Spend enough time in education policy, and you’re bound to hear someone articulate the concept that federal education policy should be “tight-loose.” That is, federal policy should be “tight” on the expectations for what students should know and be able to do, but “loose” on how students and schools meet those expectations. The Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s Mike Petrilli has been one of the most active champions of this concept, articulating in a 2011 “Briefing Book” (with Checker Finn, Fordham’s President at the time) exactly how this tight-loose construction should work. (The slogan became so ubiquitous that Fordham released a joke video in 2013 where “tight loose” played a prominent role.)
But times have changed, and although you may hear the same phrase, it no longer means what it used to. Petrilli now supports a Senate bill, the Every Child Achieves Act (ECAA), that is loose on goals AND loose on means.
I’m not just aiming potshots at Petrilli for the sake of it. I consider Mike a friend, but I find it troubling that he and others seem willing to walk away from his good policy ideas simply because the political winds today are less friendly to federal involvement in education policy.
For my purposes here, Petrilli presents the opportunity to show that what used to pass for a sensible, “reform realist” conservative policy is now considered anathema. So as a useful historical exercise, here’s a list of key policy issues with how Fordham circa 2011 proposed tackling it, compared with how today’s ECAA does it. On nearly every aspect, the ECAA is looser than what Fordham and Petrilli supported just a few years ago:
|Fordham: “As a condition of receiving federal Title I funds, require states to adopt the Common Core standards in reading and math, OR to demonstrate that their existing standards are just as rigorous as the Common Core. Standards developed apart from the Common Core initiative would be peer reviewed at the federal level by a panel of state officials and content-matter experts…”
ECAA: States must “provide an assurance that the State has adopted challenging academic content standards and aligned academic achievement standards,” but states are not required to submit their standards to anyone.
|Fordham: “As a condition of receipt of Title I funds, require states to set achievement standards such that students will be college- and career-ready by the time they graduate from high school. Require states to back-map achievement standards down to at least third grade, so that passing the state assessment in each grade indicates that a student is on track to graduate from twelfth grade ready for college or a career. States…would have their standards peer reviewed at the federal level by a panel of state officials and content-matter experts.”
ECAA: States must establish goals, “that take into account the progress necessary for all students and each of the categories of students to graduate from high school prepared for postsecondary education or the workforce without the need for postsecondary remediation,” but there is no federal oversight and the Secretary is explicitly prohibited from establishing any “criterion that specifies, defines, or prescribes…the specific goals that States establish.”
|Fordham: “In the spirit of “tight-loose” and transparency, we think it’s reasonable for the federal government to require, as condition of Title I funding, that states be able to measure student growth.”
ECAA: Student growth is left to state discretion, and the Secretary is explicitly prohibited from requiring states to measure student growth.
|Fordham: “Require states to develop grade-level science standards; for history (or history/civics/geography), require standards in at least three grade bands. Require annual testing in science and at least one test in history in each of the elementary, middle, and high school levels.”“States must report separately their schools’ reading, math, science, and history scores.”
ECAA: States must develop standards in science. They must test students in science at least once per grade band and release the results on state report cards. States may also administer assessments in other subjects at their discretion.
|School Accountability Measures
|Fordham: “State rating systems cannot be pass/fail, but should indicate a range of effectiveness.”“All schools should be judged, at least in part, by how many of their students are on a trajectory to reach college and career readiness by the end of the twelfth grade.”
“Individual student growth must feed into a school’s rating system, though states should have the flexibility to determine the specifics of this requirement. States must have data systems that make this possible.”
ECAA: States must establish “a system of annually identifying and meaningfully differentiating among all public schools in the State” that include student proficiency and graduation rates, in significant part, plus at least one other “valid and reliable indicator of school quality,” but states are free to weight factors as they choose and omit student growth. At their discretion, states could give schools binary pass/fail ratings.
|Fordham: “State rating systems must incorporate subgroup performance into school ratings. Schools may not receive the highest rating if any of their subgroups is performing poorly.”
ECAA: State accountability systems must include all students and subgroups of students, but the bill does not include any protections if individual subgroups are low-performing.
In sum, although some conservatives may want to claim the ECAA is tight on goals and loose on means, it’s actually loose on both. If the bill goes forward as is, I think conservatives like Mike Petrilli will regret everything they gave up to get a bill, any bill, through this Congress. That’s a shame, because there is a small-c conservative vision for federal education policy that has real merit. It would start with setting national priorities for transparency on measures that matter (like student growth and college-readiness) and add in a strong federal role in research and innovation. One potential path forward would be to hold states accountable for student outcomes while leaving the details (content standards, assessments, curricula, interventions, and more) to the discretion of each state. The ECAA has none of those things. It’s just loose-loose.