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Fixing NCLB Based on What Uncle Sam Does Well

Conventional wisdom is catching up to the fact that, if NCLB gets reauthorized this year, federal mandates on school improvement, teacher evaluation, and the like are not going to be part of the equation. This has been on display at the Senate HELP Committee hearings last week and yesterday. The shape of a deal has been clear since Sen. Alexander announced his intent to move forward aggressively in the Senate: it would entail retaining federal requirements on testing and disaggregation while jettisoning that other stuff. Obviously, I think this is a terrific thing. Heck, a substantial but more humble, more clearly defined federal role is something I've long championed.

As Andrew Kelly and I put it in National Affairs back in 2012:

To start, it is essential to abandon unhelpful rhetoric about shutting down the Department of Education or "getting the federal government out of education." The federal government does have a legitimate role to play in schooling—and it always has. From the Land Ordinance of 1785, which set aside land for the purpose of building and funding schools, through Dwight Eisenhower's 1958 investment in math and science instruction after the launch of Sputnik, the federal government has recognized a compelling national interest in the quality of American education.

The truth is that not even outspoken champions of local control really want Uncle Sam completely removed from schooling. Republicans—including the Tea Party class of 2010—routinely support maintaining or increasing federal funds for Title I, special education, and federal student loans... It is just as well for the GOP that such promises amount to little more than empty rhetoric: If Republicans were serious, voters would react poorly. In the mid-1990s, when House Republicans proposed eliminating the Department of Education, polls consistently suggested that 70% to 80% of voters opposed the effort. This election cycle, polling finds that 74% of respondents oppose eliminating the Department of Education, with even 56% of self-described conservatives opposed.

It seems clear that the Department of Education isn't going anywhere. The real opportunity lies in reassessing what it is that the federal government should do and how we ought to properly circumscribe its role. This requires understanding a few important facts about the relationship between Washington and America's schools.

The most fundamental of these is the fact that Washington does not run schools. All Congress can do is enact laws that tell federal bureaucrats to write rules for states, which in turn write rules for school districts, which in turn set the particular policies for schools. At each of these points, there is great potential for distortion; often, the grand visions of Washington lawmakers end up bearing little resemblance to how their policies actually play out in the nation's classrooms. In short, while Washington can force states and districts to do things, it cannot make them do those things well.

Efforts to increase Washington's influence generally involve increasingly complex directives and requirements—ever more intrusive federal regulation to try to ensure that states, districts, and schools do the "right" things in the "right" way. The problem, of course, is that inept district and school leaders continue to follow these directives ineptly; dynamic leaders, meanwhile, end up with their hands tied by ever-growing lengths of red tape.

While many folks have lately gotten the religion of curtailing the federal role, even the smart ones haven't done a very good job articulating why it is that the federal government's ambitious efforts are unlikely to deliver. (Meanwhile, many well-intended progressives have dismissed skepticism of the federal role as evidence of reflexive "anti-Washington" bias and unconcern for the plight of poor and minority children stuck in struggling schools.) The truth: one can make an argument for a limited federal role even if one is not a Tea Party diehard and even if one believes we can and must do better when educating all our children. 

The federal government can do some things well when it comes to schooling, but there are many things it cannot do well. And it's not a "retreat" or a problem for NCLB reauthorization to embrace that reality.

The federal government is well-situated to insist that states do things where requiring that states do them is enough. For instance, requiring states to administer annual tests and to disaggregate and report the results is enough to yield the intended results. It's a lot like mailing Social Security checks—there's just not that much room for slippage. It's an easy requirement to enforce, and therefore it entails little red tape or intrusion.

On the other hand, when it comes to things like school improvement or teacher evaluation, whether they're done matters infinitely less than how they're done. And federal efforts to require these tend to yield plenty of foot-dragging and ineptitude. This means there's a need for federal rules and guidelines to get those folks in line. Which yield red tape and limit the degrees of freedom for those seeking to do things well, while forcing them to be done universally—even in places where it doesn't make sense to do them, where it's a retreat from their existing practices to do them, or where they're not ready to do them competently. Which ensures that much of this will be done poorly and with little ownership.

There are four insights to keep in mind. The first is that federal statute and policy has to apply universally. That's the way the system works. So the same laws need to be written for Massachusetts and Mississippi, and need to apply to Sacramento and Savannah. It's really, really hard to design improvement strategies or evaluation practices that work across lots of different organizations—much less ones that will make sense in every school system across the U.S.

Second is that, again, the federal government doesn't run schools. If we lived in Finland or France (or Cuba), we could have a different conversation. There the national government actually runs schools and can make decisions with some confidence they'll be carried out as intended. In the U.S., all Washington can do (for good or ill) is try to write rules for states in the hope that they'll write smart rules for districts—in the hope district leadership will apply those thoughtfully in schools. By the time you finish this game of telephone in any complex endeavor, things tend to go awry.

Third, federal officials aren't actually accountable for what happens when their ideas go south. DCPS chancellor Kaya Henderson is on the line if her teacher evaluation system causes problems. Parents and educators can make their displeasure clear, and her boss can cut her loose. If federal guidelines around teacher evaluation or school improvement strategies are goofy, there is no such accountability. State officials can grumble about some faceless bureaucrat at the U.S. Department of Education, but the folks giving states directives are ultimately not accountable for whether any of those directives work. In fact, the accountability lies with principals, district officials, and state leaders who are "just following orders."

Finally, federal officials have little ability to make adjustments on the fly. As I noted already, when it comes to things like identifying struggling schools, promoting school improvement, or evaluating teachers, whether  you do it matters a lot less than how you do it. Superintendents can adjust systems on the fly. DC chancellor Henderson has been able to continually adjust the DCPS teacher evaluation IMPACT system in light of lessons learned. Federal officials can't do that. The law is a sticky thing. Processes for amending federal policy are slow and grinding. Federal officials are far from the ground, and their adjustments have to been designed with 100,000 schools and 50 million in mind—not the 100 or so schools and 50,000 or so students of DCPS.

As far as I'm concerned, the case for keeping testing while ditching the AYP and school improvement framework of NCLB has little or nothing to do with academic conversations about the Ninth and Tenth Amendments. And it's not a question of whether we believe all our children deserve great schools—I think we all agree that they do. It's a question of what Uncle Sam can do well and when even well-intended efforts are likely to do more harm than good.

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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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