The Anxiety of an Edu-Compassionate Conservative

by guestblogger Andy Smarick

Eleven years ago I was a legislative assistant to a US Congressman, and K-12 was in my portfolio.  NCLB was making its way through the House, and the congressman was leaning against.  I took it upon myself to change his mind.

I gave him our state testing data showing enormous achievement gaps.  This legislation, I argued, was social justice for disadvantaged kids.  Standards, assessments, accountability, and transparency were not only reasonable but also necessary.  We had to do something about failing schools.  You have to vote for this legislation!

Ten years later I was Deputy Education Commissioner of New Jersey, and I was leading our effort to write a waiver to free our state from NCLB.

Were I interested in reputational self-protection, I’d take the easy way out and simply say that America learned a great deal over that decade; that I was right as a zealous 26-year old to agitate, and I was right as a wiser, more prudent 36-year old to retrench.

But that’s not how I feel.  To this day, I’m deeply conflicted about the proper role of the federal government in our schools.  As I alluded to yesterday, as a blogger, but more importantly, as a guy who’s done a good bit of education policy making and writing, I ought to have an answer.  And I don’t.

NCLB did much more good than most people today are willing to admit.  It advanced standards, assessments, accountability, and choice, and it elevated expectations and demanded results for our most underserved kids.

But its flaws are also manifest—the use of attainment instead of growth, HQT, the lack of nuance in labeling schools, the timid interventions for failure.

Add to this list the creed of my colleagues on the political right—one to which I am instinctively partial—that NCLB was a federal overreach.  My conservative philosophy tells me that the feds should be light-touch with schools.  States should have power, and DC-emanating, uniform dictates (whether in education or elsewhere) are typically a recipe for grand folly.

But somehow we seem to have forgotten that America actually has experience with a K-12 system of ascendant states and an enervated Uncle Sam.  It’s called the pre-NCLB era…one where urban districts performed appallingly for decades, where suburban achievement gaps gaped, where choices for the disadvantaged were rare, where accountability was diluted.

But such meddlesome facts are now lost in the haze of history and histrionics.  Today, it is easier to vehemently charge NCLB with being a domestic policy party crasher instead of what it actually was: an eagerly invited guest.  And so we have what Michael Gerson derisively refers to as the “waiver revolution,” in which I—apparently as some sort of New Jersey Jacobin—participated, colluding in “the broad institutionalization of lowered expectations.”

The Obama Administration’s ESEA waivers were designed to ameliorate NCLB’s deficiencies.  They put states back in the driver’s seat with labels, interventions, and more.  The waivers also concede that Uncle Sam can only do so much in K-12.  And the application’s designation of three small categories of schools (priority, focus, and reward) indicate that SEAs are limited as well, meaning local districts are really in charge.  This all certainly pleases many of NCLB’s most strident critics.

I believe firmly that my colleagues and I in New Jersey—and likeminded friends in some other states—approached the waivers the right way.  We were committed to high expectations, achievement, accountability, and flexibility.  Our application reflects that.

But my experience over the last decade, particularly my time outside of the beltway, has taught me that for all of the passionate national talk about closing achievement gaps and expanding opportunity, this rhetoric, this set of beliefs, didn’t permeate the field as deeply as many believe.  Cynics and doubters abound.

Seen in this light, the waivers, now given away like candy, open the door to not only outright mischief, but also the type of subtle pre-NCLB languidness that ill-served disadvantaged boys and girls.  To be clear, I think strong governors and bold, reform-minded state chiefs will advance the interests of kids via waiver flexibility.  But those conditions don’t exist everywhere.  But kids do.

So what in the world am I to do?  My conservative philosophy and my studied understanding of public policy generally tell me to trust states and locals and to recoil from a presumptuous, voracious federal government.  So should I celebrate NCLB’s demise and embrace the waiver revolution?

