Lessons learned from the education debate: NCLB vs. Teach for America

In a just released Future of American Education Working Paper, education expert Alexander Russo examines how the passage of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) forced Teach for America (TFA) to get involved in the education policy debate. In particular, Russo focuses on how NCLB's requirement of "highly-qualified teachers," energized TFA to protect the eligibility of its "alternatively certified corps members" to teach in classrooms.

Russo explains in Left Out of 'No Child Left Behind' that TFA realized the need to engage in the debate about education legislation--setting the example for other education reform groups--instead of just relying on the quality of their program to influence education policy.

Among the lessons learned:

  • Get in early. While TFA emerged from the effects of the NCLB legislation relatively "unscathed," the organization should have been present on Capitol Hill even earlier to protect its interests. Reform groups who enter too slowly into the political arena may see laws passed that have a negative impact on their mission and practice.

  • Cultivate bipartisan support. While many groups depend heavily on one party or the other for support, TFA successfully nurtured backing from both Republicans and Democrats. This helped the organization in future reform debates.

  • Build coalitions. Reform groups engaging in political debates should carefully weigh which debates to join. They should assess which ones would garner or lose support from important stakeholders. The fact that TFA mainly concentrated their efforts on the teacher quality and certification clause -- and far less on other important aspects on NCLB -- led to, in Russo's words, "a certain degree of resentment and isolation from other groups, advocates, and offices" who wanted TFA's support and clout on these other issues.

Alexander Russo (alexanderrusso@gmail.com) is a writer, blogger, and author of the forthcoming book School of Politics. He is also the founder and editor of the school reform website, "This Week in Education." For other AEI education working papers, please visit www.aei.org/futureofeducation. For additional information on the activities of AEI's education policy program, please visit http://www.aei.org/policy/education/ or contact Daniel Lautzenheiser at daniel.lautzenheiser@aei.org.

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The Future of American Education Working Paper Series is edited and overseen by Frederick M. Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Papers in this series focusing on higher education topics are edited by Andrew P. Kelly, research fellow for education policy studies. The series, which is part of the Future of American Education Project, is a publishing platform for original scholarship in all areas of education reform. It includes contributions from university-based academics as well as on-the-ground school reformers and entrepreneurs. The views and opinions expressed in this paper are those of the author.

For other AEI education working papers, please visit www.aei.org/futureofeducation. For additional information on the activities of AEI’s education policy program, please visit http://www.aei.org/policy/education/ or contact Daniel Lautzenheiser at daniel.lautzenheiser@aei.org

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