The happy (and not so happy) accidents of Bush-Obama school reform



A postmortem of the Bush-Obama school reforms reveals just how little went according to plan.


Since January 1983, when Bob Ross’s public television show The Joy of Painting was first broadcast, millions of viewers have taken comfort in Ross’s dulcet descriptions of his paints and panoramas, delivered in a distinctly gentle tone (softened by his resolve — after two decades in the U.S. Air Force — never again to raise his voice). Along the way, Ross became known also for his forgiving attitude toward his own artwork. If his colors didn’t mix as intended, he would step back from the canvas, sigh, and smile. “There are no mistakes,” he would tell viewers, “only happy accidents.”

Education policy making, too, has had its fair share of accidents, happy and otherwise. And yet, while those accidents often have important implications for our schools, they rarely attract the sort of close attention that Ross gave to his stray brushstrokes. We have a bad habit, in education policy circles, of focusing narrowly on what a policy is supposed to do, or whether it worked, while spending far too little time examining the unintended consequences, good and bad.

In our new book, Bush-Obama School Reform: Lessons Learned (Harvard Education Press, 2018), we turn to a talented crew of contributors to make sense of the ambitious education agendas pursued by Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama — and to give a full account of the effects they’ve had on the nation’s schools.

As discussed in the book, those policies sometimes played out in expected ways. For instance, Washington’s provision of millions in startup grants to charter school organizations led to the creation of hundreds of new charter schools. More often (and more significantly), though, the policies of the Bush and Obama years played out very differently than anticipated. The Common Core State Standards, for example, started out as an uncontroversial, widely supported endeavor intended to provide valuable scaffolding for achievement tests, teacher evaluation, and better instructional materials. But it ultimately became a political lightning rod, sparking a powerful backlash against accountability and teacher evaluation and even helping prompt the U.S. Congress to impose stringent new restrictions on the U.S. Department of Education.

The question is: What can we learn from these happy and unhappy accidents? Can we glean insights that might prove useful for educators and policy makers?

The Bush-Obama education reforms

Before proceeding, it may be helpful to do a quick recap of the K-12 policy highlights of the Bush and Obama years.

President Bush’s K-12 legacy was defined by the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which radically overhauled Washington’s role in schooling. Drawing on the school accountability model from Bush’s native Texas, NCLB required states and districts receiving federal dollars to test all students in reading and math in grades 3 through 8 and again in high school. Schools and districts needed to make “adequate yearly progress” toward a goal of universal proficiency in those subjects by the year 2014, and schools that failed to make that progress were subject to sanctions, with consequences theoretically growing more severe with time. NCLB also required states to ensure that all students would be taught by “highly qualified teachers,” namely, a teacher with a bachelor’s degree, state certification, and demonstrated subject-matter knowledge.

Following his election, in 2008, at the height of the Great Recession, President Obama pushed for a $900-billion economic “stimulus” package. Of that sum, more than $100 billion was dedicated to education spending, including $4.35 billion for a Race to the Top program designed to encourage states to take action on academic standards, data systems, teacher quality, and school improvement. By using Race to the Top funding as an incentive (and, later, by offering conditional waivers that freed states from some of the more painful strictures of NCLB), the Obama administration shifted the direction of existing reform efforts. In particular, it pushed states to adopt evaluation systems that linked teachers’ “effectiveness” to their students’ scores on reading and math tests, and it aggressively pushed states to adopt “common” standards (meaning, in effect, the Common Core and its associated tests).

Happy accidents

At least a couple of the positive consequences that followed from all this were, as Bob Ross would say, happy accidents. Most notable was the development of an extensive data infrastructure capable of collecting and managing the vast amounts of information required to pursue the new approaches to school accountability and teacher evaluation. Whatever the future of those two reform strategies, this infrastructure will enable new generations of researchers and policy makers to evaluate programs and analyze the teaching workforce in ways that once seemed impossible.

An explosion of data on students and teachers

Just two decades ago, it was difficult to determine whether an intervention designed to boost reading or math performance actually did so. Testing was irregular, little information was systematically collected on student outcomes, and research and evaluation reflected that state of affairs. Today, we’re hip deep in sophisticated debates about whether NCLB-style accountability focused schools too intently on “bubble” kids or whether higher scores on high-stakes reading and math tests actually lead to longer-term positive outcomes. We’re able to have these discussions only because of the data that NCLB compelled schools to collect.

By requiring regular testing and that data be “disaggregated” in various ways, NCLB yielded a wealth of information that has allowed researchers to monitor and try to gauge the effects of various educational interventions. As more states and districts experiment with pedagogy, school design, school choice, classroom technology, and more, the state testing data make it possible to focus systematically on outcomes (at least when it comes to reading and math performance). Prior to NCLB, such analysis simply was not possible in most states. Similarly, by requiring states to collect and track teachers’ qualifications, including their education and certification status, NCLB’s “high-quality teacher” provision enabled researchers to explore links between teacher education, certification, and student outcomes, and to track the distribution of teachers across districts, states, and the nation.

The policies of the Bush and Obama years played out very differently than anticipated.

