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An Education in Politics

An Education in Politics: The Origins and Evolution of No Child Left Behind

Jesse H. Rhodes
Copyright Date: 2012
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 264
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  • Book Info
    An Education in Politics
    Book Description:

    Since the early 1990s, the federal role in education-exemplified by the controversial No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB)-has expanded dramatically. Yet states and localities have retained a central role in education policy, leading to a growing struggle for control over the direction of the nation's schools. In An Education in Politics, Jesse H. Rhodes explains the uneven development of federal involvement in education. While supporters of expanded federal involvement enjoyed some success in bringing new ideas to the federal policy agenda, Rhodes argues, they also encountered stiff resistance from proponents of local control. Built atop existing decentralized policies, new federal reforms raised difficult questions about which level of government bore ultimate responsibility for improving schools.

    Rhodes's argument focuses on the role played by civil rights activists, business leaders, and education experts in promoting the reforms that would be enacted with federal policies such as NCLB. It also underscores the constraints on federal involvement imposed by existing education policies, hostile interest groups, and, above all, the nation's federal system. Indeed, the federal system, which left specific policy formation and implementation to the states and localities, repeatedly frustrated efforts to effect changes: national reforms lost their force as policies passed through iterations at the state, county, and municipal levels. Ironically, state and local resistance only encouraged civil rights activists, business leaders, and their political allies to advocate even more stringent reforms that imposed heavier burdens on state and local governments. Through it all, the nation's education system made only incremental steps toward the goal of providing a quality education for every child.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6419-5
    Subjects: Education

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-xii)
    (pp. 1-25)

    When President Barack Obama took office in January 2009, he called for sweeping federal efforts to improve the nation’s elementary and secondary schools. “Our schools fail too many,” the president declared in his inaugural address. “Everywhere we look, there is work to be done. . . . We will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age.”¹ Building on policy proposals that had been championed by a counterintuitive alliance of business leaders and civil rights activists, Obama instituted a “Race to the Top” initiative that would induce states to embrace sweeping new education...

    (pp. 26-39)

    The substantial federal involvement in the areas of education standards, testing, accountability, and teacher quality embodied in programs such as Race to the Top and the No Child Left Behind Act marks an important departure from the traditional federal role in education. Behind these important changes, however, no less important continuities remain. Because these programs build on a longstanding federal education aid program, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965, which provides categorical aid to states and localities to implement compensatory education programs, they necessarily delegate to states and localities primary responsibility to put reforms into action. In...

    (pp. 40-69)

    The early 1980s witnessed a sea change in the rhetoric surrounding—and, to a lesser extent, the institutions composing—the American education system. The conventional wisdom surrounding education shifted decisively toward a new paradigm, often described as “excellence in education.” This ideational framework put the focus on several novel interrelated themes: that low student achievement was pervasive and threatening to the nation’s economic and social well-being; that many of the nation’s schools were failing to provide an adequate education; that new public policies to make schooling rigorous would remedy educational deficiencies and address the challenges facing the nation; and that...

    (pp. 70-95)

    The politics of education changed fundamentally with the emergence of “excellence in education” in the early 1980s. From 1989 to 1992, excellence in education was itself transformed, leading to important shifts in the politics of education reform in the United States. First, a novel “standards-based reform” paradigm, which proposed to strengthen education systems by aligning them around coordinated standards, testing, and accountability policies, rose to prominence in discussions about how to improve schools. “Standards-based reform” was an elaboration of the excellence-in-education agenda, continuing the emphasis on academic achievement while refining the means for reaching this goal. Second, federal officials began...

  8. 4 A NEW FEDERAL ROLE IS BORN, 1993–1994
    (pp. 96-125)

    Bill Clinton’s first two years in office are often remembered as a series of defeats for the president and the Democratic Party: the collapse of the Health Security initiative, the row over “gays in the military,” and the loss of the House of Representatives and the Senate in the “Republican Revolution” of 1994. But Clinton and the Democrats also enjoyed two stunning legislative victories in education, which, in the eyes of scholars, “enacted the first truly national education policy in U.S. history,” “lay the foundation for a new accountability regime,” and made “standards-based reform and its premise of ‘high standards...

    (pp. 126-158)

    The enactment of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act in 2002 was a major moment in the evolution of federal involvement in education. No Child Left Behind intensified the development begun with the Improving America’s Schools Act of 1994, in which new conditions of aid were layered atop the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to pressure states to adopt coordinated standards, assessments, and accountability reforms. In an important departure from the IASA, No Child Left Behind imposed relatively detailed demands on states and localities in exchange for access to federal education aid. Under NCLB, states were to test every...

  10. 6 “YES WE CAN” IMPROVE AMERICA’S SCHOOLS? From No Child Left Behind to President Obama’s Education Initiatives, 2003–2011
    (pp. 159-182)

    Democratic candidate Barack Obama’s historic 2008 campaign for the presidency featured two memorable themes: “Yes We Can” and “Change We Can Believe In.” The first suggested Obama’s conviction that vigorous government action, when closely tied to public values, could accomplish great things in foreign and domestic policy. The second theme signaled that Obama intended to offer an alternative to the political and ideological commitments of the George W. Bush administration, which had been discredited by the war in Iraq and the financial collapse of 2008. In speeches before enthusiastic crowds, candidate Obama joined these themes in order to present a...

    (pp. 183-194)

    In this book I have traced the development of education policymaking in the United States over a period of several decades. Through many twists and turns, this development has been characterized by two central tendencies. First, through laws, regulations, and grants-in-aid, the federal government has gradually come to play a much more central role in the governance of education in the United States. While the federal government historically refrained from intervening in curricular and pedagogical matters, today it plays an important leadership role in stimulating the spread of coordinated standards, testing, and accountability reforms. Most notably, contemporary standards-based reforms train...

  12. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. 195-196)
  13. Notes
    (pp. 197-240)
  14. Index
    (pp. 241-250)