Home Articles Reader Opinion Editorial Book Reviews Discussion Writers Guide About TCRecord
transparent 13

Bush-Obama School Reform: Lessons Learned

reviewed by Valarie Valentine & Lance Fusarelli - February 20, 2019

coverTitle: Bush-Obama School Reform: Lessons Learned
Author(s): Frederick M. Hess & Michael Q. McShane (Eds.)
Publisher: Harvard Education Press, Boston
ISBN: 1682532178, Pages: 248, Year: 2018
Search for book at Amazon.com

“We’ve begun looking at and rolling back a lot of the overreach of the federal government in education.” This was Betsy Devos’ response on 60 Minutes in March 2018 to a question about her administration’s first year in office. Whether Secretary Devos’ proclamation sounds like music to your ears or like nails on a chalkboard, the Trump Administration’s educational intent has been made clear: to use the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) to roll back some of the perceived federal overreach brought about by No Child Left Behind (NCLB), Race to the Top (RTTT), the School Improvement Grant (SIG) program, and federal grants of waivers during the Bush and Obama Administrations.

In Bush-Obama School Reform: Lessons Learned, Frederick Hess and Michael McShane have assembled a diverse group of policy scholars who offer reflective, thought-provoking reviews of key education reforms promulgated by Presidents Bush and Obama. This period is remarkable for the sustained federal emphasis on education reform; what Hess and McShane call “the ambitious experiment that dominated American education in the first decades of the twenty-first century” (p. 11). Attempting to surmount the limitations imposed by federalism, Presidents Bush, Obama, and their allies made a concerted effort to more tightly regulate the U.S. education system and use the tools available to the federal government to push, prod, and cajole states and school districts to initiate reforms, particularly for those most at-risk. The result was a mixed bag of reforms with some modest successes and some unintended, although not always negative, consequences.

Policy wonks of any ideological persuasion interested in exploring federalism in education will appreciate this collection of nine essays that summarize key policy areas impacted during this period, including testing and accountability, school turnaround, incentives and inducements, teacher quality, research and innovation, standards, charter schools, state education agencies, and civil rights. Each chapter begins with an introduction to the policy as well as its antecedents, and the levers used by both the Bush and Obama Administrations to expedite change. After reviewing the implementation and effects of these policies, the chapter authors offer a series of lessons learned.

Two common themes run throughout each chapter of the book. First, the levers by which the Bush and Obama Administrations facilitated change were different, but their policy agendas were complementary and for the most part consistent, ensuring a period of aggressive federal intervention in schooling for nearly two decades. Second, although the federal government has multiple policy levers with which to drive reform agendas, aggressive timelines and one-size-fits-all remedies are seldom sufficient to generate measurable, sustainable solutions to complex educational challenges.

For example, the chapters written by Deven Carlson on “Testing and Accountability” and Tom Loveless on “Why Standards Produce Weak Reform” go hand in hand to illustrate the unexpected synchronicity between the Bush and Obama Administrations in promoting accountability through standards and testing. Carlson provides readers a thorough review of the evolution of testing and accountability policy under President Bush, which served as the foundation of his signature No Child Left Behind Act. The policy had wide bipartisan support with an ambitious mandate that all students would be on grade level by the year 2014. However, as the Great Recession set in and as state and local governments realized their inability to make adequate yearly progress (AYP), state and local pushback became quite strong. President Obama and Secretary Duncan utilized the enticement of federal waivers and competitive grants to breathe new life into the testing, accountability, and Common Core standards movement begun by his predecessor. Loveless’ commentary on the Common Core is a cautionary tale for those interested in nationalizing standards-based testing. In the era of social media and 24-hour-news cycles, local and non-local groups can create momentum shifts in public opinion in an instant.

In the chapters “The Limits of Policy for School Turnaround” by Ashley Jochim, “The Bush-Obama Agenda for Education Research and Innovation” by Robert PIanta and Tara Hofkens, and “Federal Support for Charter Schooling” by Anna Egalite, attention is focused on both the Bush and Obama Administrations’ attempts to stimulate educational research either as a vehicle to turn around failing schools or to give communities innovative charter school options instead. Jochim begins this journey during the Bush NCLB reforms that attempted to force schools to demonstrate adequate yearly progress (AYP) or face mandatory sanctions in the form of school transformation, turnaround, restart, or closure. To bolster state and local efforts to improve schools through research-based best practices, School Improvement Funds (SIF) were made available to states. For emphasis, Jochim documents that the phrase “scientifically based research” is referenced more than one hundred times in NCLB as the improvement program through which SIF funds were made available (p. 36).

Continuing this thread, Pianta and Hofkens move readers from the initial Bush era investment in the Institute of Educational Sciences (IES) to the Obama era use of IES along with private funding streams to leverage Race to the Top (RTTT) grants, which were given on the condition that states adopt their reform agenda. Both administrations hoped to encourage high-quality research to improve educational problems of practice to turn around low-performing schools. Egalite observes that both the Bush and Obama Administrations saw charters as yet another way the federal government could encourage research-based educational innovation using public funds to either support or pressure states to change. In each of these chapters, however, readers are reminded that while educational improvement through research-based interventions may be a shared goal, borrowing research methods from the field of science may be an insufficient model to improve schooling due to the complexities of program implementation, technical expertise and capacity, and local context.

