The Teachers’ Candidate

How Hillary Clinton is changing the Democratic Party’s relationship with the school-reform movement.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton
Hillary Clinton clasps hands with National Education Association president Lily Eskelsen Garcia in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

At 11 a.m. on Tuesday, Hillary Clinton had a huge smile on her face.

It wasn’t (only) because FBI Director James Comey had announced he would not recommend criminal charges against her. At the same moment that Comey was opening his press conference, Clinton was being received rapturously by a key Democratic Party interest group:  the National Education Association, America’s largest teachers’ union with 3 million members.

Clinton’s speech to the NEA was notable both for what she said and, perhaps even more so, for what she didn’t say. She promised to expand access to child care and pre-K, pay teachers more, forgive their college debt, construct new school buildings, and bring computer science courses into K-12 education. While a brief mention of successful charter schools (most of which are not unionized) was met with scattered boos, for the most part the audience of activist teachers greeted Clinton ecstatically, chanting “Hillary, Hillary!”

Following eight years of federally driven closures and turnarounds of schools with low test scores, which have put union jobs at risk, it was music to the NEA’s ears when the presumptive Democratic nominee promised to end “the education wars” and “stop focusing only on quote, ‘failing schools.’ Let’s focus on all our great schools, too.” And in a big departure from the school-reform rhetoric of President Barack Obama, the only time Clinton referenced “accountability” was to refer not to getting rid of bad teachers, but to giving unions a bigger voice in education policy. “Advise me and hold me accountable,” she said. “Keep advocating for your students and your profession.”

This speech, the first big moment for K-12 education in this general election, signals a potentially meaningful shift in Democratic Party education politics. The Obama era has been, often, a painful one for teachers-union activists. Obama launched his presidential campaign in 2007 as an ally of Democrats for Education Reform, a group of philanthropists (most with ties to the financial sector) who support weakening teachers’ tenure protections, evaluating teachers according to their students’ test scores, and increasing the number of public charter schools.

Obama held many positions with which teachers’ unions agreed, like helping teachers improve through peer mentorship programs and pushing states to embrace the Common Core national curriculum standards. Still, he represented a wing of the Democratic Party that thought unions held too much sway over education policy, and in 2008, the NEA chose not to endorse in the Democratic primary, while the other national teachers’ union, the American Federation of Teachers, endorsed Obama’s primary challenger, Hillary Clinton.*

As president, Obama followed through on his promises to union critics. He created a $4 billion program, Race to the Top, that tied federal education dollars to policies like evaluating teachers according to student test scores and weakening tenure protections, so underperforming teachers could more easily be fired.

The rest is history. About half of the states changed their teacher work laws in response to Obama’s incentives. These policies were not, generally, transformative for children. Why? A central tenet of the school-reform movement Obama came into office representing was the idea that teachers were the most crucial variable affecting how students perform academically. In a July 2007 speech to the NEA, then-candidate Obama said, “New evidence shows that from the moment our children step into a classroom, the single most important factor in determining their achievement is not the color of their skin or where they come from; it’s not who their parents are or how much money they have. It’s who their teacher is. It’s you.”

Two years later, in a speech to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Obama referenced teacher tenure more harshly, saying, “I reject a system that rewards failure and protects a person from its consequences.” If we could fire bad teachers and replace them with better ones, the thinking went, we could narrow the academic fissures between rich and poor children.

Obama wasn’t wrong about the excesses of teacher tenure. But in a system in which administrators find it difficult to recruit and retain proven educators to work in racially segregated, high-poverty schools, the challenge of firing teachers has never been the central one in overcoming the achievement gaps Obama hoped to close. He and his allies hugely oversimplified the relevant social science, which hardly points to teachers alone as being responsible for low test scores.

Research demonstrates five major, measurable influences on student achievement: Every study shows that, by far, the biggest factor is the educational background and socioeconomic status of parents. In-school factors account for less than half of the variation in how students perform, but at least four are important: peers (a poor child will perform worse if most of his or her classmates are also living in poverty); school funding (districts with more money per pupil provide more resources that kids need, from social workers and guidance counselors to foreign language and art classes); gaps in teacher quality, which research suggests account for between 7 and 15 percent of the achievement gap between poor and middle-class children; and principals, the key figure whose leadership can replicate good teaching across classroom walls.

Accountability reformers are increasingly acknowledging these findings, and over the past two years, the Obama administration has adopted a more nuanced view of school reform. Former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan issued a mea culpa of sorts on the overuse of standardized testing, and his successor John King has drawn attention to racial segregation and overly harsh school discipline.

Clinton’s speech on Tuesday to the NEA went even further, carefully rebutting the idea, dominant only eight years ago, that teachers are, in President Obama’s words, “the single most important factor.”

She said:

“So much of what happens inside your classrooms is determined by what happens outside your classrooms. … Too many of our public school students are living in poverty. That’s on all of us. You see students coming to school hungry, or exhausted from a long night at a shelter. … Let’s not ignore the weight of the problems that these little kids bring on their little shoulders to school every day. We need to tackle all the problems holding our kids back.”

Clinton expressed some of what teachers talk about among themselves by turning her attention to parents—not to excoriate them for allowing their kids to fail, but to acknowledge the challenges they face in providing for families in today’s economy. A “world-class education,” she said, means “supporting parents to be their child’s first teachers, something you all have talked to me about a lot; expanding access to … child care, and universal preschool for every child.”

Bringing up homelessness, hunger, day care, and pre-K when talking about K-12 education is not an excuse for poor teaching, but rather an acknowledgement of the evidence. Home and family are a child’s foundational educational setting. Anti-poverty and early childhood policies stand to increase test scores as much or more than teacher reforms have.

I wrote a book on our historical tendency to blame teachers for society’s ills. So the nuance in Clinton’s speech strikes me as measured and wise. Still, there are priorities of Obama’s I’d like to see her embrace. Teacher accountability isn’t a bad thing; any functional system has mechanisms in place to remove low performers and, even more importantly, help them improve. The Obama administration has begun to provide federal funding for high-quality teacher residency programs, which give trainee educators a full year in a master teacher’s classroom to hone their skills, a standard part of teacher preparation in many other developed countries. I also hope a Clinton administration would add real teeth to Secretary of Education John King’s new rhetorical focus on school segregation and discipline, providing significant federal funding to states and districts that attempt to solve these problems.

It’s safe to say it is a new day for the Democratic Party on education policy. But here’s hoping that Clinton’s turn toward the unions doesn’t mean she lets go of some of the Obama administration’s more promising recent ideas.

*Correction, July 6, 2016: This article originally misstated that Clinton was endorsed by both national teachers’ unions in 2008. She was endorsed by the American Federation of Teachers, but the National Education Association did not endorse anybody in the Democratic primary. (Return.)