A time for humility in federal education policy

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.
- Ecclesiastes 3:1

To every thing there is a season
To every thing there is a season.
Photo from the Wikimedia Commons

For more than four years now, we at the Fordham Institute have been arguing for a federal education policy of “Reform Realism”—one that is reform-oriented but also realistic about what Washington can effectively achieve. It’s a compromise position of sorts, putting us between the “Army of the Potomac” (lefty reformers who have never glimpsed a problem that Uncle Sam can’t solve) and the Local Controllers (Tea Party types who want zero federal role in education, thank you ma’am). We further fleshed out our vision two years ago with our ESEA Briefing Book and list of 10 recommendations to imbue that key federal law with Reform Realism.

Halfway through 2013, we find ourselves examining another set of ESEA bills and in the midst of another series of ESEA mark-ups. And after highlighting the ridiculous prescriptiveness of the Senate Democrats’s proposal, I find myself under attack from friends on the left for abandoning Reform Realism and joining the Local Controllers. Have I drunk the Kool-Aid—er, tea?

Granted, it’s harder for me today to find much of anything that I’d want Congress to mandate—or that I wouldn’t want the Department of Education to be able to waive. But I submit that an explicit stance of federal humility is precisely what’s called for at this time—for the causes of reform and realism both. (To every thing there is a season.)

That’s for two main reasons:

1.   A strategic retreat from an overweening federal role will help to protect the Common Core, the jewel in the standards-based-reform crown—and it’s good for other reforms like school choice, too.

2.   Substantively, an aggressive federal role has been discredited—and threatens to discredit the entire reform effort along with it.

Regular readers know I’m bullish on the Common Core. I believe that these rigorous standards have the potential to dramatically improve the quality of instruction in the typical American classroom—to move teachers far beyond the test-prep and bubble-kids obsessions of the No Child Left Behind era. If implemented faithfully (a big "if"), I predict we’ll see significant gains on national and international exams (at least in math and reading) and, over time, a decline in the number of students in remedial college courses. Employers will find more Americans worth hiring for skilled jobs. All of this will be good for our young people, our system of higher education, our economy, and our shared cultural fabric.

To be sure, any set of rigorous standards could set off this positive chain of events, just as Massachusetts’s standards did in the Bay State. But it’s not inevitable, as we have learned from other states with high standards but lackluster achievement (Indiana and California, especially). It all depends—on the quality of the associated tests, the position of the “cut scores,” ancillary efforts to prepare teachers, and more.

Then there are the benefits of “common,” rather than state-by-state, standards. First among them: the creation of a nationwide market of textbooks, digital materials, professional development, teacher training, etc., all built upon the common “platform” of the Common Core. Plus assessments that will help parents know how their kids’ schools are doing—and how the school of choice down the road is doing—not just against the state’s own standards but against those of the country and the world.

I could be wrong, of course. Common Core implementation might be half-hearted or lead to wrong-headed instructional practices. But if we want to let it play out, we have to beat back the political efforts underway to push states to repudiate the standards.

What that means for the federal role is to set strict limits on Uncle Sam’s involvement in standards, testing, and accountability systems—because the cri de coeur of Common Core opponents is that these standards and their companion tests represent a federal effort to micromanage our schools (and the minds of our children) from Washington. Let’s not promote new laws that would make that claim true.

Thus the wisdom of the bills written by Senator Lamar Alexander and Representatives John Kline and Todd Rokita, which explicitly prohibit the Department of Education from getting within 100 miles of the Common Core or anything like it. (Senator Alexander was particularly eloquent this week in explaining that he strongly supports the right of states to adopt the Common Core, but not under pressure from Washington.)

Hence the illogic of Senator Tom Harkin’s approach, endorsed on Wednesday by his committee in a party-line vote, which micromanages state accountability systems in myriad ways. The following are among the most significant:

  • Mandating that school ratings consider achievement and growth. (Why not let states use growth alone if they want?)
  • Mandating that school ratings consider the progress of English language learners in attaining English proficiency. (What sense does that make for schools with a tiny proportion of ELL students?)
  • Mandating that states set performance targets that aim for every school to attain the current “achievement level of the highest-performing 10 percent of schools in the state” (or something equally challenging). (Is this setting up a lot of schools to look bad?)

But it’s not just politics and optics. The last twelve years of hyperactive federal policymaking have gotten a few things right but more things wrong. Take, for instance, the following:

  • The command to get “all students” to proficiency encouraged states to keep the definition of “proficiency” exceedingly modest.
  • The structure of “Adequate Yearly Progress” encouraged schools to focus on students just below the proficiency bar, rather than students at the middle or top of the achievement spectrum, too.
  • The “highly qualified teachers” mandate resulted in a vast paperwork-compliance exercise, while creating new hurdles for alternate route programs (like Teach For America) and charter schools.
  • Race to the Top’s enthusiasm for rigorous teacher evaluations led states to adopt “growth measures” in non-tested subjects (like phys ed) that don’t pass the laugh test and are helping to fuel the backlash to testing and accountability writ large. (It’s also impeding principal autonomy in both charter and district schools.)

Proponents of a strong federal role like to claim that we can’t trust the states. But an equally legitimate question is whether we can trust the feds. They’ve been wrong a lot lately.

Reform realism, circa 2013

So how can Washington promote reform without making things on the ground worse? What would a humble federal approach entail? Try these two principles.

1.   “Transparency” rather than “accountability.” It’s true that federal taxpayers spend tens of billions a year on ESEA (and other) programs; they should get something in return. A fair trade is more information about schools, especially their performance and their finances. While the Harkin bill goes overboard in its enthusiasm for new “reporting requirements,” Alexander and Kline/Rokita probably don’t go far enough. On the other hand, the Army of the Potomac needs to give up on its quest to repair inequitable school spending via Title I’s comparability rules—and focus on requiring accurate school-level fiscal data, instead.

2.   Competitions rather than mandates. If Congress cannot help itself and must promote particular reforms, it should do it via competitive grant programs rather than universal mandates and formulas. This isn’t a perfect solution (see Race to the Top and teacher evaluations), but it’s better than the alternative. This is a good bet for new preschool programs (and related regulations); efforts to curb the “school-to-prison” pipeline; and initiatives to encourage a more equitable distribution of effective teachers.

These principles can’t “assure” that states will promote forceful and smart education reforms—though I would posit that no federal mandate can do that. (Repeat after me: The federal government can force states and districts to do things they don’t want to do, but it can’t force them to do those things well.) But the reform movement is better equipped than ever to win political battles at the state and local levels—a better approach than federal rulemaking.

None of the ESEA bills is likely to make its way to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue anytime soon, but the current flurry of activity may still reset the terms of the debate. May the word “humility” be on the minds and lips of members of Congress in the weeks and months ahead.

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