Arne Duncan is threatening waivers and Congress is grumbling. There is howling on the right and left about the feds being too pushy and punishing schools and teachers. Anecdotes and accusations fly, and lawyers have leapt into the edu-fray.
It is getting awfully noisy, and ear-splitting politics seldom produces smart policy. So how about a summer’s end education policy reset?
President Obama should hold an education beer summit.
To encourage bonhomie and keep egos in-check, gaudy Hawaiian shirts and baggy shorts should be required attire for attendees (Arne Duncan, George Miller, John Kline, etc.) And to keep the discussion fact-based and rational, everyone should arrive prepared to discuss Paul Manna’s Collision Course: Federal Education Policies Meet State and Local Realties (CQ Press, 2011).
In this trim book, Manna, a William and Mary professor, judiciously reviews all the credible studies available about NCLB and its implementation. The result? An even-handed assessment that clarifies the law’s strengths (e.g., increased school focus on disadvantage students) and weaknesses (e.g., test-gaming). Manna’s big find is that:
“NCLB created positive momentum and inspiring results in some states and local communities … [but] overall its theories of action were fundamentally in conflict with the institutional landscape on which American schooling operates. That conflict prevented NCLB from realizing the grandest ambitions of its authors and from avoiding problems that plagued prior ESEA reauthorizations.”
To further help policymakers move forward, Manna also identifies five big things that the feds tend to do well in education policy. Washington is good at:
1. Focusing public attention on school problems;
2. Providing money to needy schools;
3. Creating incentives to change school-level behavior;
4. Gathering and publishing useful data and information on education; and
5. Creating conditions that help state and local education reformers succeed.
These lessons are broad, but they would provide a sensible basis for discussing how to improve NCLB’s centerpiece, Title I, and maybe the entire federal role in schooling.
But none of this can happen without presidential leadership. So, come on back to DC, Mr. President. Get those invitations issued, and send out Joe Biden to grab a case or two of cold ones.
Kevin R. Kosar edits the Federal Education Policy History website.