Further, statewide testing made it possible to link individual teachers to their students’ scores, yielding noteworthy research on the outsized role that teachers play in student success. And in seeking to come up with better ways to evaluate teachers, states and districts developed sophisticated metrics, rubrics, and evaluation tools that can deepen our understanding of what distinguishes good instruction. Ironically, these tools even made it possible to recognize that the new evaluation systems failed to deliver on the goal of providing accurate and actionable information for every teacher. Thus, while these efforts to strengthen teacher quality and accountability did not work as intended, they may still generate important benefits for the field.

The accidental bipartisanship of ESSA

In December 2015, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) passed the U.S. House of Representatives 359-64 and the U.S. Senate 85-12. At a time when both chambers were intensely polarized and a bitter presidential election loomed, this kind of bipartisan agreement on a major piece of legislation was striking. Yet, this bipartisanship was largely a happy accident caused by NCLB and Race to the Top. In the Senate, Democrat Patty Murray and Republican Lamar Alexander found common ground in the conviction that Uncle Sam was reaching too deeply into local schools and, as Alexander put it, should stop behaving like “the nation’s school board.”

While these efforts to strengthen teacher quality and accountability did not work as intended, they may still generate important benefits for the field.

The law that resulted was a funny compromise — it held the promise of keeping the core components of the transparency that marked the Bush-Obama years, while rejecting many of the excesses that had been grafted onto NCLB. ESSA retained all of NCLB’s testing requirements for reading, math, and science. It required states to collect, disaggregate, and report performance data. It required states to identify troubled schools and do something about them. But it backed away from the presumption that Washington should drive what these efforts look like.

In short, what resulted from 15 years of stumbling and sniping was something that looked a lot like a principled, sensible compromise, reflecting concerns that had long been widespread among both Republicans and Democrats but which had been steamrolled by ebullience and enthusiasm when NCLB was first written. This bipartisanship was, in effect, another happy accident: Overly ambitious efforts by well-meaning officials fueled a backlash . . . that led to a healthy compromise.

Unhappy accidents

While the reforms of the Bush-Obama years resulted in some happy accidents, they also featured accidental outcomes that were far less fortuitous, such as encouraging educators to subvert their testing and accountability systems and provoking hostility to the Common Core.

The anti-testing backlash

Bush- and Obama-era supporters of test-based accountability dramatically underestimated how difficult it would be to make these systems work and how tempting it would be for schools, districts, and states to subvert them. In practice, teachers and administrators found plenty of ways to manufacture higher scores, from directing the bulk of their attention to “bubble students” (those who scored just below the proficiency cutoff), to focusing on tested subjects at the expense of other parts of the curriculum, to shifting their “strongest” elementary teachers to the tested grades, to outright cheating. State officials played their own games: When they found themselves under the gun to raise student proficiency rates, they simply “defined proficiency down,” either by adopting easier tests or making it easier for students to pass state assessments.

Before NCLB, the public was mostly bullish on standardized testing, thought it valuable, and didn’t much mind it. In 2000, for instance, just 30% of respondents to the annual PDK poll thought there was “too much testing” in public schools; by 2015, that number had more than doubled, to 64%. As evidenced not only by the passage of ESSA but also by a parent-led movement to “opt out” of achievement tests, a sizable segment of the nation thought that testing had become the tail that wags the dog and was providing a misleading picture of school quality. When, for example, some of the nation’s most highly respected schools were declared to be “failing,” one had to wonder (paraphrasing Groucho Marx), “Who’re you going to believe, the data report or your own lyin’ eyes?” For a whole lot of parents, observers, and educators, the answer, not surprisingly, was their own eyes.

The fall of the Common Core

Perhaps the most striking “unhappy accident” of the Bush-Obama years, however, was the one that brought down the Common Core State Standards. In 2002, the PDK poll reported that two-thirds of Americans favored having all 50 states administer the same standardized achievement tests. With this kind of public support at their back, the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers assumed the Common Core would win strong approval. And in fact, after the standards were finalized in 2009, they were quickly adopted by more than 40 states. By 2015, however, public support had plummeted — according to that year’s PDK poll, just 24% of respondents supported the Common Core, while 54% opposed it.

What happened? There were a slew of unintended consequences related to how the standards were adopted (typically by state boards of education, with little public input), redefined as a quasi-federal initiative (when the Obama administration offered enthusiastic support via Race to the Top and its waivers from No Child Left Behind), and implemented. From the get-go, the Common Core’s leading advocates made clear that the goal wasn’t just to put some new standards on paper but to influence the tests students take, the instructional materials they use, the ways in which their teachers are trained, the significance of the diplomas they earn, and the ways in which they are taught. Today, most states still have the Common Core standards (or something similar) in place; however, thanks to the public backlash against the initiative, its advocates have been frustrated on many of the larger shifts they envisioned. A surfeit of energetic, impassioned support actually wound up compromising and politicizing the Common Core, and limiting its impact. Talk about your unhappy accidents.


There is much to be learned from the unintended consequences — good and bad — of the Bush-Obama years.

