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A Few Noteworthy Thoughts from ECS

I spent the tail end of last week out in Portland, Oregon, at the Education Commission of the States annual confab. ECS honcho Roger Sampson quarterbacked an impressive gathering, chock full of state chiefs and key legislators. The chiefs in attendance were buzzing that the Department of Ed was sending word on Friday that governors should expect calls tomorrow morning from Duncan regarding round two Race to the Top (RTT) results (unless ED reprises its not-so-smooth i3 goof and accidentally posts the winners on TMZ this afternoon).

On Friday, I had the chance to do a panel on state-federal dynamics with Tennessee's razor-sharp governor Phil Bredesen and two of the state chiefs I admire most—MA's Mitch Chester and CO's Dwight Jones. Bob Wise chaired the session. That talented crew had some important things to say. Three points in particular are worth contemplating, whether or not you agree.

First, Bredesen, Chester, and Jones all embraced the Common Core but warned against the feds being too active in the effort—especially in the course of NCLB (nee ESEA) reauthorization. Bredesen, a Democrat, said, "I don't want to sound like a right-wing Republican...but if people in Tennessee thought this was coming from Washington, I'd still be back home trying to push little pieces of it." He said, "Everything in Congress gets defined on a liberal-conservative axis," whereas current efforts are drawing support "on the left and on the right." Bredesen drew an analogy to bipartisan gubernatorial frustration with the health care bill, arguing that Congress didn't listen to governors in crafting it but is now sticking them with trying to make it work—"when it could've been done right if they'd talked to states in the first place."

Second, there was agreement that the Common Core, for all its impressive wins so far, is barely out of the gate. MA chief Mitch Chester said that the Common Core "is just a latent opportunity" and the challenge is to "create the systems" that deliver on the promise. On that score, he said, "The role of the [State Education Agency] has to evolve for us to pull this off. Very few districts do curriculum development; very few districts, let alone schools, do professional development well." He deemed this a place where states have enormous work to do to bolster the quality and capacity of programs. Even if the assessments come together and the publishers don't cut too many corners, it's not clear that would-be reformers will have the patience, energy, or resources to ably implement the new standards. On a related note, folks observed that November will matter mightily, as a slew of governors are replaced and elections reshape some state legislatures.

Third, Chester and CO chief Jones talked about the pluses and minuses of competitive grants. While both praised RTT, they expressed qualms (notable, given that both work in states thick with influential administration allies). One concern was that RTT and i3 privileged states and districts with substantial grant-writing operations, and that having too many competitive grant programs becomes an enormous drain on time, talent, and resources. Another was the reliability and fairness of the judging criteria. A third was the problem with dictating reform agendas from Washington—especially if Congress wades further into the particulars. And a fourth was the possibility of deflating losers, and of spurring anti-reform backlash. There seemed to be agreement that fewer, larger competitive programs are preferable to many smaller programs, and that federal aid conditioned on states taking concrete moves towards restructuring (a la the General Motors TARP aid deal) is better than demanding lots of speculative promises.

Finally, it's worth sharing Bredesen's closing remarks. He reminded the audience that his background was in private sector turnarounds and that every time he'd go into a troubled firm, "We'd always hear the same two things: they'd say they didn't have enough revenue and data." In truth, he said, "It was never those two things." Bredesen said it was too easy to coast "when money was coming in." He said, "I hate to admit it but, when I ran my business, I ran it better in a bad year than in a good year. There's a lot that's healthy about tough times."

Well said, governor. Might I suggest sharing a few words to that effect with Secretary Duncan?

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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