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A new federal role

Dear Deb,

I think we just found a very important area of agreement! You said in your last post, “The fewer direct consequences there are—rewards or punishments—associated with such data collection, the greater the likelihood that it will be honest. We need less of the Texas ‘miracle’ and Enron-style data, and more of the ‘academic’ type.”

So maybe you are willing to agree with my plan for the reauthorization of NCLB. Yes, we should have national standards and national tests, but there should be no federal role in punishing or rewarding schools based on the results of the tests. You probably are still opposed to national standards, but you can’t have tests unless there is agreement about what is to be tested. The tests must be based on the curriculum and the standards.

So, yes, let the feds provide the extra money needed to educate children with disabilities, children who need to learn English, and children who are low-income. Let the feds run a sound research program. Let them award grants and fellowships to attract new teachers into important specialty fields where there are shortages. Let them hand out blue ribbons to successful schools. But keep the feds out of the business of telling schools how to reform themselves.

Having worked in the U.S. Department of Education, I can tell you that there are a lot of truly intelligent and thoughtful people there (many of them are the same people who were there 15 years ago when I worked there as Assistant Secretary in charge of the Office of Education Research and Information). Wonderful people, but I don’t think that there were many people who knew how to run a school. Frankly, there is no capacity at the federal level—not in the executive branch and not in the legislative branch—to tell the nation’s schools what they should do.

Some people think that state departments of education lack the capacity to run schools, which is why state takeovers have been such a big disappointment. Nonetheless, one of the end-of-the-line sanctions in NCLB is that states may take over failing schools. And when they get them, what are they supposed to do with them? I wish there were an example of a successful state takeover. I don’t know of any.

So, yes, we agree that democracy matters. It matters in the management of public schools and it matters in the workplace. And I am drawn to your comment that a well-educated person is someone with the disposition and tools “to exercise, defend and revise our judgments about an incompletely known world.” When people take a stand and resolutely refuse to listen to counter-arguments or to contrary evidence, then either the subject is religion or the person is clinging to ideology.


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