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:
- States must adopt rigorous academic standards (and cut scores) in English and math that imply readiness for college and career.
- States must test students annually in English and math.
- States must build assessments and data systems to allow for individual student growth to be tracked over time.
- States must develop standards and assessments in science and history, too.
- States must rate schools according to a prescriptive formula (i.e., AYP).
- 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.
- States must develop rigorous teacher evaluation systems and ensure a more equitable distribution of effective teachers.
- 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.
|Click to listen to commentary on the "tight-loose" debate from the Education Gadfly Show podcast|
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