Paul Peterson

Paul Peterson

Paul E. Peterson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and a member of the Koret Task Force on K–12 Education, and editor in chief of Education Next: A Journal of Opinion and Research. He is also the Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Government and director of the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University. His research interests include educational policy, federalism, and urban policy. Some of his current research efforts include evaluating the effectiveness of school reform plans around the country. Peterson is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and has won numerous awards, including the Woodrow Wilson Foundation Award and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation Prize.

The Third-Party Temptation

Every leap year thoughts turn, not just to love, but to a third political party free of the encrustations encumbering Democrats and Republicans. This year, leaders of one self-appointed group, traveling under the moniker Americans Elect, promise that their presidential and vice-presidential candidates, one from each of the two major parties, will be on the November ballot in every state. They plan to host a “secure, online convention” in June but reserve the right to exclude candidates deemed unworthy.

Third-partyism is tempting. The idea of a middle way has appealed to certain Washington insiders unhappy with the Obama administration but also dissatisfied with those pursuing the Republican nomination.

As ever in the American two-party system, a winning party must appeal to multiple, sometimes contradictory, constituencies. Democrats must satisfy job-hungry unions and antigrowth environmentalists. Republicans must resolve differences between social and economic conservatives.

Given such heterogeneities, leaders must be vague and inconsistent. They are wont to change their minds and appear to be lacking in all conviction. By comparison, those who lead third parties can, at least for a while, inspire by their apparent nobility of presence and purity of heart.

The Third-Party Temptation…

In Utah, new legislation has given school districts the opportunity to attract high school students from throughout the state to their online course offerings.

Any time a high school student takes a course from a district other than the one where they live, a portion of Utah’s state aid shifts from the home district to the district providing the course online.

A district with a brilliant slate of online suddenly has the chance to solve its fiscal problems the easy way.

I learned about the Utah experiment at a conference held at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, and sponsored by Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance. While the details of the Utah experiment were not discussed, the basic idea is certainly intriguing.

No longer must students in rural Utah be denied the opportunity to take physics, chemistry, computer science or an esoteric language simply because the local district cannot afford teachers for courses with small enrollments.

No longer must a student in Utah take a social studies course from a teacher the student finds boring and unhelpful.

No longer must a student who cannot attend school on a daily basis—either because he or she is sick, or pregnant, or feels bullied, or wants to train for an Olympic sport—be denied the opportunity to maintain a regular schedule that will lead to a timely graduation.

Continue reading Paul Peterson…

When school districts are failing, what should the federal government do?

A) give districts money?
B) deny districts funds?
C) subject districts to tight regulations?
D) force districts to compete for federal dollars by promis­ing to improve?
E) tell the truth while insisting parents be given a choice of school?

Policymakers have responded to this, the nation’s most challenging multiple-choice education quiz, with four different wrong answers. Now, with the release of the Koret Task Force report, policymakers have a chance to get it right, as they consider the reauthorization of the federal education law, No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

President Jimmy Carter chose the first answer, swelling the federal share of education spending to an all-time high. Yet according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, high-school seniors perform no better today in math, reading, or science than they did when Carter held office.

President Ronald Reagan curtailed the share of K–12 education spending paid out of the federal treasury. That did not lift student performance either.

With the passage of NCLB, the George W. Bush administration subjected failing schools to sanctions if test performance did not improve. Notable gains were made, as Eric Hanushek points out in his provocative analysis of the benefits of the school accountability law. But NCLB’s complicated regulations proved to be unworkable and ineffectual.

Now, the Obama administration has sought to boost school improvement through Race to the Top by getting states and districts to compete for some federal dollars with promises to execute needed reforms. Not surprisingly, state and district promises are more easily made than kept.

Four strategies. Four failures. What should the federal government try next?

Continue reading Paul Peterson…

Every leap year thoughts turn, not just to love, but to a third political party devoid of the encrustations encumbering Democrats and Republicans alike. This year, leaders of a self-appointed group, traveling under the moniker Americans Elect, promise their presidential and vice-presidential candidates, one from each of the two major parties, will be on the November ballot in every state — even Virginia. They plan to host an Internet convention but reserve the right to exclude from their nominating process candidates deemed unworthy. The third party, claiming to provide a middle way, has proven appealing to certain Washington insiders unhappy with the Obama administration but also dissatisfied with those pursuing the Republican nomination.

