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The Role of the Federal Government in Education

Note: Andrew Saultz, assistant professor of educational leadership at Miami University of Ohio, is guest posting this week.

It's such an easy trap: we see a problem and feel compelled to intervene. It is so much easier to step in to fix something than to step back and consider if you are the best person, or entity, for the job. The federal government struggles mightily with this trap, and too often errs on the side of involvement.

Tom Green's seminal work explains the strengths of policymaking at different levels of aggregation. No, not the actor and MTV goofball Tom Green. Tom F. Green, the brilliant education scholar who worked at Syracuse for 30 years. In his work Excellence, Equity and Equality, Green argues that the levels of government in educational policy are better suited to address separate end goals.

Fundamental to Green's theory is a belief that excellence, equity, and equality are competing goals within education. Green argues that equality is best achieved at high levels of aggregation, while excellence should be left to low levels of aggregation. For example, a teacher who knows the strengths and weaknesses of each individual student, and can adjust lessons accordingly, maximizes the learning for each individual student. However, the individual teacher has no expertise on whether the students in her classroom are receiving the same quality of education as students in a neighboring town. The state, then, is needed to have a wider lens on educational policy. Extending this logic, local districts should have the autonomy to determine excellence, while the federal government should ensure equality of opportunity. 

Let's apply Green's theory to the two major Obama administration initiatives to analyze the current role of the federal government in education.

Race to the Top

Race to the Top (RT3) was touted as a way to spur innovation and reform at the state level. Unfortunately, the competition, and subsequent evaluation of the applications, was about who could best mimic the federal government's demands. RT3 was not about equity or equality. Instead, it pushed a paradigm of state competition and a funding structure that rewarded states that were ahead of others in the reform areas the USDOE cared about. Green might criticize this process as one that would lead to further funding inequities across states by infusing cash into states that were already doing relatively well. 

NCLB Waivers

The USDOE said all the right things when announcing NCLB waivers for states. They hyped the waivers as 'flexibility' from the rigid structure that mandated one accountability system. However, the reality of the waiver negotiations between state and federal bureaucrats was much different. Instead, the federal government set very narrow definitions of the policy changes they wanted in states. I have no confidence that the teacher evaluation reforms mandated by the federal government will improve equality, equity, or excellence in schools. The waivers also allowed states the option of adjusting current accountability systems. However, some states moved to systems that used super-sub groups, meaning they collapsed race and income into one large category. This policy shift will make it much more difficult to track specific achievement gaps, a key measure of equity. The federal government missed an opportunity to increase equality during the waiver process.

So what does this mean?

These days, the local voice is lost in much of the educational policy discourse. Federal and state bureaucrats negotiate plans for how to improve schools, largely without involving parents, teachers, and superintendents.  I worry about the future of the educational system absent these voices. Tom Green was right: excellence is best accomplished by allowing localities to customize schooling to fit individual student needs. While federal and state policymakers talk about allowing for flexibility and innovation at the local level, their policies do not match this rhetoric.

The federal government should refocus its effort to help ensure an equitable education for all students but allow excellence to develop at the school and district level. The USDOE has too often tied the hands of districts by pushing very specific reforms, as seen in RT3 and the NCLB waivers. We should allow for much more variability between districts if we truly want our schools, and ultimately our students, to excel.

Tomorrow I will present my recommendations for the reauthorization of ESEA.

--Andrew Saultz

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