The anti-???tight??? right vs. the anti-???loose??? left

Articles by Jay
Greene
and Kevin
Carey
this week serve as effective bookends on the current ESEA debate.
Both analysts dislike the “tight-loose” formulation to federal policymaking
that is championed by Arne Duncan, among others—though of course for opposite
reasons.

Speaking for the anti-“tight” right, Greene argues that “dictating
the ends with a national set of standards, curriculum, and assessments will
necessarily dictate much of the means.” (And, to be fair, he did so in a witty
and amusing blog
post
, in which he proposed a “drinking game” for readers of Fordham’s forthcoming
ESEA proposal, due out next week.)

But it’s unclear why he finds the concept of “tight-loose”
so preposterous. Consider this: Here are the most likely potential mandates
that Congress might attach to federal Title I funding in the next ESEA:

  1. States must adopt rigorous academic
    standards (and cut scores) in English and math that imply readiness for college
    and career.
  2. States must test students annually in
    English and math.
  3. States must build assessments and data
    systems to allow for individual student growth to be tracked over time.
  4. States must develop standards and
    assessments in science and history, too.
  5. States must rate schools according to a
    prescriptive formula (i.e., AYP).
  6. States must intervene in schools that
    fail to make AYP for several years in a row, or in schools that are among the
    lowest-performing in the state.
  7. States must develop rigorous teacher
    evaluation systems and ensure a more equitable distribution of effective
    teachers.
  8. States must ensure that Title I schools
    receive comparable resources—including good teachers and real per-pupil
    dollars—as those received by non-Title I schools.

The way Greene argues it, Congress has to either choose
“none of the above” or “all of the above.” But of course it doesn’t. We at
Fordham would select items one through four off this a la carte menu, and leave the rest for states to decide. That, to
us, would be “tight-loose” in action.

Does Jay believe none of these should be required? And if
so, isn’t he arguing for federal taxpayers to just leave the money on the
stump? Why not make the principled conservative case and say that Title I and
other federal funding streams should simply be eliminated?

And then there’s Kevin Carey’s much more earnest—yet
equally problematic—essay
in the New
Republic
. He takes the opposite, anti-“loose” view, and seems to argue that
if Republicans don’t opt for “all of
the above” they are showing themselves to be “radicalized” and in fear of the awesome
powers of the Tea Party. According to Carey, Republicans like Senator (and
former Education Secretary) Lamar Alexander are “abandoning” their dedication
to education reform “in the face of the new anti-federal mood.” Never mind that
Alexander has long pushed for a smaller federal footprint in education. Now
he’s “abandoning” his lifetime of work because he wants to let states take the
lead on the next phase of reform? All that’s happening is that the GOP is
returning to its federalist roots after a wayward journey with No Child Left
Behind.

Note, in particular, Carey’s worries that “states might no
longer be required to test students annually or intervene when schools
persistently fail to help students learn.” These concerns are misguided and
misplaced. First, nobody is seriously talking about moving away from an annual
testing requirement. Second, what evidence can Carey point to that federally mandated
interventions in persistently failing schools have amounted to anything? Can
anyone argue that the School Improvement Grants program is going well?

Let’s
quit with all the over-the-top rhetoric. Give the list of eight mandates above
a good look. Congress is likely to move ahead with the first few and will
definitely reject the last few; the real debate is about the ones in the
middle. In other words, we’ll be arguing over the precise definition of
“tight-loose,” regardless of what the anti-“tight” right or the anti-“loose” left
have to say about it.

This piece originally
appeared
(in a slightly different format) on Fordham’s
Flypaper blog.

Click to play

Click to listen to commentary on the "tight-loose" debate from the Education Gadfly Show podcast

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