Toward a National Education Ministry?

The bi-partisan, governor-led, Gates-funded, Aspen-housed Commission on No Child Left Behind has produced a report that should be called No Idea Left Behind. Unfortunately, only a fraction of those ideas are sound.

This sprawling 200-plus-page document, capped with some 75 separate recommendations, adumbrates a solution to almost every problem ailing American education, and heralds several innovative reform ideas. What it doesn't do is sketch a coherent vision for NCLB version 2.0.

First, though, some raisins in this pudding: the Commission outlines an interesting and politically plausible path toward voluntary national standards and tests based on NAEP. It proffers some solid thinking about end-of-high-school academic expectations for students and how these might be married to NCLB. It has some good thoughts on longitudinal data systems. It would give principals the authority to bar weak teachers from transferring into their schools. It would allow states to use growth models in their accountability systems, giving credit to schools whose students are on track to reach proficiency within three years. (This is especially important for charter schools, which often enroll students who start out several years behind.) It seeks to ensure that needy schools get an equitable share of state and district resources before the federal Title I dollars are added on top. (This would give high-poverty schools the buying power to recruit and retain top-notch teachers--especially if they are also allowed to offer incentive pay.)

Not bad. But now take a deep breath. The future the Commission imagines is one in which the federal government has ever more power over the nation's schools; its summary recommendations use the word "require" (usually followed by the word "states") at least 35 times.

This behavior is not unusual in the odd world of blue-ribbon commissions where it's easier to throw in every member's pet idea than to set priorities and be strategic. And the notions this particular commission chose to promote are more innovative than most. Yet its basic approach to NCLB reform ignores the major lesson of the past five years: While it's hard to force recalcitrant states and districts to do things they don't want to do, it's impossible to force them to do those things well (see here). With enough regulations, enforcement actions and threats of monies withheld, Washington can usually coerce states and districts to comply with the letter of the law, but not with its spirit. Yet when it comes to the hard, messy work of improving schools (and teachers, principals, etc.), compliance isn't good enough. What's needed is a new federal-state compact, an approach focused laser-like on results and truly flexible as to the means by which they're produced, one that grapples with America's federalist system rather than pretending it doesn't exist.

The theme to the Commission's proposals, insofar as there is one, is "Do more, and do what Uncle Sam tells you to do." If NCLB 1.0 ran 700 pages, the statutory version of this one would likely take 1,700. It fixes a few flaws, but mostly it piles new mandates on top, more or less the way the last IDEA revision heaped new requirements atop the old rather than solving the problems caused by the old. In its 75 recommendations, alongside the 35 "requires" we counted just six "allows" or "permits." This suggests that the Commission is approximately six times more interested in issuing new federal mandates than providing flexibility to states, districts or schools.

Some proposals are especially worrisome. Consider its well meaning plan to "require all teachers to produce student learning gains and receive positive principal or teacher peer review evaluations to meet the new definition of a Highly Qualified and Effective Teacher (HQET)." Observe here the basic flaw in the Commission's approach: start with a sound instinct (gauging teachers' effectiveness by their impact on pupil achievement). Ignore how little is known for sure about reliable ways of doing this, especially at scale. Then pretend that the U.S. Department of Education is capable of (and has the clout to) shape and micromanage such complicated processes as vetting teacher performance from Washington. Along the way, neglect to undo the mistakes of NCLB, so that instructors must still meet the current law's paperwork-laden, credential-heavy "highly qualified teachers" requirements (which mostly serve to keep talented people out of the classroom) even if they do prove effective at boosting student achievement. The likely result? If past is prologue, Congress and the Education Department will muck up this entire enterprise, setting back a promising idea (evaluating teachers based on their impact on student learning) for a generation.

In its eagerness to advance exciting reform ideas such as this one, the Commission failed to grapple with the true challenges of converting sound impulses into sound implementation. One might laud the Commission's report if it were a reform agenda for a new generation of "education governors" to implement in their states. (This makes sense, considering that two respected former education governors headed the panel.) But setting good federal policy is more than taking great ideas and mandating them from Washington.

Other vexing NCLB problems get neglected. Current law, for example, promises kids stuck in low-performing schools that they can exit for better ones in their districts. Yet this isn't happening because most such districts have few decent schools with empty seats. The answer is to expand supply and create more choices, via more charter schools, letting kids cross district lines, even including private schools. None of these expanded options appears in the report, though a few small tweaks to the "public school choice" program do. (The phrase "private school" never appears and charters get only glancing attention.)

Perhaps feeling obligated by the Rules Governing National Commissions, this one also strays from its mandate, as if to say "We know this other issue is important (or important to someone); we're just not sure what to do about it." So we get a nebulous recommendation "requiring institutions of higher education to set goals for linking their instruction with the needs of schools and the demands new teachers will face in the classroom." And we see "...requiring districts in which more than half of the high schools did not make develop and implement comprehensive, district wide high school improvement plans."

The overriding problem, however, isn't any one recommendation--some indeed have merit--but the sum of its parts. NCLB was an historic accomplishment and, for all its warts, has focused Americans on education improvement like nothing since A Nation at Risk. But the Commission is too deferential to NCLB 1.0, as if unwilling or unable to think big about a federal approach to education reform that evolves past NCLB's constraints, an approach with greater ambition (about results) and greater humility (about Uncle Sam's power) at the same time.

Ironically, the Administration that gave birth to NCLB has shown itself more capable of producing a set of bold and workable solutions to the law's problems than a blue-ribbon commission with no pride of authorship. What's especially worrying is that Congress, at least the new Congressional majority, might even go along--the more so since the commission's executive director is now moving to Capitol Hill to work for Chairman George Miller on the law's update.

Some have claimed that NCLB reauthorization is another a chance for bipartisan comity and action. If this report is to serve as the blueprint, we urge Congress to concentrate on immigration reform instead.

A less wonky version of this editorial first appeared in National Review Online.

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