When the November elections finally arrived, I inspected the Gallup midterm poll showing the top 12 issues in the campaign. Fortunately, education was not among them.
Writers who make their living focusing on important aspects of our country — foreign affairs, the economy, health care, immigration — may be pleased to see their favorite subject at or near the top of that list. Not me.
I think education policy is too important, and too fragile, to get mixed up in national politics. There have been years when voters have said schools would have a big effect on how they marked their ballot, but they didn’t appear to mean it.
In late 1999, for instance, a Washington Post-ABC News poll said education was “very important” to more voters than any other issue in the 2000 national elections. But it did not affect that vote in any discernible way. Republican George W. Bush promoted what became his No Child Left Behind education plan, and his opponent, Al Gore, had similar ideas. Both parties in Congress helped the Bush plan become law.
This year, education has been discussed in some governor’s races. In Georgia, the two candidates differed over how to provide more college scholarships. But voters were focused on Medicaid and jobs. Nationally, according to Gallup, the three biggest issues were health care, the economy and immigration.
In the few instances when school issues have gotten hot in recent years, the discussion has had little to do with raising student achievement. In the 2016 presidential race, the Common Core State Standards were debated, but the principal argument against them was that they interfered with state decision-making.
In his 2002 book “Children as Pawns: The Politics of Educational Reform,” University of Massachusetts historian Timothy A. Hacsi proved that elected officials pay little attention to educational research and instead go with whatever their base seems to want. What politicians say on the stump and offer as legislation stems more from “ideology, fear of raising taxes, bureaucratic inertia, class and racial conflict” than what has been shown to work in classrooms, Hacsi said.
President Trump rarely mentions schools. His five immediate predecessors, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, were interested in the subject. But they tended to agree that the federal government should help raise school standards and require tests to make sure students are learning.
In 2015, both parties in Congress backed a new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act. It returned much of the power to reform schools to the states. It was a sign of bipartisan exhaustion from the controversial No Child Left Behind era. Because state legislatures are traditionally reluctant to push hard for higher achievement, school districts are again left to pursue their own ideas.
Local school board members, who have the power to make changes, usually campaign on their credentials rather than on plans to help children learn. That may be a blessing because some of the most productive recent educational changes, such as the growth of demanding charter schools and the opening of college-level courses to more high school students, have been the work of energetic teachers, not politicians.
There are plenty of other intriguing ideas. Cinque Henderson’s new book, “Sit Down and Shut Up: How Discipline Can Set Students Free,” provides an intriguing rationale for improving student behavior. Many teachers are pushing for more online learning at home, vocational programs tied to real jobs and the ability to earn community college degrees and high school diplomas at the same time.
Some big political battles over schools did rage this year. The race to become California’s state superintendent of public instruction cost more than $43 million. But as my colleague Valerie Strauss pointed out, both candidates were Democrats, and the job they ran for doesn’t control state education policy.
I would like to leave school reforms as much as possible in the hands of teachers. They tend to do their best work when their ideas aren’t being attacked in political ads or the campaign leaflets that are now being gathered up and thrown away.