The successful failure of ED in '08

Article Highlights

  • Was ED in '08 a success, a failure, or both?

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  • What can we learn from ED in' 08 about how to emphasize education in the 2012 election?

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  • Russo discusses why we should pay attention to ED in '08.

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The successful failure of ED in '08

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On January 15, 2012, veteran education researcher Craig Jerald was feeling a little frustrated by the lack of discussion about education in the Republican primary debates. So he logged into his Twitter account to vent to his four hundred–plus followers: “Presidential debate moderators have mostly ignored education. Anyone miss ED in ’08 now???”

ED in ’08 (Education in 2008) was an effort to make education a big part of the 2008 presidential campaign—to make the candidates take education seriously and talk about it during debates and on the campaign stump. Jerald had poured his heart into the effort. Four years later, most others remembered it as a costly failure, if they remembered it at all.

Indeed, it didn’t take long for longtime thinktanker Andy (“Eduwonk”) Rotherham to respond to Jerald’s tweet: “OK, but what’s a good price per question? Those were expensive,” he asked, referring to the mere twenty education-related questions that moderators had asked the candidates in 2007 and 2008.

ED in ’08 was the largest single-issue advocacy campaign in the history of education reform. But the initiative, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates and Eli and Edythe Broad Foundations, was shuttered after just sixteen months and written off by outside observers and the funders themselves.

Heading into the 2012 campaign season, no one gave any serious thought to repeating the experiment. “We have no plans for another such effort,” Broad Foundation policy director Gregory McGinity said in a September 7, 2011, e-mail interview.

And yet, education advocacy organizations very much like ED in ’08 have proliferated in the years following the 2008 elections, as has philanthropic support for political advocacy. The Obama administration’s education priorities have resembled those pushed by ED in ’08 in several key regards. And, as Jerald noted, the 2012 campaign has been thus far devoid of much substantive discussion about education reform.

Was ED in ’08 a complete and utter failure, then, or the underappreciated prototype for what has become a widespread approach to promoting school reform and the hidden influence over the Obama education agenda? “At the time, it seemed irrelevant,” said Diane Ravitch, the New York University education historian and a prominent critic of current reform ideas. “Though in retrospect it may have set the groundwork. Little did we know.”

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