Whither the Washington Consensus?

Thousands of schools are ''in need of improvement,'' the ''highly qualified teachers'' deadline has come and gone without a single state in compliance, and millions of parents and educators are still struggling to make sense of terms like ''adequate yearly progress.'' Newspaper stories flag problems with state testing systems and supplemental educational services. This tumult has led some to suggest that the ambitious No Child Left Behind Act is staggering, especially as it comes up for reauthorization in 2007.

Resident Scholar Frederick M. Hess
The truth is that NCLB's future hangs less on what is happening in the nation's classrooms than on the Washington Consensus. While we like to think that the real force in schooling is parents and local educators, the Beltway crowd will determine whether NCLB keeps its bite or is muzzled.

The term ''Washington Consensus'' originated in foreign policy circles. It refers to ideas that enjoy widespread support among political elites across the ideological spectrum. No matter which party is in power, so long as the Washington Consensus stays in place policies change only in minor ways.

There is now a Washington Consensus in education. It has been entrenched since the middle of the Clinton Administration, was integral to the crafting of NCLB in 2001, and for the most part remains intact today. It embraces three big ideas. First, that the nation's foremost education objective should be closing racial and economic achievement gaps. Second, that excellent schools can overcome the challenges of poverty. And third, that external pressure and tough accountability are critical components of helping school systems improve.

These ideas are politically tendentious. Republicans are uncomfortable talking about achievement gaps, implying, as they do, the need for policies that take explicit account of race and class. Democrats have been uncomfortable expecting schools and educators to overcome the social problems children bring with them to the classroom. And both parties sing the praises of ''local control'' even while eroding it. Yet among policy elites--the President and top officials in the Administration; the chairmen and ranking members of the education committees on Capitol Hill, and key staff--these are now bedrock principles.

Outside Washington, support for the consensus is tepid. The 2005 Phi Delta Kappan/Gallup poll reported that just 44 percent of voters agree that test data should be broken out by race. Educators are even more skeptical. Only 26 percent of high school teachers, according to a 2005 Education Testing Service poll, think all students should be held to a common standard. And the legislatures of at least 31 states have expressed their concern about Washington-style ''external pressure'' by passing anti-NCLB resolutions.

There are reasons to think the Washington Consensus might fall. Its most visible contemporary champion--President Bush--is growing weaker. The Republicans who chaired the education committees during NCLB's creation have moved on--Senator Gregg to head the budget committee, Representative Boehner to serve as House Majority Leader. Conservatives in the House, perhaps suffering from buyer's remorse, last year flattened proposals to extend No Child Left Behind to the high school level. GOP presidential contenders are running away from the law; Virginia Senator George Allen, for example, recently told the party faithful that his state would not be dumbing down its standards to please ''federal department of education bureaucrats.'' Moreover, the senator expected to play a key role during the law's renewal, Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander, is pressing a new ''American competitiveness'' agenda, which could swing the pendulum away from a focus on ''equity'' and gap-closing to a focus on ''excellence'' and boosting our highest-achieving students.

Hence the future of Bush's signature law may lie critically, and somewhat ironically, with the leading Democrats who helped shape it the first time around. Pivotal to determining whether the Washington Consensus holds will be the stance of two liberal lions--Senator Ted Kennedy and Representative George Miller, ranking members of Congress's education committees--and their determination to stand up to angry teacher unions and popular unrest. Miller especially has shown real grit, arguing that even schools serving the most disadvantaged children should be expected to ensure that their students reach proficiency in reading and math. He's echoed the President in calling any alternative view a form of ''bigotry.'' If their support starts to go south, NCLB could be in real trouble.

The other key Democrat to watch is Senator Hillary Clinton. She's played to the teachers unions by criticizing the law's funding, but she has thus far remained faithful to its central tenets. She may be NCLB's best hope. The Washington Consensus was born during the first Clinton Administration, after all. It's hard to believe that it wouldn't continue to prosper under a second one.

Frederick M. Hess is a resident scholar and director of education policy studies at AEI. Michael J. Petrilli is Vice President for National Programs and Policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.

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About the Author


Frederick M.
  • An educator, political scientist and author, Frederick M. Hess studies K-12 and higher education issues. His books include "Cage-Busting Leadership," "Breakthrough Leadership in the Digital Age," "The Same Thing Over and Over," "Education Unbound," "Common Sense School Reform," "Revolution at the Margins," and "Spinning Wheels." He is also the author of the popular Education Week blog, "Rick Hess Straight Up." Hess's work has appeared in scholarly and popular outlets such as Teachers College Record, Harvard Education Review, Social Science Quarterly, Urban Affairs Review, American Politics Quarterly, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Phi Delta Kappan, Educational Leadership, U.S. News & World Report, National Affairs, the Washington Post, the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic and National Review. He has edited widely cited volumes on the Common Core, the role of for-profits in education, education philanthropy, school costs and productivity, the impact of education research, and No Child Left Behind.  Hess serves as executive editor of Education Next, as lead faculty member for the Rice Education Entrepreneurship Program, and on the review boards for the Broad Prize in Urban Education and the Broad Prize for Public Charter Schools. He also serves on the boards of directors of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers and 4.0 SCHOOLS. A former high school social studies teacher, he teaches or has taught at the University of Virginia, the University of Pennsylvania, Georgetown University, Rice University and Harvard University. He holds an M.A. and Ph.D. in Government, as well as an M.Ed. in Teaching and Curriculum, from Harvard University.

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