May 20, 2006

The Hamilton Project and education

A brief observation on political positioning: It's sort of about the substance. The aggregation of the new Hamilton Project is a case in point. Headlined by Richard Rubin and headed by Peter Orszag (the Brookings fellow who neatly dissembled Bush's Social Security plans), the project promises to lay out policies in a variety of areas around economic security and growth. It's clearly a case of a bunch of high-powered Democrats trying to carve out a platform that's intellectually interesting, politically appealing, and broader than one narrow topic. It's in the last criteria where education enters the mix. Yes, you can plausibly lay claim to education as an important area related to the economy (if diffusely), but the focus of project papers thus far has been, hmmm.... interesting.

Let me start out by saying that there is already a storm (or maybe a set of afternoon showers) over the main economic impulses of Rubin's and Orszag's group, who promise policies focused on restoring some balance to the federal budget and economy and who, after all, borrowed the name of the first secretary of the Treasury. Nah, Rubin doesn't have an ego... But in any case, the project has been attacked by right-winger-turned-populist Kevin Phillips and Democratic activist David Sirota, precisely because of Rubin's origins and current profession as a financier. (They've also been defended by Greg Anrig and noted by my radical librarian colleague Kathleen de la Peña McCook, among others more obscure but more thoughtful in the blogosphere.) Despite my concerns about some of Rubin's actions as treasury secretary, on the whole he was competent and thoughtful and was one of the Cabinet dissenters when Clinton agreed to sign the 1996 welfare destruction bill. That last commitment to decent treatment of the destitute is continued in the Hamilton Project, especially in the argument that economic stability (read: not letting people starve) can help support innovation and economic growth. There is enough gravitas in the Hamilton Project that it does not immediately threaten to become a new Democratic Leadership Council, which was largely moderate Democratic politicians in search of ideas and a forum for positioning the "Third Way."

But that positioning still creeps in. Andrew Rotherham, who worked in the Clinton White House and is associated with the Progressive Policy Institute (the gravitas appendage of the DLC), recently wrote all about political positioning in education when contrasting the bills filed by two Democratics, Sen. Barack Obama (IL) and Rep. Lynn Woolsey (CA). The money paragraph:

The specifics matter less than the politics right now. It's hard to miss that younger Democrats increasingly think like Obama, signaling an important generational shift. That puts Democrats at something of a crossroads in terms of moving forward or backwards on the education issue and about how the party will be perceived in 2008.

Is this another attempt to label Obama as a centrist, a nefarious DLC move to stave off irrelevance? Not really. It is an effort at political positioning in education, to argue that a certain stance towards public policy is politically rewarding.

And here is where the Hamilton Project's white paper on teachers (PDF) comes in. It argues that experience is not a great predictor of teaching effectiveness (which is true) and comes with the standard "let 'em in the door more easily" nostrum (as if principals didn't hire long-term substitutes and those with temporary licenses now) and makes vague noises about value-added assessment and huge pay increments based on performance and the willingness of effective teachers to work in high-poverty schools. There are some serious ideas here, but they're not really new, and that's a clue that the paper is about political positioning, in addition to the tenuous tie to the project's general mission.

I'm actually a bit surprised there hasn't been more aired on this in the last month or so. Nicholas Kristof's column taking off from the Hamilton Project paper (among other sources) was shredded by Jenny D., deconstructed by Jim Horn, more sedately criticized by Barbara Stengel, and defended by Andrew Rotherham, without anyone's noting the link to the Hamilton Project. The Hamilton Project mini-focus on education was mentioned in a critical article by Harold Meyerson and defended by Kevin Carey, but without reference to the white paper. Hmmn.... I had to dig deep in Daily Kos to find Mark Johnson Lewis's criticism.

But I suspect we'll hear more over the next year or so. Let's just make sure to discuss them on their merits rather than to accept (or spend much time on) arguments that a certain idea is politically appealing, inevitable, whatever.

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Posted in Education policy on May 20, 2006 10:00 AM |