There is a lot of excitement (NYT here, Ed Week here) about the new stimulus guidance from the Department of Education (pdf). And sure, the emphasis on data, benchmarking student achievement, teacher effectiveness and charter schools (pdf) is great from a reform perspective. But the guidance vividly shows the difference between requirements and assurances as levers for reform in federal policy. And because – for whatever reason, and accounts vary – reform was included in the stimulus bill only via the latter, assurances, the Department is now playing a weak hand in a game with some accomplished bluffers. Charlie Barone does a better job of explaining the dynamic in plain English than I did in describing the $5 on $600 problem, but we both agree that the game is now the “race to the top” fund and an effort to influence a $600 billion annual industry with a one-time infusion of $5 billion (and less than that really).
More generally, anyone who still thinks that shining a light on states is enough to get them to dramatically improve their schools hasn’t been paying attention — for decades. Federal policymakers have tried that approach on a range of issues from higher education to teacher education to all manner of K-12 issues and it’s had little effect. The states are pretty good at gaming the data or even presenting it in ways that can actually make bad situations look good to the uninitiated. Besides, is the problem really a lack of information about the problems per se? I don’t think anyone influential is sitting around wondering whether or not teacher evaluations are any good or if all states have challenging standards and tests for students.
In other words, the theory of action here has three flaws and just two ways out. The flaw are that, first, the problem is not an absence of information about the problems, it’s political will. Second, many/most states are not chomping at the bit to improve their schools. Again, political will and often dysfunctional politics. And third, most of the money will flow before the chance to have real teeth in the policy comes.
Two ways out. First, if the administration is laying the groundwork to get Congress to move on these problems then that’s a good plan but absent a whole lot more money to invest and a willingness to throw a lot of political capital in, too, it’s a dicey strategy given all the variables. And second, per the above, pulling a rabbit out of the hat with the “race to the top” fund.