Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute has a enlightening critical essay on Barack Obama’s “real education legacy” in the latest issue of National Affairs. The essay couldn’t be more timely, coming on the heels of Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s announcement last week that he plans to leave his post at the end of the year.
Despite the soaring rhetoric and heady promises . . . education reform during Obama’s tenure has disappointed in practice. Oddly enough, some of the president’s critics on the right have missed this and have maintained that, on education, his policy has been uniquely sound. New York Times columnist David Brooks declared that “Obama has been the most determined education reformer in the modern presidency,” and suggested that Obama’s approach to education reform constituted a model for “health care, transportation, energy [and] environmental policy.”
In fact, Obama’s presidency has proven deeply divisive in nearly every area of policy, from health care to government spending to the environment. And those who have been disconcerted by the Obama administration’s faults in other areas — its abuse of executive discretion, its dramatic expansion of the federal government, and its exacerbation of identity politics and the culture wars — will find that education has not been spared. Despite all the promises of a “post-partisan” presidency, Obama has pursued a polarizing, bureaucratized, and Washington-centric education agenda while exploiting and then draining a substantial reservoir of bipartisan goodwill.
While it does little good to merely gripe about bad policies and squandered opportunities for reform, setting the record straight is crucial. Our understanding of the Obama era in education will color how we regard the promises of presidential candidates and inform our expectations for future Congressional and executive policymaking. Accounting for the lessons of the last seven years is especially vital given education’s substantive and symbolic import and its centrality for any national figure intent on promoting opportunity. Ultimately, the Obama years have illustrated that how presidents tackle education may matter as much as whether they do.
In particular, Hess looks at how the Education Department bungled Race to the Top and the ham-handed rollout of the Common Core standards. Do read the whole thing.