Lesson #1: Value serendipity

The American educational system is sprawling, diverse, and complex. It sits within a political system that itself is sprawling, diverse, and complex. In turn, that system sits within an American culture that is also sprawling, diverse, and complex. These are not design flaws. They represent — for good and bad — the true face of American democracy after more than two centuries of evolution.

Our pride, stubbornness, and anguish over sunk costs can cause us to overlook promising developments.

But if our educational system resembles a riddle wrapped in an enigma inside of a mystery, then it must be extraordinarily difficult to predict how reforms will unspool. Thus, reformers should be open to serendipity and value its gifts. A strategy such as test-based accountability or teacher evaluation may not work as intended, but it may, nonetheless, produce invaluable tools for evaluation and research — and proponents should take great care to recognize and protect those gains, so that they are not lost in the course of an all-or-nothing defense of the initial strategy. Small victories can emerge from unexpected sources, which means that would-be reformers should be nimble, open to surprises, and willing to shift gears when necessary.

Of course, this is easier said than done. Given how much personal and political capital, emotion, energy, and philanthropic funding gets invested along the way, the decision to revise one’s strategy can feel like a failure of courage, or perhaps an admission of defeat. But that’s precisely why this is such a useful lesson for school reformers to learn: Our pride, stubbornness, and anguish over sunk costs can cause us to overlook promising developments.

Lesson #2: Appreciate that practical results matter more than theory

No matter how pure our motives or brilliant our theory of action, we do well to recognize that school reforms rarely work as intended, and they sometimes only serve to make matters worse. That’s especially true when it comes to policy implementation. More often than not, students, teachers, and administrators react and behave in unexpected ways, or political forces and real-world dynamics interfere with our carefully designed plans.

In the case of test-based teacher evaluation and the Common Core, advocates dug in their heels and kept insisting that their ambitious plans made sense — even as those reforms began to face practical challenges and backlash. Further, because policy makers attached timelines to these initiatives, state leaders felt compelled to charge forward, whatever the obstacles, and they were loath to make course corrections for fear of missing benchmarks or breaking promises.

Thus, instead of taking parents and educators’ concerns seriously and admitting things weren’t playing out as they’d hoped, proponents tended to dismiss their critics as ideological, unreasoning, and “anti-child,” which only made it tougher to find common ground or defuse concerns. Over time, they became more and more preoccupied with tweaking their messages and securing short-term political wins, rather than addressing significant problems or trying to understand the growing opposition to their policies.

When advocates build a head of steam behind a particular school reform, they may be reluctant to slow down, acknowledge concerns, and address obvious problems. But if they can bring themselves to hit the brakes when necessary, rather than trying to plow through every obstacle, then they’ll be much better equipped for the long haul.

Lesson #3: Respect Campbell’s Law

At the risk of complicating the takeaway from Lesson #1, we would argue that at least one of the unintended consequences of the Bush and Obama years was, in fact, predictable: When high stakes (such as the decision to close a school or fire a teacher) are attached to specific metrics, people will try to manipulate those metrics. That shouldn’t surprise anyone. Among social scientists, it’s a well-known phenomenon, invoked so often that it has its own name: Campbell’s Law.

Anyone who proposes a data-driven reform should make sure they’ve familiarized themselves with Campbell’s Law. That means taking care not to lean too heavily on any single measure, anticipating how the given measures might be gamed or corrupted, and trying to spot and address such behavior as soon as it appears, before it gets out of hand. The problem, all too often, is that advocates’ desire to “go big,” their well-meaning enthusiasm, and their sense of urgency tempt them to ignore these sensible guidelines.

For all the uncertainties of education policy, some truisms do hold, no matter how inconvenient we may find them: Incentivizing certain behaviors will tend to cause more of that behavior; people will go to great lengths to keep their jobs; if people distrust those who make the rules, they will push back on those rules; and if reformers neglect to anticipate and account for these things, they will likely encounter more unhappy accidents than happy ones.

Moving forward

The Bush-Obama era marked a historic high-water mark of federal involvement in our nation’s schools. As such, it reveals much about the unintended consequences, both good and bad, of federal policies, and it shows just how consequential those policies can be for schools and students.

Many of the longest lasting effects of the era’s most prominent reforms are different from what anyone intended, even as some ambitious efforts did more to alienate the public than to fuel lasting change. But while all that may be behind us now, those willing to learn from what transpired in the Bush-Obama years will be positioned to make savvier choices in the years to come. As Bob Ross told viewers at the end of each show, “Happy painting, and God bless.”


Citation: Hess, F.M. & McShane, M.Q. (2018). The happy (and not so happy) accidents of Bush-Obama school reform. Phi Delta Kappan, 100 (4), 31-35.

FREDERICK M. HESS (; @rhess99) is director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. He and Michael Q. McShane are the editors of Bush-Obama School Reform: Lessons Learned (Harvard Education Press, 2018).
MICHAEL Q. MCSHANE (; @MQ_McShane) is director of National Research at EdChoice in Indianapolis, Ind. He and Frederick M. Hess are the editors of Bush-Obama School Reform: Lessons Learned (Harvard Education Press, 2018).

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