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The New Normal in K-12 Education
In the final days of 2015, Congress ushered in a new era of federal education law, updating No Child Left Behind to reflect both the big lessons we've learned over the past 15 years in education policy and the major changes that have taken place on the ground in our nation's schools since the 1990s. Yet if you listen to the rhetoric of many on the front lines of our education wars, you could be forgiven for thinking that Reality Bites has just premiered, Crystal Pepsi is all the rage, and the Spice Girls are the hottest ticket in town. Though a slow-moving Congress has realized that we live in a new education world, too many who spend their days fighting in the trenches have not.
When the reform movement sprung up two decades ago to bring forward new innovations like the expansion of school choice options through charter schools, a renewed focus on measuring teacher performance using robust evaluations, and expedited entryways into the teaching profession through programs like Teach For America, it did so to both increase data and accountability and shake up what many felt was a stagnation of our K-12 education system. Such rapid change led to harsh accusations that reformers sought to “corporatize” and de-personalize our nation's schools, leading to a near-blind rebuttal of change that continues to this day. But the truth is that while debates about questions like whether charter schools should exist may have been relevant in the 1990s, they now serve only to fill an existential need for activists on both sides to feel they have a moral high ground. Far too much energy continues to be expended on these outdated debates that simply have no place in the K-12 education system that exists in 2016.
This stagnation in conversation not only threatens our ability to move forward with the best policies for our nation's students, but it also has had the unintended consequence of distracting leading thinkers—particularly in the Democratic Party—from participating in the real conversations that will shape our schools over the next decade or more. This can mean leaving progressive values unrepresented in some of the most important discussions about how we can expand educational opportunities for years to come. In order to have real influence on the education debate, Democrats must turn the page on these old battles, recognize the new reality, and advocate for progressive values within the context of this drastically altered landscape.