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The Letter From: The Most Important Issue in Federal Education Policy Presidential Candidates Don’t Discuss (III)

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Even in the campaign’s fora for education policy wonks, evaluation has been a very minor topic. Unless No Child Left Behind becomes material to the election, scientifically based research and its siblings (SBR) will remain the most important issue in federal education policy the Presidential candidates have yet to discuss.

The reasons why SBR is an obscure talking point in debate over the tertiary topic of program evaluation on the second level campaign issue of public education are easy to state:

• Compared to gas prices, the economy, Iraq, Afghanistan and terrorism, education is not among the average American voter’s top priorities. Other things being equal, the candidates' views on program evaluation don’t influence many voters. As a result, both consider the economy and foreign affairs the decisive arenas, and education a low-cost opportunity to satisfy their bas. Democrats may understand how moving education front and center will tend to divide their party, and Republicans have not grasped that potential.

• To the extent public schools are an issue, the easiest strategy for substantive debate is to stick with the holy trinity of school accountability, funding levels and vouchers. Democrat Obama argues that NCLB’s accountability regime is unreasonable, more money is required, and that vouchers are incompatible with public education. Republican McCain takes the opposing view. To suggest some creativity and independence, each candidate has added the traditional billion dollar barrel of pet projects. Candidates and campaigns managers are comfortable with this set piece engagement, because it leaves them to do what they know how to do.

• If a candidate were to consider adding a new argument to the education policy troika, the subject of program evaluation seems too hard to explain in a sound bite. It is a testament to the subject’s arcane nature that the Obama campaign has not tied McCain’s strong support for NCLB to the mismanagement of SBR in Reading First and Supplementary Education Services in its efforts to cast the Republican candidate as Bush III. Even in the campaign’s for a for education policy wonks, evaluation has been a very minor topic.

As matters now stand, it’s not likely that either candidate will make their position on SBR a matter of record – voluntarily or under duress. Let me offer a scenario where one might. It is a stretch, even far fetched, but based on three fact-based analyses.

• As best I can tell from my own research, four states bordering on the Great Lakes are likely to be the election’s crucial battlegrounds: Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Given the patterns of state-by-state outcomes that emerge from the hundreds of Presidential election simulations I’ve run on the various websites (for example) studying the subject, some combination of these will prove necessary for either side to win the election.

• The Boston Globe's interactive electoral college analysis suggests that holding all other factors constant, if African American voters split their vote as they did in 2004, Obama needs a 20 percent increase in African American turnout to win. If, at or above that increase in turn out, McCain can win 5 percent more African American voters than Bush did in 2004, the Senator from Arizona will be President.

• This year's Pew poll on public education reported several relevant findings: Unlike white voters and the population as a whole, African-American and Latino voters were likely to place education in their list of top concerns. Democrats are split roughly evenly between those who think NCLB has helped, hurt, or had no effect/don’t know on public schools. African–American and Latino voters are more likely to think NCLB helped.

The combination suggests that education is an important topic to an important voting block Senator Obama would normally count on in a crucial set of states, and that his position on NCLB might make him vulnerable to Senator McCain. Voters who believe that education is important, and that NCLB has improved matters, are not going to be interested in weakening the law’s accountability provision – however they might feel about spending levels. And many African Americans, especially in urban areas, express strong support for vouchers.

Assuming NCLB offers McCain a better chance of winning some combination of Great Lakes states, the challenge is convincing African-American and Latino voters that school accountability is important enough to depart from their historic tendencies. To date, the Democratic Party has done a very good job leading this element of its voting base to believe that the interests of their children align with the interests of both the teachers union and the bureaucratic apparatus that operates school systems.

Now the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association have vowed to end NCLB. Their intent has been stated very clearly clear. Their motivation - opposition to NCLB accountability regime - has been obscured to maintain the old alignment. And while their endorsement of Obama does not mean he endorses everything they might want, it will be virtually impossible for a Democratic President negotiating with a Democratic Congress to protect NCLB’s accountability provisions. Support for NCLB’s strict accountability regime offers McCain a wedge issue because the effect has been to send resources to African American and Lationo students most in need of additional support while it puts an ineffective structure controlled by teachers unions and bureaucracies in a harsh spotlight.

