** Also posted here on “Valerie Strauss’ Answer Sheet” in the Washington Post
In the mid-1990s, after a long and contentious debate, the U.S. Congress passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, which President Clinton signed into law. It is usually called the “Welfare Reform Act," as it effectively ended the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program (which is what most people mean when they say “welfare," even though it was [and its successor is] only a tiny part of our welfare state). Established during the New Deal, AFDC was mostly designed to give assistance to needy young children (it was later expanded to include support for their parents/caretakers as well).
In place of AFDC was a new program – Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). TANF gave block grants to states, which were directed to design their own “welfare” programs. Although the states were given considerable leeway, their new programs were to have two basic features: first, for welfare recipients to receive benefits, they had to be working; and second, there was to be a time limit on benefits, usually 3-5 years over a lifetime, after which individuals were no longer eligible for cash assistance (states could exempt a proportion of their caseload from these requirements). The general idea was that time limits and work requirements would “break the cycle of poverty”; recipients would be motivated (read: forced) to work, and in doing so, would acquire the experience and confidence necessary for a bootstrap-esque transformation.
There are several similarities between the bipartisan welfare reform movement of the 1990s and the general thrust of the education reform movement happening today. For example, there is the reliance on market-based mechanisms to “cure” longstanding problems, and the unusually strong liberal-conservative alliance of the proponents. Nevertheless, while calling education reform “the new welfare reform” might be a good soundbyte, it would also take the analogy way too far.
My intention here is not to draw a direct parallel between the two movements in terms of how they approach their respective problems (poverty/unemployment and student achievement), but rather in how we evaluate their success in doing so. In other words, I am concerned that the manner in which we assess the success or failure of education reform in our public debate will proceed using the same flawed and misguided methods that were used by many for welfare reform.