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ESEA Reauthorization: A Certain Gnashing of Teeth

I find myself reading the news regarding the ESEA reauthorization with a certain gnashing of teeth. Fed up with what they see—legitimately—as all-consuming federal overreach, the Congress seeks to move the center of gravity back to the states. But it seems to have no memory of what impelled an equally united Congress to put unprecedented power in the hands of the federal government in the first place. For others who might have forgotten, NCLB owes its existence to the distinct impression among members of Congress of both parties that, notwithstanding enormous expenditures on education measures for low-income and minority students since 1965, the performance of those vulnerable students at the high school level had improved not at all. The Congress had had it, and was determined to hold educators accountable for their performance. They chose, of course, a draconian approach embedded in a goal that was sheer fantasy, with the result that, by the time the Obama administration came into office, almost every school in the United States was on its way to being pronounced a failure.

Well, that didn't work. So now we are going to turn the action back to the states. Say what? It was because the states did not do the job that Congress passed the now-reviled No Child Left Behind in the first place. What, precisely, do we know now that we did not know then that makes us think that the states will do so much better on the next round?  Or is it just that we have to do something and no one knows what else to do?

At a certain level, I can understand the frustration that has now led to an "anything-would-be-better-than-this" attitude. Consider the record of this administration. Its single biggest commitment was to a very good idea very well executed: the Common Core State Standards, which were developed with no assistance whatsoever from the federal government. The initial launch could not have gone better. But the administration could not keep its hands off, despite the best efforts of the top education officers of the states, who begged it not to get involved. By insisting that the states adopt the new standards as a condition of getting urgently needed federal education aid during the Great Recession, the administration handed a gigantic weapon to the opponents of the standards, a weapon those opponents have used to great effect. As I see it, no single entity is more responsible for the effectiveness of the attacks against the Common Core than the Obama administration.

But adoption of the Common Core was not the only top priority of the administration.  Another key to getting Race to the Top funds was a promise from the state applicants to base at least part of a consequential evaluation of teachers on the scores of their students on standardized tests. The instructions did not stop there. Getting federal funds was made contingent on a plan to use these student test scores to determine how much value each teacher was adding to the education of his or her students. Highly regarded scholars told the administration again and again and in great detail why the test data could not and should not be used for this purpose, but the administration chose to hear none of it.

Absurdities abounded, with highly admired teachers laid off, clear indications that good teachers were voluntarily resigning their posts early and many of the best refusing to teach in schools serving low-income and minority students.  Still the administration persisted, to the point that applications of high school graduates to schools of education began to plummet.  If an award were to be given to the organization most responsible for the abysmal morale of schoolteachers in the United States, I would nominate the administration.

So I am deeply sympathetic to those in the Congress and elsewhere who are fed up with the very aggressive role in education policy that the federal government has played in recent years.

And I am in agreement with those who think that education policy in this country ought to be made mainly by the states.  But I am not in agreement with the current view in the Congress that this ought simply to mean pushing that pendulum that went too far in one direction as hard as possible in the other direction.

A recent book by Rick Hanushek and Ludwig Woessmann makes it abundantly clear that the quality of elementary and secondary education is by far the single most important factor in determining a nation's economic output over the long haul. I don't think that the Congress can turn its back on a function that has such an overwhelming effect on our well-being and position in the world. The education of students in any one of our states has a very large bearing on the economic potential of all our states. The federal interest has focused on equity since 1965, but in fact, the national interest in both the quality and the equity of our education system is not trivial; it is vital.

Does that mean that the federal government ought to take over elementary and secondary education in the United States? Absolutely not. But our national government ought to provide an arena in which we have a serious national discussion on education goals, as almost all of the countries that now have top-performing education systems have done in the last 30 years. That discussion needs to focus on testing a proposition, a proposition that constitutes the premise that underpins all of the top-performing systems—the idea that the United States will not impoverish its people by competing on the price of its labor but will seek to provide broadly shared prosperity to all its citizens by competing on the quality of the products and services we offer and therefore on the quality of our workforce. Forty years ago, the United States had the best-educated workforce in the world. Today, according to the OECD, we have one of the least-well-educated workforces in the developed world. That single fact constitutes a mortal threat to our economy and our society. We cannot reverse this appalling slide if only a handful of states are committed to building a modern school system. We need the whole country invested in this goal and that requires national leadership and national commitment.

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But executing on that commitment does not require a national ministry of education or a bull-in-the-china-shop U.S. Department of Education. Once we have that kind of commitment, it will have to be up to the states, with the assistance of the federal government, to realize the national vision, each in its own way.

But what if some states simply don't do that? What if some or many states just try to keep the current non-performing system propped up, simply accommodating all the stakeholders in the future in the same way they have in the past?

Well, say I, then the federal government needs to step in. The Congress could, if it chose to, say to the states something like, "If you come within shooting distance of the achievement and equity performance of the jurisdictions (many the size of U.S. states) that are among the top ten performers on the OECD-PISA league tables, you can organize and run your education system any way you want to. But, if you can't, you need to adopt the policies and practices that the top performers have adopted, because we know those policies and practices work. When you join the ranks of the top performers yourself, you can go back to doing whatever you like, as long as it works."

In this formulation, the federal government does not get to tell the states--any of them--to implement whatever sound or foolish ideas a new administration comes into office with. If the states are performing well, it does not get to tell the states anything at all. If they are not performing well, then all the federal government gets to do is make sure that the states are implementing policies and practices that are known to work at the scale of a state. The federal government gets to act responsibly, but is not allowed to become overbearing. The states get to do what they want, but to do so, they must run effective education systems.

What's the matter with that?

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