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We Definitely Don't Need a 'National Education Plan'

Last week, my friend Chris Cross penned a provocative column for Teachers College Record, in which he argued that the U.S. desperately needs a "national education plan." He laments that we don't have an "understanding of our national, as opposed to federal, commitment to education." Cross is a thoughtful guy who worked for years as a Republican staffer on Capitol Hill and now consults, writes, yada yada. As such, he capably represents a long-standing DC conceit that the path to school improvement is a matter of more goals, consensus panels, national schemes, and stirring words from Washington.

Cross writes, "Amazingly, the United States has no national education policy. We have no stated national commitment to education, no understanding about the division of responsibilities and accountability between the federal government and states." (He dismisses NCLB, IDEA, and the rest as piecemeal federal laws, not a national policy.) Cross wants this tackled by "a blue ribbon panel of leaders" that includes "labor leaders, business CEOs, representatives of various racial and religious groups and the military, government, and scientific fields." While I think Cross is a good guy and appreciate his intent, all I see is an invitation for hackneyed rhetoric, meaningless goals, and unhelpful interference. In short, I couldn't disagree more with this call for a "national policy."

Forget the fact that I thought the U.S. Constitution offers clear guidance on the "appropriate" federal role in education—which, even in this era of Constitutional freelancing, is understood to be pretty damn modest (see Article I and the 9th and 10th Amendments, in particular). More prosaically, there are at least three practical reasons that just thinking about this gives me hives.

First, Cross makes the effort to be clear that he's talking about "national" rather than "federal" policy. To which I say, "You got a bridge to sell me, too?" Talk of "national policy" in Washington ensures that well-intended advocates will work hard to have Washington do more and more of whatever is on that list. The stuff assigned to states will have no such champions or safeguards. The problem is that Washington is ill equipped to promote school improvement or accountability. Federal officials are far removed from the educators who actually educate children and are not accountable for how their actions actually affect schools. I see vast room for mischief and little to be gained.

Second, one reason we have such bitter divisions between educators and policymakers today, and so much frustration among "opt-out" parents, is the sense that school reform is being driven by a distant coterie of self-appointed outsiders. Given where it sits and how little it actually controls, Washington's contribution to schooling is inevitably about the ambitions and sweeping rhetoric of national leaders rather than the pedestrian reality of what these mean in practice. Convening a group of influentials to issue platitudes seems mostly like a recipe for exacerbating frustration and distrust.

Third, you know who is good at national policies? Greece is. Greece has a national economic policy. The Soviet Union was great at national policies. Turns out, national policies aren't all that great. To my eye, history suggests that the United States tends to be particularly dynamic and successful in precisely those sectors where there's nothing like a "national plan." National planning gave us Amtrak; "unplanned" human ingenuity gave us Uber and Lyft. More fundamentally, national policies have the unfortunate effect of empowering talkers and bureaucrats rather than doers.

Now, there's a time and place for national plans. If you're laying out a national power grid or highway system, or reorganizing the military, all right. But these are concrete tasks over which national leaders can exercise much control. Education is a very different animal.

Anyway, my bottom line is: Good guy, lousy idea.

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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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