ObamaFlex: Too much tight, too little loose
Followers of Fordham’s work know that, for the better part of three years, we’ve been advancing an approach to federal education policy that we call “Reform Realism”—a pro-school-reform orientation leavened with a realistic view of what the federal government can and cannot accomplish in education. It’s founded on the idea of “tight-loose” (tight on results, loose on means to achieve them) and heralds incentives over mandates and transparency over accountability.
Three weeks ago, Senator Lamar Alexander and a handful of colleagues introduced a legislative proposal that embodies Reform Realism. As I wrote then, it demonstrates a combination of thoughtfulness and humility that is rare in federal policymaking.
Obama Administration officials, for their part, haven’t been slouches when it comes to Reform Realism. Secretary Arne Duncan has appropriated the “tight-loose” terminology, and the Race to the Top symbolized the triumph of incentives over mandates (even if it was a carrot that felt more like a stick).
Which is what makes the administration’s new plan for conditional NCLB waivers so worrisome. ObamaFlex pulls too taut both the “tight” and the “loose.”
First, let’s talk tight. To be eligible for waivers, Duncan et al. are asking states either to adopt the Common Core or demonstrate that their own reading and math standards indicate college readiness, as judged by institutions of higher education. (Those institutions would have to certify that students achieving the state’s own standards would be eligible for credit-bearing courses.)
On its face, this is perfectly reasonable, and is close to where Checker Finn and I landed when we released our ESEA Briefing Book in April. One of the greatest failings of No Child Left Behind was its agnosticism about the content and rigor of state standards; asking states to peg their expectations to real-world demands makes eminent sense.
But the Administration’s waivers aren’t simply asking for proof of strong state-adopted standards. Instead, Arne Duncan is further federalizing the Common Core by making it the only practical route for states wanting immediate regulatory relief. Texas and Virginia (two states that did not adopt the common standards) could easily make the case that their own standards indicate college readiness. But that process will take time—time that states aren’t being given. And they will want flexibility now.
Even more disturbing is the way in which the Administration’s quid pro quo will lock all states into the Common Core indefinitely. What happens if a state decides to back out—either for ideological reasons or pragmatic ones—say, because the tests linked to the standards start to go off the rails (or simply cost too much)? Will such a state have to adopt its own college-ready standards instantly, or else risk losing the right to regulatory relief? Or federal education funding? Or both?
Meanwhile, as ObamaFlex tugs too tightly in some areas, it goes too light on “loose” in others. Just look at the details yourself: A state can propose its own approach to accountability, for example—as long as it includes “annual measurable objectives,” “priority schools,” “focus schools,” “reward schools,” and myriad other catchphrases and prescriptions. This is reminiscent of Henry Ford’s attitude about automobile colors.
The detailed new mandates on teacher evaluations are piglets of the same litter. States and school districts will be required to “develop, adopt, pilot, and implement, with the involvement of teachers and principals, teacher and principal evaluation and support systems” that abide by a whole host of stipulations.
These guidelines for teacher and principal evaluation are fine as they go—but not as mandates from Uncle Sam. If we’ve learned anything from No Child Left Behind, it’s that to mandate a good idea from Washington is to kill it. Consider what Senator Alexander recently told Education Daily:
We have had several good experiments around the country that are identifying good teaching, rewarding performance, relating it to student achievement, relating it to better pay. But it has been very hard to do. No one is absolutely sure how to do it. The worst thing we could do at this time with teacher and principal evaluations related to student achievement, even though I think it is the Holy Grail of school reform, is to impose any version from Washington.
To be fair, Team Obama got some things right. States and districts will be allowed to ignore NCLB’s onerous yet meaningless “highly qualified teachers” provisions, for example. States will able be able to focus turnaround efforts on schools with particularly low subgroup achievement—rather than schools with large achievement gaps. (That’s important if you don’t want to penalize racially and economically diverse schools, whose gaps are often gargantuan even though they are doing right by all of their subgroups.) And states and districts will be authorized to move their formula funds—like those for teacher quality—into Title I, which will make a real-world difference in terms of spending flexibility.
Still, ObamaFlex begs for improvement. Some additional vetting—via the congressional process perhaps? —might have made it an A-grade pursuit. Too bad the Administration took that option off the table. Too bad Congress is paralyzed.
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