I really enjoy Mike Petrilli as a colleague and friend but when it comes to policy calls he’s like a teenage driver with a disconcerting tendency to over-correct in every turn. First he was enthusiastically for No Child Left Behind, then enthusiastically against it. First for a big federal role in education, then one of its biggest skeptics. Now, over at the Flypaper blog and in Usually Reliable Robelen’s Ed Week story Petrilli discusses why he doesn’t like the paper that Sara Mead and I just did for Brookings on innovation — even though he used to help lead the Department of Education’s Office of Innovation!
Mike’s argument against our call for a more robust federal role in supporting innovation in education seems to boil down to a belief that because the Bush Administration really screwed up some things like Reading First and Supplemental Services it means federal efforts in innovation more generally are bound to fail. That’s one possible explanation, sure, but it means turning the wheel too far one way to get out of a skid. Instead, another explanation is that the Bush Administration just screwed some things up and that while there are cautionary lessons to be learned, all is not lost. For instance, Mike claims that the “Grow What Works” fund idea amounts to picking favorites. But if you have clear criteria for quality and eligibility and unlike the Reading First implementation you follow them and the law, you can guard against that charge while supporting ideas that work. Likewise, on Supplemental Services, the perverse incentives problem was pretty clear from the start and was aggravated by lax enforcement of the provisions and inattention to quality by the Bush Administration so I’m unclear exactly what lesson we should draw there beyond the lessons of implementation and program design.
In the paper Sara and I look at innovation across the government more generally and in much more depth than the policy brief– and there are real challenges to doing this from the public sector, Mike is hardly wrong about that. But like Mark Twain’s admonition about the cat and the hot stovetop, we should be careful not to overgeneralize from the past eight years.
Update: First Mike and now Jay Greene argue that Sara and I are, in Mike’s words, “claim[ing] that the federal government will magically be able to sweep aside the hurdles that are keeping the KIPPs of the world from growing faster…”
We argue no such thing. We think that federal level efforts could help address federal level barriers but we see the federal to state prodding as being about incentives not mandates and the paper makes that clear. As the history of the federal role in K-12 schools shows, incentives can help change state policy. And, in a tight fiscal climate, tying resources to reform is all the more powerful a lever.