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The Inevitability of a Robust Federal Role in Education

Note: Alexander M. Hoffman, the president of AleDev Research and a former high school teacher, is guest blogging this week. You can contact him [email protected]

In his first book, Spinning Wheels, Rick Hess pointed out that local education policy often changes quite quickly in a process he called "policy churn." He explained that this is a common consequence of the sometimes rapid turnover in district superintendents and their desire to install their own policies.

Since I first read this book, I have spent countless hours thinking about this dynamic, where it comes from, and what it might tell us about other contexts. I believe that its lessons are also applicable to the federal context that Rick is so distrustful of.

1) I think it is fair to say that those who rise high within organizations and/or get plum jobs are usually ambitious and intelligent. I think in the context of education, we can also say that they are well-meaning. Whether at the local, state or federal level, they really are doing their best, and believe that their best can make a difference for education and children. 

(Of course, others may disagree with their goals and may criticize their lack of particular experience or knowledge. But superintendents, members of Congress or even their policy advisors are rarely stupid, deeply cynical, or lazy. They may be wrong sometimes—or even often—but that should not be blamed on stupidity, laziness or general apathy.)

2) Clearly, there is usually a bias for action and initiative in almost all contexts. How often, in the face of some crisis or even the risk of such crisis, do people say, "Well, we can't sit and do nothing!" When outcomes matter, we want action, whereas being patient and thoughtful while monitoring the situation is rarely considered action. Thoughtful contemplation and planning are more often derided than lauded. I think that the basic dynamic of policy churn in Rick's first book makes this clear.

Of course, education and the future of our children matter. Therefore, of course, we must do things. We must take initiative.

3) All of this brings me to Washington, D.C. (in whose shadow both Rick and I grew up). 

Imagine that you were the President of the United States, more or less universally accepted as the most powerful position in the world. Or, imagine that you were a merely member of "the world's greatest deliberative body" (i.e., the Senate) or its partner (i.e., the House of Representatives). All of these positions are positions of power. Each of them could be the pinnacle of a very accomplished life.

If you were powerful, what problems would you want to address? Well, if you read Education Week, you would want to address education, obviously. If you were intelligent, hardworking and thought you had achieved a position of power, of course you would try to tackle education! I know that I would. And it would be incredibly difficult for me to think that I was powerless to address this important issue. After all, what is point of having all that power if you cannot help our children?

Frankly, senior people within the US Department of Education are no less intelligent, hardworking or accomplished than our senior elected officials. Of course they want to help our children, and books like Spinning Wheels make it clear that local districts often do need help.

Why should we be surprised that people in D.C. are at risk for overreaching? The human traits that lead them to want to influence local education policy and practice really aren't any different than the factors that make new district superintendents want to influence policy and practice in their school districts. The policy churn problem is actually just one manifestation of deep human motivations that lead all kinds of powerful people to overreach.

4) We actually live in an interesting era in this regard. First, Republicans believe that undoing things in Washington counts as action and initiative. John Boehner was quite clear when he said, "We should not be judged by how many new laws we create; we ought to be judged on how many laws that we repeal." At the same time, the role of the federal government in education has grown enormously in the last fifteen years.

To me, this suggests that conservatives in Washington are not less prone to action on education than liberals. Our past four presidents—two Republican and two Democratic—all wanted to be The Education President and members of the Congress of both parties supported them. I would argue that it is only Arne Duncan's extreme overreach—from which President Obama obviously cannot distance himself—that has given conservatives a good target to ­undo, while still satisfying the natural desire for action and also satisfying the common desire of the highly accomplished to take initiative.

So, Rick, do you think I have any of these pieces wrong? If not, don't conservatives like you need to wrestle with these basic dynamics and human pressures when thinking about Washington's future role in education? Once federal actors have undone enough, is there really any reason to think that they won't try to do again? If I am right, what you wantfor the feds to stand downalmost goes against human nature. That is not say that your vision for the federal role in education is necessarily wrong-headed (though, of course, it still might be), but rather it suggests that it may not ever be achievableat least not for more than a hot minute.

--Alexander M. Hoffman

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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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