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Weighing the Effects of Federal Educational Policy on Democracy: Reframing the Discourse on High-Stakes Accountability

by Tina Trujillo & Kenneth R. Howe - 2015

Introduction to the special issue of Teachers College Record

The year 2013 marked the 30th anniversary of the report, A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform. Its original release was the watershed for a series of federal policies that would increasingly undercut the local control of public schools. The crux of its argument was that public school achievement was declining, threatening the nation’s economic preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation. Federal policy makers responded swiftly to the alleged “crisis” identified in the report by crafting a collection of recommendations to states for holding schools and districts accountable for producing educational “excellence.” The report marked the moment at which federal education policy began to veer away from decades of social science research and welfare programs that acknowledged how powerfully social, cultural, political, and economic conditions determine schools’ capacity for improvement (e.g., Coleman, 1966; Jencks et al., 1972). It also signaled the point at which the locus of power in public education began shifting increasingly into the hands of federal authorities.

This special issue explores the implications for democracy of the policies that followed A Nation at Risk. In particular, the issue examines the educational policies since 1983 vis-à-vis democratic education policy making and democratic citizenship education. It traces the development of federal education policy through subsequent presidential administrations, paying close attention to the ways in which the national “accountability regime” (McGuinn, 2006) eventually emerged fully formed in the 2001 revision of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), or No Child Left Behind (NCLB), and has continued through Obama’s Race to the Top program. The issue also frames the economic motivations behind the federal policy agendas and considers the ways in which the policies incorporate economic purposes of education, or goals for preparing students for competition in a stratified labor market, to the detriment of broader democratic aims for schooling.

One of the most recent instantiations of this economic framing is found in the Blueprint for Reform, the current administration’s plan for reauthorizing ESEA. In the outset of his Blueprint, President Obama invokes a rationale for educational reform that largely echoes the logic of 1983. He stated,

Today, more than ever, a world-class education is a prerequisite for success. America was once the best educated nation in the world. A generation ago, we led all nations in college completion, but today, 10 countries have passed us. . . . And the countries that out-educate us today will out-compete us tomorrow.

Indeed, the theme of competition—in the spirit of better workforce preparation—runs consistently through the administration’s proposals for reform. Their rhetoric consistently invokes principles borrowed from the corporate sector: measurement of performance, consequences for results, and the imperative of individual choice. These principles are also reflected in the details of its signature Race to the Top policies; the program provides financial incentives for states, districts, and schools to compete for temporary grants if they submit to policies that link teacher evaluations to student test scores, expand charter schools, and engage in a range of market-driven reforms that bank on mass layoffs, school closures, and other business-inspired techniques for turning around our most struggling schools.

Today, the country stands at a critical juncture in federal educational policy making: ESEA may be reauthorized soon after the publication of this issue. Yet debates about the reauthorization appear to center primarily on questions of testing or about how to flesh out the federal government’s expanded role in education. Missing from policy makers’ conversations seem to be considerations of whether the current market-oriented, test-based accountability policies have the potential to foster more democratic, equitable schooling opportunities (Welner & Mathis, 2015).

Alongside these formal policy-making channels, community organizers from across the country have also been advocating for significant revisions to the policies. As recently as 2013, community organizers from the Journey For Justice announced their intention to file Title VI complaints with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. They contend that current federal education policy forces school closings and mass layoffs that disproportionately impact students of color and students with disabilities. More recently, over 2,000 educational researchers and professors petitioned Congress to abandon ESEA’s current test-focused reforms on the grounds that solid research evidence indicates that they do not improve schools and in fact exacerbate inequalities.

Thus, from a practical standpoint, this special issue is particularly timely; it stands to inform the national discourse about the reauthorization of ESEA. And, in light of the growing legal challenges and local acts of resistance to these reforms, this special issue helps surface the multiple undemocratic, inequitable dimensions of the policies that merit deeper exploration. 

Up to this point, much of the literature on these reforms has been undertheorized, particularly with respect to the policies' social and political implications for democratic processes (Trujillo, 2013). The field has been very practical in its orientation. That is, most of the research on these reforms focuses on the question of what works, conceived exclusively in terms of effectiveness and efficiency in boosting test scores (e.g., Dee, 2012; Herman et al., 2008; Huberman, Parrish, Hannan, Arellanes, & Shambaugh, 2011). This special issue asks a different set of questions. It frames analyses with concepts from theories of democracy, local control, community organizing, and social justice—theoretical approaches that stand to expand the discourse about high-stakes accountability, the balance of control over public education, and reforms and policies that target the nation’s most vulnerable schools and students (e.g., Gutman, 1999; McDonnell, 2000; Mintrom, 2001). In doing so, our authors tease out the larger implications of the last three decades of federal education policy for issues of equity, social justice, and democracy. 

This special issue takes up questions about how market-oriented reforms and policies undermine local control, public deliberation, the cultivation of civic skills and habits of mind, and collective goals for public schooling. Reforms like turnarounds, parent trigger policies, charter conversions, high-stakes testing, and school closures—all of which have been tethered to a market-based theory of education—are examined for their treatment of schooling as a private good and their curtailment of communities' engagement in public education. We explore these policy tensions through a series of four research articles and two historical commentaries.

Meens and Howe’s article, “NCLB and Its Wake,” interrogates the No Child Left Behind Act’s underlying reform agenda of increased “accountability” and “choice.” In it, the authors draw on contemporary normative democratic theory to analyze the ways in which this legislation has eclipsed local control. They explore the implications for both democratic policy making and democratic education.

