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NCLB II's Delay Should Not be a Surprise

"Warning" matters in all political and business endeavors. If you know what's likely to happen "at current course and speed," you have a chance to seek change or prepare. The longer and more precise the warning, the greater your scope for action.

One of my pet peeves about the "usual suspect" observers of federal k-12 politics is a tendency to be about five minutes ahead of the average Education Week reader. For example, a bit more than a day before the Bemidji Pioneer's (North Dakota) editorial (based on Time from what I gather on This Week in Education) noted that Senators Kennedy and Enzi said NCLB II wasn't going to get through the Education Committee anytime soon, eduwonk Andrew Rotherham and Education Week reporter David Hoff suggested reauthorization is on hold.

When I was in high school, today's "duh" was "No s---, Sherlock."

To be fair, the usual suspects are either de facto part of the game of k-12 political advocacy or in the business of documenting its progress; helping school improvement providers or investors to make practical business decisions isn't part of their job descriptions.

As a student of "indications and warning" in my national security incarnation (most of my writing consists of classified reports on Cold War era warning systems, but download one relevant unclassified report from the early 1990's here), I've taken some interest in this challenge. Good "I&W" is especially important to small, vulnerable actors in environments dominated by political risk. That's a description of school improvement providers.

Over the long haul, and businesses exist for a long haul, it's less expensive to be active than reactive. Whether your measure of return is expected value, potential lost profits or opportunity costs, good intelligence is the cheapest source of competitive advantage. When you have to plan for a fall marketing campaign in May, and are stuck with it for six to nine months; are thinking about plunking down a few million on a company that is proposing to exploit a specific part of NCLB, but won't see the payoff for five years; or must allocate a trade group's scarce financial resources to lobby on behalf of an emerging industry in the nation's capital, you need more than five minutes' warning.

It is possible.

Back in August I predicted NCLB reauthorization wouldn't happen until after the 2008 election. Actually, a year after. I reiterated it in September. It wasn't a guess or a shot in the dark; the signs and political logic were pretty clear - if you weren't too wrapped up in the minutiae of insider baseball. More important, I've been writing about how to think about/respond to/prepare for the potential problem in School Improvement Industry Week and talking about it on the podcast SIIW Online since at least July 2005. I assert readers and listeners had "actionable warning."

But if you look back through the written record of whatever other sources you rely on for federal k-12 policy analysis, you'll find that no one who supported NCLB as it now stands - and certainly not our own trade groups - was worried much about the features or timing of reauthorization until at least March of this year, and more likely until after the Miller-McKeon draft. That's awfully late in the game.

And aside from Knowledge Alliance, I'd say our trade groups were far behind the curve in their job of advocacy, reacting to bad news instead of heading it off. In our industry's political environment playing catch up is generally a lost cause,. It's awfully hard for school improvement groups to walk the cat back when the k-12 institutional establishment has obtained anything close to an "understanding" with legislators. This norm is not what dues-paying association members should expect, nor is there much excuse for it. To survive, the weak need to be months ahead of the game, not five minutes late.

Each year, literally billions of dollars of school improvement industry revenue rides on appropriate assessments of political risk. Relying on the usual suspects for warning is just another way of proving you get what you pay for. It's time to start putting some resources behind our industry's capacity for indications and warning.

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