A 'third way' for Arne Duncan?
On Tuesday, President-Elect Obama ended weeks of speculation by selecting Chicago schools CEO Arne Duncan to be his secretary of education. The conventional wisdom is that Duncan is a "consensus" pick, bridging the Democratic Party's major divide on education.
The camps on either side of this divide have been described, variously, as the establishment versus the reformers, incrementalists versus disrupters, or, by some, the true progressives versus closet Republicans. Let us add another pairing: the System Defenders versus the Army of the Potomac.
System Defenders--including the teacher unions, other traditional education groups, and their friends on Capitol Hill--believe that the public school system is basically sound but needs additional resources to be more effective. Their view of the federal role resembles the pre-NCLB version with scads of programs and complexities--albeit a lot more money and a lot less accountability.
Meanwhile, members of the Army of the Potomac--including civil rights groups such as Education Trust, "New Dem" bastions such as Education Sector and the Progressive Policy Institute, and putatively bipartisan initiatives such as the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Commission--hold generally sound instincts about reform. They see unions and school boards as barriers to achievement and equity gains; they favor holding schools to account for results; they would reward success; and (up to a point) empower parents. Their Achilles heel is a near-boundless faith in Washington's ability to accomplish these and more whopping improvements in K-12 education. They downplay the unintended consequences caused by NCLB (and other well-intended federal statutes); indeed, most of them would ratchet up Uncle Sam's pressure on states and local schools.
These two camps have been wrangling all year, and it's widely understood that Duncan's job is to forge a truce by finding compromises and commonalities. (To the right of these contending Democratic factions is where many Republicans find themselves, among what we call Local Controllers. They want Uncle Sam to butt out of education policy--but to keep sending money. In the current political environment, however, Duncan and his boss can mostly ignore them--at least ‘til they need sixty Senate votes.)
How can Obama and Duncan find common ground between the System Defenders on the left and the Army of the Potomac in the center? One good way would be turning to Reform Realism, which we introduce today in an "Open Letter" to the President-Elect, Secretary-Designate, and the 111th Congress.
We Reform Realists share some core assumptions with the Army of the Potomac. We embrace standards, assessment, and accountability; we believe that America's achievement gaps are morally unacceptable, socially divisive, and politically unsustainable; and we recognize that for the U.S. to remain secure and prosperous in a dangerous, shrinking and flattening world, our education system must become far more effective.
But as Arne Duncan has learned in Chicago, we also believe that federal action too often yields unintended and undesirable consequences. Uncle Sam would be wise to adopt medicine's maxim of "first do no harm." His education levers are few and none too powerful and, in the real world, he can do little to coerce states and districts to do things they don't want to do or are organizationally incapable of doing--much less to do those things well. School reform is a heavy lift and the application of federal carrots and (less commonly) sticks can only go so far.
We favor a targeted, strategic federal role in K-12 education with Washington sticking to the essential elements that it can do well (and that others do less well)--but leaving the rest to states, communities, educators, and families. In particular, Uncle Sam should:
1. Foster common standards and tests. While asking federal officials themselves to set standards and create tests would be perilous, the President could task the governors with agreeing on what students should know in core subjects at key stages of their schooling. Tests and transparency should follow. (Watch for an announcement tomorrow from the National Governors Association et al.)
2. Provide flexible dollars targeted at disadvantaged children. Principals and superintendents, facing the sun beaming down on their schools' results, should be free to spend federal dollars as they see fit.
3. Offer incentives to states and districts to embark upon promising reforms. One way is to enhance the federal Title I payments to jurisdictions that push for such innovations as performance pay for teachers and more quality school choices for families.
4. Produce high-quality data and solid research on what does and doesn't work. Today, education R & D and statistics is the caboose of federal education policy when it should be the engine.
5. Continue to protect the civil rights of individual students and educators.
Meanwhile, Uncle Sam should eliminate some items from his job description:
1. Oversight of state accountability systems. Once we have national tests that yield reliable, comparable data on pupil and school performance, states should be free--under the watchful eyes of their own citizens--to decide for themselves which schools are succeeding and what to do about those that aren't.
2. Mandated school sanctions. Along with much else, we would eliminate NCLB's school transfer, free tutoring, and restructuring provisions.
3. "Highly qualified teacher" dictates. If reformers want to encourage changes in the human capital pipeline, they should incentivize it, not make rules about it.
Sure, there's more--the Open Letter awaits you--but you can already glimpse the contours of a "Reform Realist" approach that's oriented to systemic change yet humble about Washington's role. Such a strategy could form the basis for a grand compromise. For System Defenders, it would mean an end to federally-mandated sanctions on low-performing schools. For Local Controllers, it would mean a much lighter regulatory load emanating from Washington. And for reformers, including faithful foot soldiers in the Army of the Potomac, it would mean an environment with national standards and tests coupled with far greater transparency, data, and research--all contributing to a healthy environment for reform at the levels of government that actually run public education.
Yes, it's a dramatically different approach than we've grown used to. But it's a terrific fit for Duncan, and maybe for Obama, because it recognizes that Washington's powers in this sphere are limited and places like Chicago have accumulated much relevant experience and wisdom. It points a path out of today's NCLB political thicket. Most importantly, it might actually work.
This piece also appeared today on National Review Online.
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