Obama held out the promise of a post-racial, post-partisan presidency. He would not reflexively dismiss vouchers or play interest-group politics. Five years on, things have changed. Last month, Obama's Department of Justice filed suit to halt the Louisiana Scholarship Program.


The shutdown is an extreme version of federal politics at play, but it also illuminates how dependence on federal funding inevitably sucks a sector or program into the vortex of national politics and federal politicking. A supersized version of this is playing out in health care, where policy thinkers, advocates, and practitioners (of all stripes) find their ideas caricatured amidst the swirling political currents that surround the Affordable Care Act.


Real change requires much more attention to the second half of the improvement agenda: cultivating and supporting teachers, principals, district leaders, and state officials willing and able to rethink old norms.


Many of the problems reformers are trying to solve are the result less of statutory constraints than of confusion, apathy, ignorance, or excessive caution.


The right response to missteps and disappointments is certainly not to abandon common sense measures. Instead, it is (as I point out in last week's National Affairs essay "The Missing Half of School Reform" to properly appreciate a lesson that the great political scientist James Q. Wilson taught long ago: Formal policy is often no match for the countervailing pressures of localized incentives, institutional cultures, situational imperatives, and internalized obstacles.


On Wednesday, I discussed the thesis of my new National Affairs article "The Missing Half of School Reform." One of the inevitable, appropriate questions people respond with is for examples of where "reform" efforts have come up short. Today, let's touch on two examples.


On Monday, National Affairs published my new article, "The Missing Half of School Reform." In it, I argue that the contemporary school reform movement risks being undone by a failure to cultivate, encourage, and support the leaders, lawyers, state and district officials, and educators charged with turning reform from theory to practice.


Indeed, look closely at what Duncan's been up to, and it's only too easy to see Duncan's Department of Education as a sprawling octopus, with its tentacles entwined in education policy down to the individual district level.


If our "national experts" can't bring themselves to come out and just say "Kids should know when the Civil War was" it's not clear that "an inquiry arc of interlocking and mutually reinforcing elements" will help kids find out.


For a decade or more, school reform has been an urban tale of superintendents seeking to "turn around" schools in poverty-stricken communities, where vast numbers of children read below grade level and drop out before graduation. Douglas County, one of the nation's most affluent communities and a Republican bastion, provides a stark counterpoint to the familiar narrative.


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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