Third partyism is tempting. In the American two-party system, to win elections a party must appeal to multiple, sometimes contradictory, constituencies. Democrats must satisfy job-hungry unions and anti-growth environmentalists. Republicans must resolve differences between social and economic conservatives.

Continue reading Paul Peterson…

That President Barack Obama faces enormous challenges in the upcoming presidential race is guaranteed. With a 9 percent unemployment rate, a threat from Europe of more to come, and an approval rating that has sunk more than one president’s bid for re-election,  the odds of his winning a two-party contest have been slipping steadily. What, then, can a re-election-minded president do?

Answer:  Shift to the left while silently encouraging a third “centrist” party to split the opposition. An article in the Sunday Boston Globe, if carefully read, gives us every reason to think this is now underway.

Americans Elect, the country’s newest political party, says it is going to hold a nominating convention online in which all registered voters are allowed to participate.  Any bipartisan team–that is any Republican presidential candidate with a Democrat or an Independent as a vice-presidential team-mate (or vice versa)—is allowed to pursue its nomination.

On second thought, forget the vice-versa.  American Elect will, if at all possible, select a middle-of-the road Republican presidential candidate.  When Mark McKinnon, the media strategist for the group, was asked who the likely candidates might be, he ticked off  Jon Huntsman (the former Obama-appointed ambassador now standing before the krieglights in Republican presidential debates),  Republican Buddy Roemer, former governor of Louisiana,  Republican Mitch Daniels (not likely), Nebraska’s Republican Senator Chuck Hagel, Republican Colin Powell,  Republican Condolezza Rice, and Joe Lieberman, an Independent who gathered in a plethora of Republican votes in his Connecticut re-election campaign.  The Globe reporter was only able to fetch from McKinnon only one Democratic name, that of Evan Byah, the former Senator from Indiana who is hardly going to abandon his—and his father’s–political party after having served in office under its label for 25 years.  Tom Brokaw’s name was also tossed about, just in case Americans want to be directly run by its TV anchors.

But could the American voter upset the apple cart and pick someone that does not fit Americans Elect’s centrist strategy? After all, the online primary will consist of a series of rounds in which the six teams that make it through the first round continue the competition until one team wins a majority of the vote.  Could Herman Cain find a Tea Party Democrat to run with him, mobilize the country’s sizeable social conservative constituency, and grab the honors? Or, more likely, could Ralph Nader, or one of his green acolytes, occupy American Elects online campaign?

They might try, but neither would be allowed to win.  The self-appointed committee set up to oversee the Americans Elect balloting can overturn any decision made by its voters if the selected candidates fail, in their eyes, to meet “criteria of demonstrated achievements based on qualifications of past presidents and vice-presidents.”  In an interview with a Christian Science reporter, Elliott Ackerman, one of the groups big donors (who is also an investment firm director with ties to a potpourri of center-left organizations), frankly admitted they would find only “centrist” candidates acceptable.  Good-bye Herman, Good-bye Ralph, Good-bye Michelle, Good-bye ……any of those candidates who don’t fit the centrist mold.

Of course, this clever little rule is downplayed by Americans Elect.  The official line, pumped by Mark McKinnon, goes this way:  “Think of all the people who believe they should be president, and who won’t have to run in the primaries or pay for ballot access.  It’s a lot of people.  I think some interesting people are going to show up.”  Yes, interesting people acceptable to the friends of Kahill Byrd, the chief executive of Americans Elect.  Byrd claims he is a Republican, even though he worked for President Obama’s very good friend, Deval Patrick, Massachusetts’ Democratic Governor.  Is it at all plausible that Mr. Byrd is acting in direct violation of orders emanating from the White House?

Amazingly, Byrd says that his group has raised $22 million for their ballot access campaign.  That kind of money does not come from small donations from millions of small-time Tea Partiers or Wall Street Occupiers.  It comes out of those with deep pockets who prefer to remain entirely out of the public eye.  Unlike all other political parties, American Elect says it does not need to report the names of the donors.  Elliott Ackerman, the group’s chief operating officer, says that “some of the early donors, numbering several hundred, are hesitant to disclose their involvement.”  Indeed.  Most big donors feel the same way. That’s why we have campaign disclosure laws.