Could NCLB move enough African-American and Latino voters from their Democratic tendencies to swing enough Great Lakes states to McCain? On the one hand, I don’t know. On the other, if the election were held today, statistics suggest McCain is likely to lose these states. I see no downside that would discourage McCain from making the effort. Finally, for many African-American and Latino families – indeed for most Americans – there are few things more important to stability and security that the quality of their children’s public education. These two groups may be more aware of its importance because education has been their principal route to success and acceptance.

Were Senator McCain to adopt this strategy, Senator Obama has only one substantive response. Arguing that NCLB accountability requires higher levels of funding is not much an argument against high standards and strict accountability. Especially in the case of African Americans, the kinds of voters likely to be swayed by McCain are not likely to feel great opposition to vouchers.

That leaves the claim that the private sector is not offering public school students a better education, it is simply taking the revenue in return for worthless products, and pocketing large profits - and that's the Republicans' real intent. The theme of McCain as the third term of a Bush Administration will be extended to education. And this brings us to the most important issue in federal education policy Presidential candidates haven't discussed. The Obama campaign will associate MCain with the Administration's neglect of SBR and the effect of that neglect measured by changes in student performance.

And that brings us back the options discussed in previous weeks. The first candidate to propose to implement NCLB’s program evaluation provisions based on mandatory experimental or quasi-experimental designs, and publication in an accessible repository has the advantage. If McCain goes first he demonstrates a commitment to accountability for private providers no less than for public schools. This denies Obama his one substantive counter to an NCLB gambit to win the Great Lakes states. If Obama goes first, he can paint McCain's approach to NCLB as a Trojan horse for the private exploitation of pubic education, blunt its force and very probably preempt its implementation.

The scenario is pretty far fetched, but it suggests two things:

• There is no downside for either side to adopt the my preferred approach to SBR, and some potential to deny the other side potential advantages.

• The interests of African-American and Latino families in public education differ substantially from those of the teacher's unions and other organizations that control public school systems. Consequently, the Democratic party and Democratic candidates are happy for education to remain remain a second tier topic. By not recognizing the importance of education to African Americans and Latinos, and failing to exploit the split to the fullest, Republicans have missed out on an important opportunity to develop a multicultural base.

2 Comments

The interests of African-Americans and unions DO NOT DIFFER.

You are right, though, that the teachers complaints on NCLB lie with THAT LAW'S accountability provisions.

Your political arguments assume two things:

1. NCLB-type accountability that failed so badly to date can be reformed in NCLB II to the point where it can be constructive. Notice all of the studies and journalism that point out that even in districts where unions are not a factor, schools have lacked the capacity - including the knowledge - to use their freedom to improve outcomes.

The idea that schools can improve absent a) the greatest repository of education knowledge i.e. teachers and their unions and b) an honest flow of accurate information which is only possible when protected by collective bargaining and due proceess,is utopian.

2. Secondly, you assume that African-American voters will flush their loyalty down the toilet. The civil rights breakthroughs of the last century would have been impossible without the commitment of unions, including the AFT and NEA.

Thanks for raising this overlooked issue of program evaluation. It is critical to evaluate the myriad of interventions that are being rolled out in school districts across the country, who are struggling to meet the (unrealistic) 100% proficiency goal under NCLB.

It's important to recognize, however, that there are challenges to SBR beyond the lack of interest demonstrated by the Obama and McCain campaigns. Researchers seeking to conduct SBR in schools often face resistance from reluctant school district administrators who do not ethically support research that utilizes control groups. Their argument is hard to defeat: is it ethical to provide an intervention to some at-risk students and not to others in order to conduct SBR? I've had this discussion many times with school district staff. The DOE, in its guidelines for SBR published a few years ago in the Federal Register, does suggest quasi-experimental designs that provide alternatives to the use of control groups, but randomized field trials are still promoted as the "gold standard" for SBR.

I'd also add that in addition to SBR, we should be advocating for the increased use of cost-benefit (and cost-effectiveness) studies in K-12 education. Standards-based reform is expensive: consider the costs associated with smaller class sizes, whole-school professional development, and year-round schedules. Most K-12 reforms face constraints in the availability of budgetary and other resources, and limiting their evaluation to educational outcomes without considering their costs provides an inadequate basis for decision-making. Both costs and effectiveness must be known in order to make good educational choices.

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