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Carrots, Sticks, & the Bully Pulpit

Interesting day at AEI on Wednesday. Hosted a lively discussion on "Education 2012: What the Election Year Will Mean for Education Policy," looking at what the year ahead holds for education in Washington and nationally. I was joined by a wickedly smart crew that featured Democrats for Ed Reform chief Joe Williams; ED's Peter Cunningham; Katherine Haley, key aide to House Speaker John Boehner; influential GOP pollster and policy advisor David Winston; and Ed Week's crack political reporter Alyson Klein. The occasion for the event was the official launch of my new book (edited with my colleague Andrew Kelly), Carrots, Sticks, and the Bully Pulpit: Lessons from a Half-Century of Federal Efforts to Improve America's Schools. (You can find it here). Here are some highlights:

Regarding the Obama administration's proposal to grant NCLB waivers to states who shift from subgroups to "super-subgroups"--allowing schools to make AYP based on the overall performance of their most vulnerable kids, rather than by requiring specific performance levels for a laundry list of demographic groupings--Williams wryly said he's hoping to duck the hullabaloo because the emphasis on racial subgroups is the "linchpin" that glues the DFER reformers together with their civil rights allies. Cunningham implied that ED had little to do with the President's demand that states raise the compulsory education age to 18; that the idea came "from the White House." He told observers to not jump the gun in judging ED's response to waivers, urging them to await the Secretary's announcement before reaching any conclusions.

Klein said that 99 percent of the Hill sources she talks to think NCLB reauth will wait at least for 2013, that key spending questions won't be sorted out until the post-election lame duck session, and that recent years have seen education lose its bipartisan patina and become "just another [partisan] issue."

Winston told a room full of edu-enthusiasts that their focus on waivers, Common Core, ESEA/NCLB , turnaround models, and the rest amount to a fascination with process that doesn't register with voters--who want to know the impact on education outcomes, jobs, and the economy. Haley acknowledged that the House Republicans failed to take Secretary Duncan up on the opening he created with his November 2010 call to embrace the "new normal" and focus on getting more bang for our buck in schooling, largely because the new majority's huge freshmen class was still finding its bearings and got caught up in manifold other debates.

There was broad agreement on the value of the transparency that NCLB brought to outcomes but serious disagreement on what reauth should look alike. There was broad agreement that the action is shifting to governors. Cunningham said that Secretary Duncan routinely talks with Republican governors like Chris Christie, Mitch Daniels, and John Kasich; urged Hill Republicans to talk to GOP governors when judging the administration's education proposals; and opined, "Governors will be in the driver seat in 2012, and that's the way it should be."

I asked the participants what we've seen the feds get right this past decade when it comes to schooling. Haley cited the transparency produced by NCLB. Williams flagged the attention and energy that infuse efforts to improve schooling. Cunningham pointed to three things: promoting transparency, using the bully pulpit to start conversations with lagging states, and using "carrots" like Race to the Top to catalyze reform.

Those responses starkly illustrated the value of the insights and lessons sketched in Carrots, Sticks, and the Bully Pulpit. Featuring contributions penned by thinkers and doers including Ron Ferguson, Mike Smith, Larry Berger, Charlie Barone, Maris Vinovskis, Mike Casserly, Checker Finn, Mark Schneider, Liz DeBray, Pat McGuinn, Jennifer Wallner, Paul Manna, Josh Dunn, and Jane Hannaway, the book examines what we've learned about what Uncle Sam does and doesn't do well when it comes to education innovation, accountability, equity, and research. The authors extract lessons from litigation, efforts targeted on urban systems, edu-lawmaking, NCLB implementation, initiatives designed to spur innovation, and more. More than anything else, the book offers a chance to focus not only on what we might like the federal government in schooling to do but also on the question of what Uncle Sam can actually do well given the shape of our federal system. And our conversation about what's ahead in 2012 reminded me once again how much such thinking can usefully temper and inform our debates.

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

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