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ESSA's Eerie Parallels: Bureaucratic Déjà vu

In Washington, we're watching one of the less edifying education fights of recent years play out. It began when the state of Delaware submitted its ESSA compliance plan. In response, the DeVos Department of Education decided that the plan was insufficiently ambitious.

The whole thing is a remarkable example of bureaucracy and paper-pushing run amok. The Department of Education explained to Delaware, in its discussion of Title I, Part A:4.iii.a, "[The Delaware Department of Education] proposes to decrease the percentage of non-proficient students in each subgroup by 50% by 2030, which would result in no more than half to two-third of certain subgroups of students achieving proficiency. Because the proposed long-term goals for academic achievement are not ambitious, DDOE must revise its plan to identify and describe long-term goals that are ambitious for all students and for each subgroup of students."

If you find it tough to decipher that, good for you. What it's trying to say is that halving the number of low-performing students by 2030—an astonishing rate of improvement—is not "ambitious." The letter, of course, was signed by the acting assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education. Ahh, Washington.

The Department's reaction has now provoked a full-fledged kerfluffle, including a New York Times story in which acting assistant secretary Jason Botel blandly explained, "Because the statute does not define the word 'ambitious,' the secretary has the responsibility of determining whether a state's long-term goals are ambitious."

Some have cheered and others have jeered Botel's enthusiasm for his role. One could point out that a taste for arbitrary, unserious targets helped sink No Child Left Behind and give accountability a bad name. Me? I swore this all felt remarkably familiar. When I mentioned that to a colleague at Harvard University's Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, she laughed and then forwarded a transcript from the famous "No Farmer Left Behind" June 1957 Politburo meeting in the former Soviet Union. Here's a partial transcript:

General Secretary: Comrades, I call to order this meeting of Politburo Bureau of the Communist Party. We will start by turning to the implementation of our new Every Farmer Succeeds Act. Comrade Minister?

Minister of Agriculture Petrovsky: Thank you, comrade General Secretary. Comrades, you will recall that we adopted the Every Farmer Succeeds Act—EFSA, for short—after various complaints with the No Farmer Left Behind Act. That effort, initiated by the former regime, did not work out as intended.

Minister of the Interior Kirov: I'll say, Mikhail! When we told farmers that they were to ensure that 100% of acres delivered adequate production, we got many complaints. We sent many to Siberia, but others still complained. Just to avoid running low on farmers, is good that we changed strategy.

Petrovsky: Thus, new Every Farmer Succeeds Act. We are working hard to implement. Instead of telling farmers that 100% of acres must produce adequate grain, we now tell them we realize world more complicated than that.

General Secretary: So, what is problem whereof you spoke?

Petrovksy: In giving collectives more flexibility, we still told them to set ambitious targets. Yes? Yet we have encountered resistance from some collectives. In its wisdom, the Politburo told farms they needed to be ambitious. However, my deputy, Comrade Botelinksi, informs me that some of the collectives are only proposing to double production. We have decided that production must go up tenfold. Anything less is not ambitious.

General Secretary: Da. And so?

Petrovsky: We have told collectives to change their plans. They must promise to increase production tenfold.

Kirov: But, is that not what caused problem with No Farmer Left Behind in first place? That no one took targets seriously?

Petrovsky: Comrade, do you want people to go hungry? And, that was last time. This time will be different.

Eerie, isn't it?

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