Learning about Learning: Education Policy and Washington, D.C.

person on their computer in a cafe

Brandon M. WongMatsui Washington Fellows

January 28, 2015

It’s 1P.M. on January 4th. I walk off my connecting flight from Detroit, Michigan (where it was a harsh 8 degrees) to the Dulles Airport terminals. Despite not having slept for 30 hours, I’m excited and anxious. Three hours later, I finally arrive at the U.C. Washington Center. After unpacking all of my belongings, I think to myself, “Now what?” Little did I know then that my life would pick up the pace in such a short time.

Fast forward to Thursday, January 7th, my orientation day at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). For those unaware, AEI is what is often referred to as a “think tank,” an organization very much like a university without students; that is, there are no students, and scholars are not burdened with grading papers. In short, it is all the fun of research without the responsibility of teaching. All think tanks have a mission or agenda that they try to accomplish through their research. AEI was established because of concerns about the degree to which the federal government had grown during World War II. Specifically, the founders wanted to ensure that wartime price controls and other economic policies would be rolled back at the conclusion of the war to ensure that the free market would once again be able to operate. Since then, AEI has expanded its scope outside economics and into the fields of social policy and foreign defense.

History aside, AEI is an amazing place to work. Interns such as myself are treated very well. First, interns are allowed to take any of AEI’s scholarly material home with them to keep. Part of the reason this policy exists is to keep interns curious and always desiring to learn more. Certainly, this has been the case with me. During my first two weeks here, I’ve taken about 10 books home. My only regret is that I’ll never have enough time to digest them all. Next, unlike most other internships in the nation’s capital, food is provided to interns gratis. Waking up for work is always a bit sweeter knowing that a hearty breakfast is waiting for you when you arrive. Lunches are always an extravagant fanfare of delicacies. My favorite thus far has been scallops wrapped in duck bacon. Yes, you read that correctly. Duck bacon. These free meals have really helped me save money, which makes living in an expensive place like D.C. viable. Finally, I don’t have much of a commute. From the entrance of the UC Washington Center, I make a three minute walk to AEI’s building. All in all, I’m quite thankful I’ve ended up at AEI, but I hope that no one would think that my reverence for AEI is based solely on these considerations. Quite the contrary; I love my work so far.

As I mentioned earlier, AEI has 3 main policy areas—defense, economics, and social policy, the latter of which is an umbrella category that houses a whole bunch of other policy domains like immigration and abortion. I work in social policy under the education department, splitting my time roughly equally between higher education, K-12, and early childhood education. I’ve had a bunch of projects already, but I’ll just talk about one.

For folks who are curious about how to improve K-12 education in the United States, discussions usually end up with some mention of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). NCLB was a bipartisan policy signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2002 that was designed to improve student achievement. The law had 2 basic components: teacher quality and assessment of students. Though NCLB sounded nice on paper, it actually had the perverse effect of making schools worse. The guidelines for ensuring that students were taught by a “highly qualified teacher” (an actual phrase in the law) varied state-by-state and were not all that rigorous. For example, if I wanted to be a high school chemistry teacher, I might be deemed “highly qualified” through a combination of my (future) Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science and knowledge from a single chemistry course I might have taken while at college. I would clearly be unfit to teach chemistry, yet NCLB would deem me highly qualified. Moreover, a laser-like focus on student assessment came at the expense of schools becoming more akin to memorization factories than to institutions of true learning.

As I write this, I sound as though I desire the entire law scrapped. There are some provisions that are worthwhile, such as requiring that schools publish data by social group, sex, and income level so that we can systematically determine if some students need more attention. However, the law as written must be reformed if it is to actually help students in any meaningful way. It just so happens that Congress needs to reauthorize NCLB, which has not happened in over 7 years (clearly, the law was unpopular). Which brings me back to my project—the education team and I have been writing a series of one-pagers about different aspects of NCLB, why the law failed, and what could be done to improve it. We will be presenting these one-pagers to Capitol Hill staff this Friday, January 30th for members to consider as they begin their work in the 114th Congress. There is already some activity in this vein in the Republican-controlled Congress, but I sincerely hope that my small contribution could improve the educational landscape for America’s youngest minds.

Work and class do eat up a great deal of my time, but Friday nights and weekends lend themselves to some relaxation and sightseeing. Thus far, I’ve been to Georgetown to admire the campus (I try not to think about law school), take part in the nightlife, and sample its famed cupcakes.

One of the most memorable experiences I’ve had thus far was my trip to the National Museum of American History, one of the many Smithsonians around D.C. A bunch of my neighbors told me about the American war exhibit, and I went there fully expecting to immerse myself in war memorabilia. Instead, this exhibit caught my eye.

As an amateur cook and lover of food in general, I was naturally drawn to this exhibit. It’s amazing how the American culinary experience can change in just 50 years! During this time, drinking wine with dinner became socially acceptable and popular, foreign cultures blended with what was considered traditionally American, and mass production of food made it cheaper and more widely available. One could spend hours in that exhibit, and indeed I did. Part of the exhibit included a documentary about Julia Child’s contributions to American cuisine, which included clips of her cooking show, The French Chef. I was mesmerized by how easy she made cooking seem, and I literally sat down just to watch the entirety of the documentary. Some of my friends had a laugh at my expense, but I thought it was an enlightening experience.

February is not yet upon us, and I’m excited for what lies in store! Tune in next month for more!

headshot of Brandon M. Wong

Brandon Wong is a senior at Cal studying political science and public policy. He has previously worked as a public policy analyst for Orange County's 4th District Supervisor Shawn Nelson and a legal intern for the Orange County District Attorney's Sexual Assault Unit. He hopes to continue policy work in Washington, D.C. at the American Enterprise Institute.

Click here to read Brandon's blog about his fellowship experience at the Orange County District Attorney's Ofiice.