How Quickly We Forget

We all remember that George H.W. Bush (the First) was supposed to an education president.  Convening an education summit at Eduflack’s alma mater, Bush brought governors, business leaders, and other influencers together to focus on how to improve American education as we headed into the 21st century.

Then there is Bush II, and his legacy of No Child Left Behind.  Like it or not, NCLB will be remembered as the federal government’s largest investment in public education to date, and praised (or demonized) for its focus on research and results-based education.

What about that president in between?  You know, that guy named Clinton.  Sure, as governor of Arkansas, he was one of the primary leaders at Bush I’s U.Va. summit.  But when we think of President Bill Clinton’s domestic policy successes, education doesn’t leap to mind.  Instead, we think of a strong economy, a balanced budget, community policing, and other such programs.

So what about President 42 and education?  Eduflack was down in Little Rock, Arkansas this week, and had to make a stop at the Clinton Presidential Library.  I’m just a sucker for presidential libraries, dating back to my father’s involvement in the development of the JFK Library in Boston.

At the Clinton Center, they’ve focused on eight or so key issues that defined the Clinton Administration … and one of those issues is education.  (In fact, the education alcove is larger than the section dedicated to the role of Vice President Al Gore in the eight-year administration.)

Clinton’s impact on education is defined broadly.  A commitment to lifetime learning.  Investments in Head Start and Healthy Start.  Goals 2000 standards.  School choice (with a big ole spotlight on a Checker Finn book).  Hiring 100,000 new teachers.  Providing 1.3 million children with a safe place after school hours.  Wiring 98 percent of our nation’s classrooms with the Internet.  Providing two years of college education to all students.  School to work.  Adult education.

I know, I know.  It reads more like a grocery list that core accomplishments.  Some are quantifiable, others can only be quantified by how many dollars were spent.  Some are narrowly defined, others broadly.  So it raises the larger question: What was the true impact of President Clinton’s education agenda?

Eduflack is treading on dangerous ground here, knowing that Eduwife worked at the U.S. Department of Education in mid-1990s and did tremendous work there, particularly in the area of parental involvement.  But we have to ask the question, why have we quickly forgotten so many of these Clinton era education initiatives?

Some of it, we just take for granted.  Of course our classrooms are wired.  We forget that when Clinton took office in 1993, there were only 170 total Web sites on the planet.  Today, some of us will visit 170 sites in the course of a work day.

Some just didn’t leave an impact.  We may have hired 100,000 new teachers during the Clinton years, but we still bemoan the great teacher shortages in our schools.  We may have sought to provide two years of college education to all high school graduates, but college costs continue to skyrocket and college readiness and college attainment numbers have flatlined.  If everyone got those two years, would the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation have to make the investments it is making to get kids through high school and into postsecondary education?

And some we just don’t appreciate.  Clinton supported school choice, and did so at a time when the teachers unions (those folks who helped him get elected in the first place) were strongly opposed to any change from the status quo.  We take school choice and charters for granted now, but that was a major step for Clinton to take at the time.  And it paved the way for W’s voucher program and the expansion of school choice under NCLB.

But Goals 2000 is perhaps the most interesting, and most neglected, piece of the Clinton education portfolio.  When he left office, 49 states had bought into Goals 2000.  The program stood as a real, concrete first step toward national education standards.  What had long been a third rail in education policy had been doggedly pursued by Richard Riley, Mike Cohen, and others, with tangible successes.  Without it, who knows if we would even be talking about a national standard for Algebra II (as Achieve has put in place) or comprehensive standards as discussed by NGA, CCSSO, and others.

Ultimately, though, the easiest answer to why so much has been forgotten is impact.  As we look at the Clinton agenda, we lose track of many of these initiatives because they seem to place process over results.  Yes, the issues and the dollars behind them are impressive.  But how has it improved student achievement?  How did it boost teacher quality?  How did it truly impact K-12 classrooms in schools across the nation?

Instead of answering these questions, we simply moved on.  We set aside Goals 2000 and Clinton-era school choice and such so we could focus on NCLB, Reading First, and HQT.  Out with the old, in with the new.  Instead of building on successes and momentum, the Clinton/Riley agenda was put in storage, waiting to be rediscovered by historians in the decades to come.
Not every president is going to be an education president.  And not every president should be.  The needs and focus of the nation change from administration to administration.  But if we are going to urge our schools to direct their attentions to long-term improvements and longitudinal evaluations, maybe we should consider the same in our federal policies.  No, we shouldn’t accept previous efforts blindly, without questioning them or looking for ways to improve them.  But with changes in administration — whether it be at the school, district, state, or federal level — shouldn’t we build on the forward progress and financial investments of our predecessors? 

One thought on “How Quickly We Forget

  1. Well said, Eduflack. We lost a lot of education momentum that Clinton built. Hopefully the next President will find what’s working and build on that rather than starting all over again.

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