A Federal Policy of Activating State Lawmaking?

There’s a critical if little-noticed fork in the road for “national education policy” and it looks now as if the Obama administration, to its credit, is going to take both paths.

When the discussion gets serious about implementation people realize they’re looking down one road where the signpost points toward treating improvement as a ‘performance’ problem, and down another where the signpost points toward ‘redesign’.

The first road accepts the existing arrangement of system and school and looks simply to get districts, schools, teachers and students to do-better. The second insists that improvement requires changing the arrangements for ‘school’ and creating different—even radically different—approaches to learning.

The risk is that a national government with a strong sense of its own role will see improvement as a problem of improving performance. Why? Because the federal government cannot re-design either system or school. K-12 exists in state law, and neither executive action nor Congressional legislation can directly change state law. The temptation, as a result, is to do what the federal government has traditionally done with the major domestic systems it does not directly own and control: to try to effect change by hanging requirements and mandates on its grants-in-aid to the states and local units.

There is some of this in the strategy prepared by Secretary Duncan. But there is also an initiative down the other road; activating the process of state law-making. The President has spoken repeatedly and forcefully about wanting the states to enact chartering laws. It’s not that chartered schools are inherently better schools. It’s that he and Secretary Duncan, like so many foundations and others, understand that chartering is the principal platform on which new, different and better schools can be built.

I—we in Education|Evolving—wish Mr. Obama would some day actually appear before the legislature of some state, saying directly: “This is your system. Washington can’t change it. Only the states can change it. We will help. But it’s basically your responsibility.” Saying ‘school’ has to be different and that this requires new schools and that only the states can open the way for this.

Perhaps some day he will. Clearly with the push for chartering laws he’s starting to move down that road, toward the activation of state law-making.

—Guestblogger Ted Kolderie, Education|Evolving

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2 thoughts on “A Federal Policy of Activating State Lawmaking?

  1. Steve Peha

    Dear Ted,

    Been enjoying your posts re: charter schools. As I understand it, you’re very much in favor of charters, would like to see more of them, and would like to see more federal involvement in getting states to lift their charter lids, etc. I have also visited your website and so I figure you get a lot of your money from charters and that your positions are driven to some extent by your belief in charters as a vital concept in reform regardless of any individual charter school might perform. Am I right about this?

    I’m all with you there. However…

    I’m not really thrilled with what I’ve seen from the charter world to date. Yes, there have been some successes. But there have been some successes in public, private, and parochial schools, too. In a system as large as ours, there are always going to be some successes. This in no way diminishes the success of charters but it does put into perspective what charter school legislation has accomplished — not a lot other than the idea of charter schools becoming part of the mainstream of education reform.

    What I would like to see are more TRULY REVOLUTIONARY schools. I would like to see schools that use TRULY REVOLUTIONARY curriculum and TRULY REVOLUTIONARY teaching methods. This might even mean foregoing state standards and state tests because it is obvious to me that the best schools I’ve visited are merely held back by the traditional assumptions contained in these two approaches to reform.

    The problem is that I don’t see really interesting teaching and learning ANYWHERE — even in the most successful schools in our country. I see it only in schools set up as “labs” or “research” schools. And in these cases, I truly believe we have a chance of finding out some interesting things about teaching and learning — as long as academics keep themselves grounded in reality. (A tough one, I know.)

    So what I’d like to see is this: New legislation, not for charter schools, but for “research” and “lab” schools. I believe states should get directly into the business of education innovation, just as you suggest. And the sooner, the better.

    To merely charter more schools as has been done in the past will likely produce the same results. However, if states put up money for lab schools based on criteria like — originality of model, viability of replication, potential for new findings, etc., wouldn’t we be serving the cause that charters were supposed to serve in the beginning? Wouldn’t this be “a new theory of action” that one commenter remarked about yesterday?

    Where would you and your company stand on an issue like this?

  2. Dick Schutz

    The idea of charter schools as “reasearch/lab” schools was proposed in 2005 by Corwin and Schneider in “The School Choice Hoax: Fixing America’s Schools.”

    /www.amazon.com/School-Choice-Hoax-Americas-Schools/dp/0275986950/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1248115949&sr=8-1

    Were the idea to be implemented, we’d learn something. As is, we get the same kind of “black box” variability in charters as in non-charters, with more opportunity for corruption and segregation.

    To the criteria of “originality of model, viability of replication, potential for new findings” I’d add: means of determining instructional accomplishment, transparent indicators of instructional status, and plan and time schedule for reporting results.

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