Note that it is Bill Clinton’s pollster, Douglas Schoen, who recently organized the survey of 6,000 likely voters in order to see how many would vote for a third party.  That only a quarter of them say they would cast their ballot in that direction is hardly a reason not to move forward, if the purposes is to split the Republican vote.

The former president knows all the advantages of having a centrist third-party candidate in a presidential contest. When Ross Perot took 19 percent of the vote in 1992, Bill managed to slip into power with just 43 percent of the vote.  No wonder Clinton’s pollster is working hand in glove with Americans Elect.

Of course, the Obama Administration has every right to attempt to split the opposition by running someone like its former ambassador to the People’s Republic of China, Jon Huntsman.  David Axelrod is a shrewd political operator who is not to be condemned for a clever ruse.  He and his allies need only to be “outed.”

That the Democrats are behind Americans Elect will be denied by Axelrod, the White House, and, of course, Bill Clinton, whose words of denial will repay especially close attention..  But two empirical tests might help get to the truth of the matter.  1)  In the next Republican debate, someone needs to ask Jon Huntsman whether he will make a firm commitment not to run on the Americans Elect ballot.  2) Republicans in the House of Representatives need to pass a bill that makes it clear contributors to political parties such as Americans Elect must disclose their campaign contributions in the same way Republican and Democratic parties must.  We can then wait and see what the Democratic leadership in the Senate does with that bill.

If Huntsman makes a Shermanesque denial and Obama signs a bipartisan bill requiring full disclosure, it will be hard to claim the Democrats have launched a stalking horse.  Otherwise, Republicans better gear up for a well-financed three-party contest.

Did the federal law, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), close the education gap?  Now that Congress is talking about reauthorizing NCLB, it struck me that it would be worthwhile to see what the latest results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tell us about the direction the nation has moved in the years since the law was passed–as compared to the trend line in the decade prior to its passage.

At the bottom of this post are the results I reported to a packed house at the Association of Public Policy and Management in Washington, D. C. last Saturday. They show that, for fourth graders, the black-white test score gap had, in the 12 years prior to the passage of NCLB, opened up by 7 points.  The Hispanic-white gap had opened by 5 points.  No wonder there was a demand for an accountability system that required a special look at the learning experiences of minority students.

After the law was enacted, the black-white test-score gap closed by 2 points  and the Hispanic-white gap closed by 1 point.   That is a switch in the trend line of 9 points and 6 points, respectively.  Not as much as we would like, but better than what might have been.

Continue reading Paul Peterson…

The debate over digital learning will soon enter a new phase.  No longer will educators debate whether or not digital learning has the capacity to transform the American education system.   Just about gone are the anti-technology Luddites who insist that every classroom be self-contained, with students and teachers left to their own devices, save for the help of pencils, chalk, blackboards and weighty textbooks stuffed into 10 kilo backpacks.

It is becoming increasingly obvious that digital learning systems can be tailored to the specific interests, learning styles, and levels of accomplishment of each student.  As digital curricular materials employ ever-more-sophisticated technologies—3-dimensional videos, game playing, interactive exercises, real-time provision of information on student performance to teachers and students alike, and more—they will be seen as essential 21st century learning tools.

Continue reading Paul Peterson…

(photo credit: World Economic Forum)

Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott was in enemy territory recently, telling the folks at Massachusetts’s Pioneer Institute (including some who favor Romney, such as myself [full disclosure] )  about the virtues of the Texas education system, a topic of national significance now that Rick Perry’s chariot has leaped to lead position in the Republican presidential nomination race.

The rap against Texas is that its students trail, by a wide margin, the national average in achievement and graduation rates. That’s a false rap, because Texas faces the enormous challenges of a southern state that shares a long border with Mexico. When Texas’s performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress is broken out by ethnic background, its record comes close to that of Massachusetts, as Allison Sherry pointed out in her recent Ed Next article on the education policies advocated by several of the Republican candidates.

Continue reading Paul Peterson…

Technology to Reach Everyone

Every student has his or her learning point, the place on the border between what has been learned and what is yet to be explored. When instruction takes place at that point, students can be motivated to learn. They have acquired the necessary learning tools, and the subject they are asked to examine is one they are ready to explore.

Continue reading Paul Peterson…