Crime, Punishment, and the Edu-Alamo

by guestblogger Andy Smarick

Well, friends, it’s Friday, so that means my weeklong respite at the Eduwonk beach house is coming to a close.  And the timing is actually working out quite well.

My redoubt against the man is about to be overrun by the authorities.  My transgressions this week were too much to bear.  The barbarians are at the gate, and I can hear the manacles a-clanging.

But before the walls are breached, I want to revisit the federalism issue once more and consider recommendations made by folks with whom I generally agree.

My former colleagues at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute have never gotten the credit they deserve for a document they produced on the edu-federalism debate in 2008.  It isn’t going too far to say that they framed the issue better than anyone else had at the time and that their ideas ultimately shaped—or at least coincidentally mirrored—the course the Obama team took.

They dismissed three groups of advocates—those who think the system is fine as is, those who believe the feds can solve anything to which its attention turns, and those who want total local control.

TBFI’s alternative was something called “Reform Realism,” which paradoxically tries to meld urgency with modesty—we desperately want improvement, but there’s only so much that we can do!  Despite this tension, TBFI’s sketch of a path forward remarkably foreshadowed Common Core, PARCC/SB, Race to the Top, and the administration’s waiver approach on accountability.

I have to give them massive credit for either their prescience or their persuasiveness.  You can’t read this four-year old document and not see today’s landscape.

Two other friends and former colleagues, Rick Hess and Andrew Kelly at AEI, recently penned a very smart article for National Affairs of this very subject.  They argue that a President Romney will be unable to craft a coherent agenda and will be susceptible to faddish and wrongheaded proposals until conservatives decide what the proper federal K-12 role actually is.  Hess and Kelly then give a short but enlightening history lesson on how the right ended up in its current predicament.

Though much of it is persuasive, I think they are too rough on NCLB, calling it “a mess.”  It deserves better than that—though describing it as a “super-sized LBJ-Great Society ESEA” is borderline genius.  Not only is that portrayal pretty close to the truth, it is as fine a rhetorical flourish as I’ve read in some time, perfectly calibrated to generate among conservatives a frisson of revulsion.

But I also think their assessment of Race to the Top is too negative.  They inventory what they believe are its many weaknesses and then determine that the program “disappointed.”  Given its positive influence on so many policies in so many states, it’s impossible for me to judge RTT too harshly.

But perhaps the authors, both of whom have smarts to spare, purposely used criterion-referenced language.  Yes, it may have “disappointed” if the standard were “best federal law of all time.”

But everyone, particularly those of us cynical about government efficacy, should assess federal programs using norm-referenced measures: the far right tail of that distribution is “marginally helpful,” and the mean is “expensive with unintended consequences far outstripping benefits.”  Seen through this lens, I believe RTT was about three standard deviations to the right of the mean.

Ultimately, Hess and Kelly recommend an even more modest federal role than “Reform Realism,” arguing that the feds should act in only two spheres: ensuring the production, collection, and dissemination of meaningful and comparable data, including a robust federal research role; and helping create a policy environment more hospitable to reform and innovation.

The authors’ second set, which includes imaginative ideas related to teacher certification and bankruptcy, represents a novel approach; it’s in the same vein as Hess’s Education Unbound.  I’m not convinced yet, but I am intrigued.

Though I need to keep thinking about this, here’s my position.  Both TBFI and Hess-Kelly put entirely too much faith in common standards and assessments, comparable data, information dissemination, and transparency.  Some time ago, I realized, at great personal pain, that competition wasn’t making urban school systems better.

But I soon recognized that this spoke much more to the terminal dysfunction of urban districts than the efficacy of competition.  I now feel the same about these data-associated elements.  We’ve had tests and reporting requirements in too many states for too long concomitant with little to no student improvement for me to believe any longer that transparency and accountability are the levers we need.

Overall, Reform Realism, though it accurately captures the policy environment today, still feels like Reform Defeatism to me.  It concedes the feds can only do so much—a contention with which I agree—and re-empowers states and districts.  But its only answer to, “But what about when some states and districts behave badly like they did before NCLB, and kids suffer?” is a shrug of the shoulders.  That I can’t abide.

And this is why the Hess-Kelly second category appeals to me.  It recognizes the serious systemic problems at the state and local levels, and provides the feds with a set of tools that strike me as consistent with the 10th amendment and yet strong enough to influence conditions on the ground.

Well, that’s it.  My public catharsis has done enough damage to the blogosphere and policymaking.  No need for Santa Anna to plan the final assault.  I’m going Raskolnikov on all of you.  My conscience dictates I take this into my own hands.  Siberia beckons.

Thanks for reading.  It was great to be back.

2 Replies to “Crime, Punishment, and the Edu-Alamo”

  1. Well, in Siberia, you will run into parents and students, like the following, who are invisible in the public/mass media “debate” on education:

    The combination of the lack of genuine interest in the viewpoints of students and the corporate reform-friendly atmosphere meant that when I asked questions about the damaging effects of high-stakes testing, I was ignored and treated like a whiny kid. When I wanted to publicly grill Secretary of Education Arne Duncan about the rise of cheating scandals, teacher turnover, and testing under his reign, I wasn’t allowed to speak. And, time and time again, the moderators failed to ask the tough questions. I could very easily infer that few of these moderators were versed in the field.

    It’s frustrating to imagine how groundbreaking this event could have been. Most of the big-ticket policymakers and education reform celebrities were in town. Provocative pundits were storming the sessions. A presidential candidate decided to show up. And the general American public was glued to their televisions, watching NBC’s programming at home. But, because of the narrow viewpoints represented, NBC missed an unprecedented opportunity to move the needle on the education conversation.

    Next year, instead of grouping everyone into siloed town halls, the summit should feature all the stakeholders—students, parents, educators, policymakers, and administrators—all at the same table. It should address “student-led ideas, disruptive solutions, and true innovation.”

  2. Right Phillip, cuz, it’s all about the children, doncha know?

    I wonder if reformers could learn anything from the lived experiences of school children…nahhhh, can’t quantify, too subjective, won’t fit econometric models, biased towards recess.

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