There is a lot to like in the Obama Administration’s blueprint for a new Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The idea of college and career ready standards, a push for innovation, attention to public school choice, and some big changes around programs intended to support better teaching are all good as priorities. And this proposal clearly tries to weave together the various policy themes the administration has championed to date through its school improvement grants, Race to the Top, and I3. That’s good, too. But there seems to be a four-pronged problem that isn’t getting a lot of attention in the generally effusive praise.
First, the document is largely aspirational. It’s hard to argue with the priorities but the action is in the details. You’d think that at some point the administration would get wise to the problems of leaving the details of major policy priorities to the Congress. Given the suburban composition of the House there is a real risk that this ends up being a piece of legislation that lets suburban districts off the hook for educating under-served kids. Chris Edley gives voice to some of that in The Times write-up of this. It’s fine to focus intensive intervention efforts on the most seriously dysfunctional schools but the data clearly show that serious and life-constraining achievement gaps exist in all kinds of communities.
On the other hand, assuming they have some assurances from leaders in Congress, this may be a smart strategy since if the goal is to maintain accountability there will be fewer changes than you might think. The document implicitly recognizes the reality that much of the No Child policy was misconstrued in the public debate and/or poorly implemented by states and school districts. For instance the blueprint makes the point that new accountability systems will reward success as well as point out failure. Well, the old law specified that states should do exactly that for Title I schools. Few did in a meaningful way. Likewise, the idea of customized interventions in low-performing schools is not new, the current law specifies that. Hence, despite the rhetoric, you can’t find examples of schools being completely restructured because one subgroup of students lags behind. In fact, when states were even encouraged to come up with even more customized approaches as part of a pilot program that Secretary Spellings offered they came up pretty lame.
But this raises the second problem: The plan relies on state capacity and will and arguably over-relies on it. The track record there is not good and that may prove to be an enormous implementation hurdle for this plan. Ambitions for the states outstrip what they can do right now or what they want to do. In fact, a close reading of the Race to the Top applications shows that while you’ve got a few outliers on the high side (less than 16, one can only assume that cut off for finalists was a substantial natural break in the scores) most states were pretty unimpressive even when presented with that opportunity. And the kind of accountability systems the administration envisions are a long way from reality right now in most states, how will that problem be bridged without creating a (much wanted by many interest groups) hiatus from today’s pressure for school improvement. Finally, absent federal pressure, what evidence is there that all (or even most) states will remain ambitious on accountability, especially for under-served populations?
Third, on the politics, how is this not 2007 all over again? The teachers unions hate it, the Republicans on the Hill seem to be lying in wait, and so you again have an enthusiastic secretary and a seasoned reform leader in George Miller trying to draw to an inside straight. So that’s your third problem here, what’s the political strategy? The glimmer of hope seems to be some desire for bipartisanship after health care. But now it seems that almost however things go this week the environment will poisonous on the other side. And given the context of this election year, what is the incentive for Republicans to hand Democrats a win on a top priority?
Finally, also on the politics, so far the political detractors of common standards are having trouble getting traction because it’s hard to paint an initiative with a lot of Republican governors on board as a big federal power grab. But common standards are a linchpin on this proposal (assuming it is supposed to happen with any rigor) so does that threaten to drag that effort into the partisan back and forth? It’s not as though the perception of Washington overreach isn’t a potent political issue right now…