Obama, failing to learn from Bush's lessons?

It appears increasingly likely that President Obama and Secretary Duncan are at risk of doing to charter schooling, merit pay, and school "turnarounds" what the Bush administration did to educational accountability. That's not meant as a compliment.

The Bush team took the sensible and broadly-supported notion of holding schools accountable for their returns and then pursued a vision that is so prescriptive, so overwrought, and so divorced from a coherent rendering of what the feds can actually do that they managed to largely unravel a solid bipartisan commitment in support of the underlying idea.  As a result, most of the country wants to see NCLB overhauled or dumped outright.

What's easy to forget, of course, is that NCLB was once enormously popular. In Bush's first couple of years, it was touted as a triumph of bipartisanship and a signal accomplishment.  Similarly, Messrs. Obama and Duncan are today basking in laurels for their "Race to the Top" efforts. (This four billion dollar program, part of the stimulus package, will reward reform-minded states with big incentive grants.) But what did Bush in was not his support for accountability, which continues to enjoy broad support in principle, but his effort to force onto states a particular vision of accountability that paid too little heed to organizational dynamics, or the predictable perils of implementation.

The Bush Administration learned the hard way that, while Uncle Sam can coerce states and school districts to do things they don't want to do, he can't make them do those things well. Every state now has standards and tests in reading and math in grades three through eight, and a definition of "Adequate Yearly Progress" that meets the minimal requirements of federal law. Every state also has a system of free tutoring for poor students in schools that don't make the grade. But most of those standards and tests are set at laughably low levels, the definitions of "AYP" are riddled with holes and twisted by game-playing, and the free tutoring isn't reaching anywhere near a majority of its intended beneficiaries. States followed the letter, but not the spirit, of the law.

Some Bush officials and their Washington allies reacted by bemoaning the intransigence of states and districts. They surely had a point.  But these "frustrations" are the price of democracy, federalism, and living in a nation of laws--those same American legacies that school reformers laud when they don't find them inconvenient. Moreover, turnarounds or charter schooling will not work as intended if pursued only in response to pressure coming from Washington. This is a battle for hearts and minds, not a war of brute force.

Which brings us back to the Race to the Top. The Obama Administration has a big carrot to offer the states. It could have said to them, "Show us your best ideas for raising standards, improving teacher quality, and turning around low-performing schools, and we'll fund the most compelling and thoughtful ones." Instead, it said, "Here are our best ideas for reforming schools; the more you agree to implement these, the better your chances at getting the dough."

Particularly worrisome is President Obama's claim that the Race to the Top criteria are "evidence-based."  Measures like alternative licensure, charter schooling, and efforts to promote aggressive school restructuring are terrific ideas (and we think the administration deserves kudos for pushing them), but even we would demur from claiming that they are "evidence-based" in any meaningful sense. And the evidence on school turnarounds barely exists as yet, though research from other sectors ought to give the Secretary of Education some pause as he discusses the thousands of schools he yearns (with ample justification) to turn around. This kind of overreach and over-claiming is dishearteningly similar to the Bush-Spellings penchant to overhype NCLB's ability to boost test scores or to transform troubled schools. Over time, when the results fail to match the hype, the credibility of the reforms (and reformers) suffers and frustrated voters and policymakers find themselves inclined to toss the baby with the bathwater.

Here's what's apt to happen: States will check as many boxes as they can, make many promises they can't live up to, get the money, spend the money, and go through the motions of reforming. In other words, it will be déjà vu all over again. If these measures are implemented ham-handedly or with insufficient care, as seems likely in many places, the consequences can be severe. First, good ideas will be executed poorly, undermining support and engendering skepticism. Second, such an approach will fuel backlash. One need only recall the past decade's experience with NCLB or Reading First to know how this story goes.

There's another way, but it takes patience and perseverance--and probably longer than four or even eight years. That's to nurture the development of reform-minded political leaders and educators at the state and local levels, and to foster the efforts of entrepreneurs who are solving problems related to teacher quality, assessment, and charter schooling. This entails getting reformers elected to school boards and legislatures; appointed as advisors to governors; and elected as governors and state school chiefs, too. It requires pushing for the flexibility that will enable dynamic providers to emerge and grow.

Smart federal policy can provide "air cover" to these troops on the ground. But patience is not a virtue in Washington, and is certainly not the way of high-minded reformers eager to "save a generation of kids" or "eliminate the achievement gap." So we try to short-circuit this organic process via carrots that start to feel a lot like sticks.

Obama and Duncan have enormous credibility on education, have used it to push the envelope on important issues like charter schooling and merit pay, and are striking promising chords.  It would be a waste for those efforts to be undermined. More importantly, we'd hate to see the potential for ideas like merit pay and charter schools compromised by the familiar cycle of overselling, over-prescription, disappointment, and backlash.     

What has eluded would-be reformers in both the Bush and Obama teams is the insight that not every good idea makes for a good federal policy, and that blowing too hurriedly on a flickering fire can extinguish it rather than fuel it. A touch of humility would have been helpful during the Bush years, and that's one lesson it would be good for the Obama team to learn sooner rather than later.

Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and co-host of the Education Gadfly Show Podcast.

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