In “Federal Efforts to Improve Teacher Quality,” Matthew Kraft discusses teacher licensure and evaluation reform during the Bush and Obama eras. With bipartisan support, NCLB used mandates to require that states verify every child would be taught by a highly qualified teacher (HQT). In addition to requiring states to demonstrate the implementation of standards and accountability systems, the Obama Administration continued the Bush Administration’s efforts to improve teacher quality by granting AYP waivers in exchange for evidence that states were implementing teacher evaluation systems. Once again, the author makes it clear that each administration’s hasty timelines lacked flexibility and failed to appreciate that absent local buy-in, labor market principles and politics can make implementation efforts haphazard at best.

This leads us to Dr. Sara Dahill-Brown’s analysis in “Challenging, Building, and Changing Capacity in State Education Agencies.” She defines capacity as “the ability of an institution to effectively implement and design programs, craft and enforce regulation, and efficiently deliver services” (p. 146). Considering the scope of the Bush and Obama reform policies (and the quick timelines required to implement each with fidelity), state agencies had to move mountains to show progress. Dahill-Brown’s cautionary tale is that each State Education Agency’s ability to adapt quickly to policy reform is circumscribed by their state legislative bodies, local school systems, institutional capacity, and unique political milieu.  

Both “Incentives and Inducements” by Patrick McGuinn and “Sound and Fury” by Joshua Dunn leave readers to critically deconstruct the methods by which the Bush and Obama Administrations were able to coerce states into adopting rapid policy changes. Some states expected the same flexibility they were afforded under previous administrations. Some “threatened to forfeit federal dollars in order to opt out of the NCLB regime” (p. 53). The Bush Administration afforded no such accommodations and fought legal challenges to the Administration’s authority in order to force states into compliance. McGuinn calls the Obama Administration’s use of the competitive grant process “innovative and unprecedented” (p. 57) as a mechanism to entice states into quick action. However, McGuinn also notes the limitations of the use of incentives and inducements to spur educational change, particularly absent buy-in from local officials. In his chapter, Dunn describes the backlash from state and local constituencies to both administrations’ use of waivers, RTTT grants, and “Dear Colleague Letters” as end-runs around the legislative process and state authority over education. He also admonishes the feds for framing policy agendas under the umbrella of “civil rights” to garner public sentiment.

Bush-Obama School Reform: Lessons Learned offers students, researchers, and policymakers alike a comprehensive look back at the context that led up to massive federal intervention in schooling in the U.S., initiated significant policy change, the conditions that made implementation either effective or problematic, and any short-term impact we have been able to measure as a precursor to future Trump era reforms under the ESSA. Hess and McShane admit that the goal of the book was not to judge either administration as a success or failure; the true failure, they argue, would be the inability to learn from past experiences and build on previous successes in educational reform. In their conclusion, Hess and McShane observe:

As today's researchers have become increasingly intent on determining “what works,” they've had less time to ask what we might learn from what has been tried... This reluctance to look back comes at a steep price. As a result, we tend to do a poor job of learning from the missteps and miscalculations that have gone before." (p. 195)

This book offers an opportunity to evaluate federal involvement in educational policy reform at its peak. It highlights the difficulties of translating federal initiatives into fundamental change at the local level. The lessons to be learned are important ones that reformers and policymakers at both the state and federal levels need to take into account as they implement ESSA and continue to try to improve schooling for all children.



Stahl, L. (2018, March 11). Betsy DeVos on guns, school choice and why people don't like her. CBS News, 60 Minutes. Retreived from https://www.cbsnews.com/news/secretary-of-education-betsy-devos-on-guns-school-choice-and-why-people-dont-like-her/

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 20, 2019
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22679, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 7:54:33 PM

Purchase Reprint Rights for this article or review
Article Tools
Related Articles

Related Discussion
Post a Comment | Read All

About the Author
  • Valarie Valentine
    North Carolina State University
    E-mail Author
    VALARIE VALENTINE is a doctoral student in the Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis program at North Carolina State University. She has worked in K-12 education as a data analyst. Her research interests include educational equity and discipline policy.
  • Lance Fusarelli
    North Carolina State University
    E-mail Author
    LANCE D. FUSARELLI is a professor of educational leadership and policy in the Department of Educational Leadership, Policy, and Human Development at North Carolina State University. Recent publications include “Will Decentralization Affect Educational Inequity? The Every Student Succeeds Act” (Educational Administration Quarterly, 2017) and “The Every Student Succeeds Act, the Decline of the Federal Role in Education Policy, and the Curbing of Executive Authority” (Publius: The Journal of Federalism, 2017).
Member Center
In Print
This Month's Issue