In “Irrational Exuberance for Market-based Reform,” Trujillo and Renée analyze the more recent accountability policies mandated by the federal School Improvement Grant (SIG) program’s turnaround “option.” They evaluate the tensions with democratic education inherent in the Obama Administration’s SIG program, specifically as they relate to reforms that require massive administrative and teacher layoffs. Building on the lessons of 40 years of research on educational effectiveness and high-stakes accountability, they analyze the potential of school “turnarounds” to promote more democratic, equitable schooling.

In “Participatory Democracy and Struggling Schools,” Kirshner and Jefferson take up questions about another common reform sponsored by the SIG program—school closures. After assessing the crises that have been precipitated by the recent surge in school closures, almost all of which are concentrated in predominantly African American and Latino neighborhoods, they propose a set of guiding principles for a more democratic, participatory approach to school turnarounds. Their recommendations center on the inclusion of young people, their parents, and community members in improving their community’s schools.

Next, Rogers, Lubienski, Scott, and Welner turn our attention to the rapidly increasing state-level Parent Trigger policies in which a majority of parents at low-scoring schools can petition to convert their school to a charter school, replace their school leadership and/or staff, or implement other corrective actions intended to improve performance. In “Examining the Parent Trigger as a Strategy for School Reform and Parental Engagement,” these authors investigate the emergence and evidentiary basis for such policies, as well as their underlying assumptions about democratic community engagement, parental empowerment, and school governance.

Historians Harvey Kantor and Larry Cuban each situate these articles in their longitudinal contexts through two historical commentaries. Kantor reminds us that whereas the first half of the 20th century was also characterized by businessmen’s and political elites’ similar efforts to design corporate-style educational governance that minimized local control, today’s high-stakes accountability policies differ in that they substitute individual choice and competition for ownership and control by state and local government. In doing so, Kantor explains, such policies not only preclude democratic localism but also reject the notion that public policy has a responsibility to address the connections between poverty, income inequality, racial discrimination, and unequal educational achievement.  

Cuban also urges readers to be mindful that even though the last three decades of market-driven, standards-based testing and accountability have actually undermined the democratic character of public schools, economic aims have always trumped democratic ones in education. He illuminates the roots of this dilemma in his analysis of the progressive era’s attempts to foster more democratic principles and the practice of citizenship. In light of this evidence, Cuban contemplates, among other things, what we might gain from these authors raising arguments about democracy now, amid the present proliferation of market-oriented policies and reforms.


Coleman, J. (1966). Equality of educational opportunity (Report No. OE-3800). Washington, DC: National Center for Educational Statistics.

Dee, T. (2012). School turnarounds: Evidence from the 2009 stimulus (Working Paper No. 17990 ). NBER Working Paper Series. Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research. Retrieved from http://www.nber.org/papers/w17990

Gutman, A. (1999). Democratic education. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Herman, R., Dawson, P., Dee, T., Greene, J., Maynard, R., Redding, S., & Darwin, M. (2008). Turning around chronically low-performing schools: A practice guide (NCEE 2008-4020). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.

Huberman, M., Parrish, T., Hannan, S., Arellanes, M., & Shambaugh, L. (2011). Turnaround schools in California: Who are they and what strategies do they use? Sacramento: California Comprehensive Center at WestEd, American Institutes for Research, and School Services of California.

Jencks, C., Smith, M., Acland, H., Bane, M. J., Cohen, D., Gintis, H., . . . Michelson, S. (1972). Inequality: A reassessment of the effects of family and schooling in America. New York, NY: Basic Books.

McDonnell, L. (2000). Defining democratic purposes. In L. McDonnell, P. Timpane, & R. Benjamin (Eds.), Rediscovering the democratic purposes of education (pp. 1–20). Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.

McGuinn, P. (2006). No Child Left Behind and the transformation of federal education policy, 1965-2005. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.

Mintrom, M. (2001). Educational governance and democratic practice. Educational Policy, 15(5), 615–643.

Trujillo, T. (2013). The reincarnation of the effective schools research: Rethinking the literature on district effectiveness. Journal of Educational Administration, 51(4), 426–452.

Welner, K., & Mathis, W. (2015). Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act: Time to move beyond test-focused policies. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 117 Number 6, 2015, p. 1-6
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17938, Date Accessed: 1/23/2022 11:16:18 AM

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About the Author
  • Tina Trujillo
    University of California
    E-mail Author
    TINA TRUJILLO is an Assistant Professor at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education. She earned her Ph.D. in Education from UCLA and her M.A. in Education from the University of Colorado, Boulder. She uses tools from political science and critical policy studies to study the political dimensions of urban district reform, the instructional and democratic consequences of high-stakes accountability policies for students of color and English Learners, and trends in urban educational leadership. Her work is published in a range of journals, including American Educational Research Journal, Journal of Educational Administration, Educational Policy, and Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis.
  • Kenneth Howe
    University of Colorado at Boulder
    E-mail Author
    KENNETH R. HOWE is a professor in the School of Education, University of Colorado Boulder. He specializes in professional ethics, philosophy and educational research, and evaluation and policy research. Professor Howe has conducted research and published more than 70 articles and chapters on a variety of topics, ranging from the quantitative/qualitative debate to a philosophical examination of constructivism to a defense of multicultural education. His recent research has focused on educational equality and justice, exemplified by The Dominant Conception of Educational Equality: Ideal and Ideology (2014 Philosophy of Education Society presidential address) and the nature of scientific research in education, exemplified by Philosophy of Education and Other Educational Sciences (2014 Theory and Research in Education).
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