EDU Talks: Nancy Beadie & Path Dependence in Federal Education Policy
Articles,  Blog

EDU Talks: Nancy Beadie & Path Dependence in Federal Education Policy

[MUSIC PLAYING] NANCY BEADIE: Hi. So let’s say, you’re on
a walk in the woods– maybe in Colorado or Wyoming. You’re on what seems
like a well-worn path, but it’s actually,
quite overgrown. And I’m here to
tell you, beware. Land that looks solid may
actually be honeycombed. The miners may have left,
but their works may remain. You may find yourself
plunging unexpectedly into the legacy of history. So recently, some recent plunges
into the legacy of history in state and federal policy– for example, the McCleary
decision in Washington state or the checkered history
of No Child Left Behind– led me to undertake a
mammoth excavation project, to unearth all the
state, federal, and territorial
educational provisions in constitutional
and organic law from 1785 through the
early 20th century. I’ve learned a lot. I’ve learned a lot about
some interesting things and different state and
territorial histories. But I’ve also come to focus
on two historic pivot points in federal education policy. One was during the 1870s and
’80s, when I like to say, we came the closest we have
ever come– then or since– to having a truly national
educational system in the United States. The other pivot
point is in 1948, when a broad coalition of
educators, policymakers, and legislators got together
to really deliberately try to learn the lessons
of that earlier effort to establish a national
education system in order to develop a new legislative set
of policies that, essentially, became the National Defense
Education Act of 1958 and the Elementary and Secondary
Education Act of 1965, known more recently as No
Child Left Behind. So as a historian,
one thing I’m doing is connecting the dots
between these different events and periods in history. But I’m also trying to assess
the long-term and ongoing consequences of
some of the choices that were and were not made
during that earlier time period. The 1870s and
’80s, in some ways, were a period of incredible
possibility and contingency in educational policy. It was that period,
in the first couple of decades after
the Civil War when, actually, the federal
government had some new powers. But even more importantly,
it was a period in which the questions
of– for example, how are we going to educate
newly emancipated free people? How are we going to
interact with the existing educational policies in
sovereign nations in Indian Territory? Or with Mexican-Americans in
the territories of the West? Those questions
were still open . And they were still
being openly debated. But as we know, we didn’t
establish a national education system in the
1970s and ’80s that was aimed at strengthening
and equalizing education. Instead, we, essentially, did
something like the opposite. Congress basically
gave a green light to states to develop,
often deliberately, unequal educational
systems and policies. So we went from– what I think of as– a
world of contingency, when many paths were open to
a world of path dependence, where a certain trajectory of
institutional development that was difficult to
reverse continues to shape the basic logic
of federal education policy to this day. It’s a very complex
story, but one thing I’ve learned that I’d like
to share with you now. And that’s how the very
limits of federalism, a federal capacity to develop
viable national policies that cross multiple jurisdictions– those very limits are what send
us over and over down the path of trying to rely on social
science data to redefine as deficiencies of the people,
what are really deficiencies of the state’s. And that’s how we get from the
realities behind the McCleary decision to an achievement gap. That’s how we continue to plunge
into the legacy of history. [APPLAUSE] [MUSIC PLAYING]

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