The accountability-driven education reform bills favored by the White House and now in conference committee are strikingly similar in approach to the legislation that President Bill Clinton signed to "end welfare as we know it." Unfortunately, the results may be similar as well: improvement in certain measurable outcomes, but little improvement in the quality of life (and, in the case of education, of learning) for the target populations.
Both welfare and education reform measures are based on a problem-solving strategy that assumes an absence of motivation in others to succeed. Both demand results while failing to invest in removing barriers to achieving them.
The current education reform legislation, with its emphasis on "holding schools accountable," focuses on a lack of teacher and school motivation to do a good job. Standardized tests and increased public scrutiny are prescribed to overcome this resistance to excellence.
Is that assumption accurate? Do teachers really lack the will to succeed? Are they content to live on the public purse with little pride in their work or level of success? Will the threat of testing instill a stronger motivation to succeed? Will the public exposure and shame of poor test results finally provide the key to the improvement in public education that we seek? There is little evidence to support any of these assumptions.
The obstacles to excellence in education are well known to those in direct contact with schools. Teacher salaries make a mockery of the easily professed importance we assign to teaching. Teacher workloads are unmanageable. Budgets for instructional supplies, equipment, staff development and training, which strengthen the professional foundation of a teacher's performance, are meager. School buildings are shoddy, often dangerous and not conducive to learning. There is an absence of individualized attention to the many strengths and special needs children bring to the classroom.
The incessant demand for results, unfortunately, has political appeal. Elected officials align themselves with the public demand for change, while blocking any honest confrontation of these obstacles to excellence and any true estimate of the cost of their removal.
This is also the way it has been with welfare reform. With bipartisan acclaim, welfare reform was launched with a similar predisposition to focus on goals without attention to the barriers to attaining the desired goals. It was a get-tough policy of sanctions under the name of accountability, a willingness to make expansive claims of success without an expansive investment of resources to make success possible. In ending "welfare as we know it," there was the familiar demand for specific tests of success and accountability. Welfare dependency was to end. Welfare mothers were to go to work and support their children. Time limits were set on the duration of benefits to ensure compliance. Child poverty was to be ended through work and not public aid.
What has five years of experience with welfare reform taught us? Given the opportunity to work, welfare recipients are motivated to do so. With encouragement and assistance labor force participation by welfare recipients is up dramatically. We've learned that motivation is a function of hope; individuals can and do aspire to more when the means to succeed are available.
But we've also learned that while more welfare recipients now work, for the vast majority of them their work does not deliver a family income above the poverty level. They have left welfare to join the ranks of the working poor. Their children are still counted among the more than 20% of American children living in poverty.
The desirability of excellent schools and the expectation that adults support their families are hardly contested. Welfare reform, however, has taught us that simply making demands and insisting upon accountability are not enough. There are barriers to work that also must be overcome.
Child care is available to no more that 10% of eligible poor families. Impoverished neighborhoods are closed off from employment opportunity by the absence of good public transportation. There is inadequate access to the training and education needed for upward mobility. The supply of low-cost housing is inadequate to stabilize family life. An impoverished life incubates problems (mental illness, language deficiency, low IQ, substance abuse, domestic violence, poor health and physical disability) that limit employability. These obstacles to employment don't simply vanish because we demand that welfare recipients go to work. The barriers will, however, yield to resources and services designed to lessen their impact. The widely reported success of welfare reform we hear most about is based entirely upon reductions in caseload size and cost. It is not based upon any measurable gain in overcoming barriers to employment or on any measured improvement in quality of life for poor kids and their families.
The education reform now offered by the president and Congress may well raise test scores. Under the current proposals, however, those test scores will reflect the further debasement of teaching and learning through the forced adoption of standardized, "test-centered," rather than individualized, "child-centered," instruction and achievement. The reforms will do little to overcome barriers to excellence in education, which by now are so clearly identifiable.
Education reform is on the table today. Welfare reform will command our attention again next year, when the current law expires and we consider its reauthorization. There are opportunities here to get on with the task of overcoming the very real obstacles keeping us from achieving the reform we want.