But my ideology has to end at the water’s edge of kids’ futures.  I can’t ignore history’s lesson that lots of vulnerable students suffered grievously, continuously, and with little notice prior to NCLB.  I can’t ignore that some leaders have lower expectations for the disadvantaged, and that some organizations argue that we’ll never solve education until we solve poverty.  And I can’t ignore that when these factors are combined with the dissipation of federal pressure via the waivers, that a probable consequence in some places is decreased urgency about the fortunes of needy kids, especially those in the vast body of “uncategorized” schools.

So I’m torn, unable, despite a decade of thinking, to imagine a reauthorized ESEA that gets the balance right.  Wither my value as a blogger and policy guy.

As much as I’d like this to my own moving cri de coeur, because of the quadrennial, I’m compelled to send it through today’s presidential prism.  And the view is startling.

Should Governor Romney be elected, he will have a daunting K-12 gauntlet to run.  Because of the nation’s huge debt, conservative backlash to federal schools overreach, the growing unease over Common Core, the Obama Administration’s bent for nontrivial reform, and many other complicating variables, a President Romney will have to thread more needles than a seamstress.

How should he address overall spending levels, the proportion of federal education funds dedicated to formula-based programs, the growth of competitive grant programs, Obama initiatives like Race to the Top and i3, federal guidance on teacher evaluations, and much more?

But in the end, all of these are simply proxy wars of the larger ideological K-12 struggle of our time:  What exactly is the right role for the federal government in our schools?

And during his first months in office, a President Romney will face the flashpoint that has me tied in knots:  What in the world do we do with NCLB, and what do we make of these waivers?

As I figure it, if I’m to regain my blogger street cred, and if I’m going to be of any value as a conservative ed policy person, I have 34 days to make good.  For the next few days at least, you can track my struggles and development here, where I’ll, among other things, discuss some of the proposals on the table.

PS: I’ve locked myself in the Eduwonk studios like Sandler, Buscemi, and Fraser in Airheads, so my blog license is secure for the time being.  Stay tuned.

8 Replies to “The Anxiety of an Edu-Compassionate Conservative”

  1. Eleven years ago I was a legislative assistant to a US Congressman, and K-12 was in my portfolio. NCLB was making its way through the House, and the congressman was leaning against. I took it upon myself to change his mind.

    I gave him our state testing data showing enormous achievement gaps. This legislation, I argued, was social justice for disadvantaged kids. Standards, assessments, accountability, and transparency were not only reasonable but also necessary. We had to do something about failing schools.
    So, how much did NCLB narrow the achievement gaps in Maryland?

  2. “We’ll never solve education until we solve poverty.”

    How did that one ever get started? I’ve never in my life heard anyone say that except on these blogs. People are not stupid and they know “the poor will always be with us.”

    What people DO say is that since there is a very close relationship between poverty and academic achievement we need to find out how to improve the living conditions of our low-income children. If we could alleviate some of the EFFECTS of poverty, we might be able to help our least privileged children do better in school.

    Sometimes problems are so huge and so complex that it is difficult to know how to even begin to solve them. This is how it is with education. However, when you look at individual children, it’s much easier to see the direction that we should take. Here are some fairly typical situations you will see in a high-poverty school:

    “Janet” is starting kindergarten. She doesn’t know her name (Calls herself “Honey”) her address, or phone number. She cannot identify a single letter of the alphabet or count more than three objects. She cannot recite a single nursery rhyme and does not recognize nursery stories, such as The Three Little Pigs. Janet is English-speaking and appears to be of normal intelligence.

    “Jason” is in the fourth grade. He lives with his grandmother and often refuses to go to school. His elderly guardian usually gives in and lets him stay home to watch TV or play video games. Jason missed sixty-two days of school last year.

    “Mary” has Type I diabetes but it is not under good control. She often comes to school without her snacks and sometimes the teacher suspects she has not had her insulin. Once or twice a week, her teacher sends Mary to the office and the principal sends her home.

    Teachers in low-income schools will recognize the children I have described. These children suffer the EFFECTS of poverty.

