The Innate Conflict of Politics and Education

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Throughout candidates’ political campaigns, it seems as if education is rarely a chief topic of conversation. But why?

In the previous Virginia gubernatorial election, the now-Governor, Glenn Youngkin, made education and parents a cornerstone of his campaign. The end result was a twelve-point swing between the 2020 presidential election and the 2021 gubernatorial counterpart. Yet, with Democrats having a narrow majority in the state’s upper chamber, many of Youngkin’s education policy goals have been thwarted. Although this may seem as if this is just typical practice of a legislature, the stoppage highlights a greater problem regarding political involvement in the creation of educational policy. 

When discussing a policy of any type, it must be understood that it must be considered in respect of the incentives these policies generate, rather than the goals they seek. This notion suggests that outcomes are more important than intentions—not only the immediate effects but also the long-term ramifications. 

Sadly, when it comes to politics, the goal of politicians is not to create effective policies for the betterment of society, but rather win reelection by passing legislation that has direct benefits to voters. As elections occur typically every two to six years for most offices, these policies must have noticeable and immediate effects on constituents to give them a reason to vote for the politician to keep their seat. However, when it comes to education policy, this creates an innate problem between political incentives and the creation of such legislation. 

No matter the original goal of the law, education policy is typically slow in creating qualitative outcomes. If one were to consider a complete overhaul of a curriculum ranging from kindergarteners to high school seniors, it would take no less than thirteen years to begin to truly comprehend the effectiveness of the revision. Meanwhile, the typical voter would have likely forgotten what policies their representative passed a decade beforehand, much less attributing the success or failure of the policy to the politician. Moreover, the average member of Congress spends approximately a decade on Capitol Hill before retiring or suffering defeat. Likewise, parents will only spend a finite amount of years with children in the public school system and rather not have their children become test subjects for new curricula. 

Perhaps a perfect example of this policy problem can be seen in the major education legislation passed thirteen years ago: Common Core. Although not created via a bill of Congress, the standards were developed in 2009 and 2010 by two state organizations, the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, and then implemented by states. Nonetheless, the program has been a disaster for American students. 

Between 2003 and 2013, fourth- and eighth-grade literacy scores across the nation increased by approximately half a percentage point annually. After 2013 and Common Core’s mass adoption, however, fourth-grade reading scores have decreased by just under half a point each year, whereas eighth-grade reading scores have decreased by as much as a full percentage point annually. Worse, these decreases were especially prominent among the lowest-achieving pupils.

This issue derives from the fact that Common Core is inherently designed to be top-down and regulated, with standards created at the top of the chain by policy “elites” and curriculum specialists. The other components, which are all anchored to educational norms, gain significance afterward and are frequently within the authority of specialists. Nonetheless, it appears like Common Core’s inadequacies are here to remain since politicians can now blame the pandemic for poor test results rather than the changes designed thirteen years ago.

Despite the flaws of Common Core itself, it highlights the fact that politics and educational improvement are constantly at odds. If society wants to see meaningful, positive changes to educational programs across America, there must be a stark depoliticization of the classroom as well as dissolution of bureaucratic top-down control of schools.

Daniel Elmore
Daniel Elmore is the Data & Analytics Coordinator at the Chalkboard Review.