency with which the press or anyone else even remarks about this. It's become internalized. For example, in the current debate over NCLB numerous media stories focus on speculation about what the law might do to schools with hardly any mention of what it might do for children.

Spend time in a good urban charter school, a high-performing traditional urban public school or with Teach for America teachers. That's real liberalism in action, a muscular public sector achieving public purposes and expanding opportunity to the disenfranchised but challenging interests -- even sympathetic ones -- that thwart progress.

By contrast, to read and hear what leading liberals have to say about education in this particular package and elsewhere is to see vividly the collapse of the moral authority of liberalism because of too many compromises, conflicted interests, and a focus on affiliations rather than principles. When the issue is not school spending, liberals, in no small part because of politics, too often end up siding with the adults and not the kids. Simply being against what George W. Bush wants to do, focusing overwhelmingly on spending and criticizing NCLB, testing, or any other reform does not constitute anything even remotely approximating a progressive agenda on education in an environment where literally millions of youngsters are habitually undereducated.

Borosage is exactly right that conservatives do often push some extreme ideas (and not just on education). They will fail to address education problems over the long haul because many conservatives today are antagonistic toward the public sector and overconfident about the ability of the private sector to address social problems (and in some cases, indifferent to these problems in the first place). But this is exactly what makes today's liberal stance on education so exasperating. It leaves the field empty. And the loser in that battle is not some political candidate but the very people modern liberalism is most supposed to hold promise for in the first place.

Andrew J. Rotherham is Director of PPI's 21st Century Schools Project and editor of The Bulletin.

Further Reading:

Children Left Behind: The American Prospect (February 2004)


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Last modified: February 17, 2004

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