Failing Grades: The Federal Politics of Education Standards
reviewed by Aaron Cooley - January 19, 2006
Title: Failing Grades: The Federal Politics of Education Standards
Author(s): Kevin R. Kosar
Publisher: Lynne Rienner Publishers, Boulder
ISBN: 1588263886, Pages: 259, Year: 2005
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It is difficult to argue that politics could ever be removed from the development and implementation of educational policy. From a local context to the national level, it seems almost axiomatic that education will remain a contentious political issue for decades into the future. Some observers who are content with their rigid ideological positions might even question the logic of wanting to strip polarizing politics out of education policy. However, after one reads Kevin Kosars Failing Grades: The Federal Politics of Education Standards, the truly corrosive effects of oppositional politics on education becomes shockingly clear. The entrenched political debate around education is a shame: No issue deserves a greater public consensus and yet few issues get less public agreement than the governance, direction, and future of Americas public schools.
Kosars Introduction states three aims for the volume: I argue that using federal power to raise education standards is a good idea. Second, I show how politics have inhibited efforts to forge a federal standards policy, leaving the nations schools to follow peculiar and ineffective policies. Third, I give some suggestions for improving the situation (p. 2). Kosars crisp, incisive prose is a call for higher educational standards from the perspective of what could be termed a good government approach to education reform. By this, I mean his ideological position is that of a pragmatist and is malleable to what might work best for assisting students in raising their achievement and potential for learning. It is refreshing to read a volume such as this because it challenges the underlying structural and ideological impediments to shaking up the status quo. Unlike many educational polemics from both the right and the left that seem to proceed from a paradigm where the author finds evidence to fit his conclusions, Kosars methodology is much more inclusive and his narrative suggests that he came to believe in higher standards at the federal level precisely because the data drove him to that conclusion.
Standing in the way of the federal standards Kosar would like to see enacted are two groups. Kosar describes these groups as the two main political forces that have inhibited the enactment of federal standards policy: antistatism and liberalism (p. 3). The terms are defined thusly: Antistatism, as used here, refers to the distrust of federal involvement in the public schools. . . . Liberals believe that states and localities cannot be trusted to provide good schooling to all children (p. 3). Clearly, this contrast in perspectives fuels the contentiousness around the control of public schools. Kosar concludes neither of these two ways of thinking about the federal role in school is especially congenial to federal standards reform, and this antipathy would have consequences (p. 3).
In Chapter 1, Student Achievement: A Rising Tide of Mediocrity? Kosar provides a remarkably compact and comprehensive treatment of data on student learning from recent decades. He systematically addresses the trends in scores on the ACT, SAT, NAEP Assessments, NAHL, and TIMSS. His conclusions are not positive, and he pulls no punches in commenting:
The testing data presented in this chapter do not indicate that American students on average are learning to advanced levels. The data show the opposite to be the case: few are. Most students are low achieving, and many black and Hispanic students are achieving at especially low levels. . . .The data strongly suggest that student achievement is low and has been for quite some time. After twelve years of public education, Americas youth lack mastery of many rudimentary skills and much basic knowledge. . . . In this case, A Nation at Risk was correct in its most fundamental judgment: there is a wave of mediocrity. But it is not rising; it has been high for at least three decades (p. 3637).
Again, what makes this volume distinctive is not its conclusion that public schools need to do better, as many volumes from both the right and the left of the political spectrum have suggested. What Kosars contribution does is focus the attention on school improvement away from the usually meager debate that finds the right blaming educators and the left demanding unlimited resources. Instead Kosar essentially says: Why not try higher federal standards since the patchwork of inconsistent and inadequate state guidelines has not worked? In his words, systemic reform, founded upon high academic standards and accompanying accountability tools, can encourage and coerce students, teachers, principals, and administrators to do better (p. 69).
Understanding Kosars position on the federal role might lead one to think that he would be a strong proponent of the No Child Left Behind Act. However, this assumption proves false as Kosar is not a particular fan of the recent legislation. He proposes that it was not as great of a change of direction as some politicians and scholars have suggested: Though often touted as a revolution, the No Child Left Behind Act is more of an evolution (p. 195). He does hedge this somewhat mentioning: No longer does either [antistatists and liberals] believe that the federal government should limit itself to small programs of underserved children and leave the rest of schooling to the states (p. 195). This novel consensus among the political factions is just the kind of attitude that is needed to reform the politics of education reform. Yet, there are two problems with it. The first issue, mentioned by Kosar, is that even though the No Child Left Behind Act did give the federal government much more power over-schooling, it left the heart of education, curricula, where it always has been: in the hands of localities and states (p. 195). The other problem was the ability of the coalition to hold together. This, of course, did not happen, as again, the political left and right peeled off and retreated to their comfortable and historical positions. The resulting effect of this coalition break-up has come in the call to alter provisions of No Child Left Behind to meet the demands for changes in standards and more state control.
The final chapter of Kosars text, Improving Federal Standards Policy, makes concrete policy suggestions that acknowledge the fortitude and resolve of the political forces he details so well. Further, Kosar displays none of the political naiveté that might have led another more idealistic scholar to sum up with recommendations that could only happen in an educational utopia. He concludes:
From the perspective of the advocates of a national system of standards or robust federal policy to raise standards, it would appear that politics has triumphed over advisable policy. The federal government has settled into a very limited role vis-à-vis the states and their standards. Accordingly, any improvements to federal policy to raise education standards must be incremental, working within the constraints of the present federal politics of education and the new paradigm of federal-state relations erected by the 1994 and 2002 reforms of Title I (p. 207208).
Clearly, small steps are the best plan for chipping away at the opposition to greater federal standards. What is odd is that it seems that most people think higher standards are a good idea. Kosar reminds us: Politically, raising standards to raise student achievement remains popular (p. 215). Even though this is true, getting the popular will into public policy remains difficult. Yet, Kosars cautious optimism to the potential for change should be embraced:
With the federal government kept from a more direct and powerful role, the reformed Title I must serve as the main means for encouraging schools to raise education standards. . . Raising standards through Title Is indirect mechanisms will remain a struggle for the foreseeable future. It is, however, a struggle worth undertaking (p. 215216).
Overall, the volume is an erudite and apolitical (in the best sense of that term) analysis of one promising and yet fully untried educational reform: higher federal education standards. Students and educators would both benefit from the consideration of these policy recommendations at the federal level along with the cooperation of state and local education bodies to craft a more seamless, consistent, and internationally competitive educational system.