    How can we help these children? Would you choose merit pay, testing and the weakening of due process for teachers? Or would you select preschool, social workers and school health clinics? Would you choose experienced teachers with track records of success for these children or would you assign a recent college graduate as we’ve been doing since the 1950s?

    Another thing we know is that when you place mainly low-achieving children in one school, you will get a low-achieving school. When you place high-achieving children in one school, you get a “good” school. We need to find a way to put an end to the status quo of education by zip code. I would like to see subsidized housing in all communities, jobs for low-income parents in all communities and open enrollment in all schools. Segregating poor children hurts the children and it hurts the country.

    We’ve had over 50 years of data telling us that the effects of poverty have a very negative effect on the achievement of children. It’s time to heed the research.

    As for NCLB, if you were at a low income school, you would see the damage this legislation has done to our poorest and youngest students. It’s a crime. And please don’t cite any test scores. These tests have no security and are almost totally invalid.

    You sound like a man searching for the truth. Visit some urban schools and contrast them with those in the leafy suburbs. It’s time to stop the status quo of education by zip code.

  3. I agree with you that the argument about the proper role of the federal gov’t in education is an important and enduring one, but aside from that, there were two intellectual flaws that doomed NCLB from the beginning.

    First, we often get lazy with language and then get lazy with thought, and the sloppy assertion that SCHOOLS in high poverty are “failing” because they have low test scores is as silly and unscientific as claiming cops in the inner-city are failing because crimes rates are higher there. Conflating student outcomes with quality of schooling, without controlling for all the intervening variables is about as good a recipe for an expensive educational policy failure as I can imagine. Thus, we got the harmful misadventures of NCLB and RttT, and make no mistake about it, our current coercive cookie-cutter policies are driving good teachers out of teaching and making many promising prospective teachers make other career plans.

    Second, we’re confusing education with manufacturing. All the rhetoric and policies of the last decade confuse kids with cars and learning with manufacturing. Kids aren’t cars, what works great for making cars is a disaster for growing kids. It doesn’t matter what state or federal level policy choices are made–as long as they pressure schools to provide factory-style schooling, American education will continue to putt-putt along in second gear, wasting tons of resources and squandering human potential.

    Great post Linda!

  4. You seem to be about half way there, Andy. Linda and Karl lay pretty effectively the deep flaws in our societal approach to the essential issues of educational policy. NCLB, RttT, and the rest are symptoms of a larger disconnect between policy theory and classroom reality. Nothing Obama or any politician can do or propose will yield the results education reformers and pundits desire.

  5. Linda: Good points, as usual. I agree with you that the effects of poverty (and, more broadly, of family/culture) have a tremendous impact on educational achievement.

  6. Jeffrey,
    With regards to my comment a few weeks ago about the failure of the Great Society anti-poverty programs, I refer more to the failure of them to be defended and maintained. Poverty has risen in this country over the past decade, yet it got no mention from from President Obama the other night.
    Rep. Ryan wants to eviscerate Medicaid and it warrants barely a mention from our “liberal” politicians and the “mainstream media.”
    Our liberals nowadays want poverty to be solved by a great teacher.
    Then the failure for the numbers and percentages of the poor to be reduced can be blamed on the individual – the bad teacher, the indolent poor- rather than working to solve what it is in our society and political and economic systems that leave them poor.

  7. Karl makes a very good point: “Conflating student outcomes with quality of schooling, without controlling for all the intervening variables is about as good a recipe for an expensive educational policy failure as I can imagine.”

    As both a former student and former teacher, I have never understood why politicians and reformers try to label SCHOOLS as good or bad in and of themselves: Each school is a product of its students, teachers, parents and administrators.

    When my friends and family try to buy homes in a ‘good school district’ that’s basically saying that they want a high-SES school. What they care about is mostly the other students and parents who comprise the school population. That said, high-SES schools are also usually able to attract more experienced teachers, so you get the best of both worlds (good students and teachers).

    No one says: “I want to send my kid to a low-SES school in a bad neighborhood because they have a great staff.”

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