Society and Culture, Education

Uncle Sam learns his lessons

education kids

Today, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that after two years of an impasse between the New York City teachers union and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the state would step in and impose its own teacher evaluation system. This desperate move comes after the city lost $240 million in Race to the Top funds earlier this month, despite 700 districts statewide signing on to the state’s initial proposal.

In other news, the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University released new evidence that charter schools that fail to see improvements in student achievement tend to continue to underperform. The report questions the legitimacy of the Obama administration’s School Improvement Grants (SIG) program, which relies substantially on the promise of school “turnarounds,” even after schools have failed to serve students for years.

What do these two news items have in common? They both demonstrate the danger in misunderstanding what the federal government can (and cannot) do well when it comes to improving K-12 schooling.

Fortunately, AEI scholars Rick Hess and Andrew Kelly have looked back on several decades of federal involvement in K-12 education to glean a series of lessons on the appropriate role of the feds. As Hess and Kelly explain in a new AEI Education Outlook drawing on their 2011 book, Carrots, Sticks, and the Bully Pulpit, “Uncle Sam” is uniquely equipped to do some things well, while other actions are best left to state governments, local agencies, or other actors. On the plus side, Hess and Kelly observe, the feds have “enjoyed success in ensuring constitutional protections, using the bully pulpit to spotlight national education priorities, offering states incentives to implement bright-line policy, and fostering greater transparency.”

Unfortunately, Uncle Sam has stumbled when it comes to “fixing” schools from the comfort of 400 Maryland Avenue. This has been most apparent in efforts to turn around or transform low-performing schools through its SIG program. This is because, when it comes to school turnarounds, it matters more how states develop and implement aggressive intervention programs, rather than whether they do them. And while the feds can make states do things, Hess and Kelly note, they can’t make states do things well.

For instance, through its signature Race to the Top program, the Obama administration was successful in pushing states to raise the caps on the number of charter schools or eliminate the statutory data “firewalls” that prohibited states from using student-achievement data to evaluate teachers. Where the administration faltered, however, was in trying to get states to do these things well. In New York City, teachers were not prepared or even willing to adopt the teacher evaluation plans described in New York’s Race to the Top application, but signed on in order to acquire millions of ARRA funds (while also carefully including a provision ensuring these policies were “subject to collective bargaining.”) However, when push came to shove, the feds could not actually compel districts to adopt these policies.

Similarly, the Obama administration should be lauded for providing political cover for states to expand and replicate high quality charter schools through Race to the Top. However, the CREDO analysis shows the difficulty of even the most hopeful attempts to reform failing schools – throwing a wrench in the works for Obama’s efforts via the SIG program to turn around failing schools from Washington.

So where does this leave us for Obama’s second term? For those concerned about the appropriate federal role, perhaps in a more comfortable place. It doesn’t look like there will be much in the way of new dollars for education any time soon, and states are likely to spend the next four years learning these lessons the hard way as they struggle to fulfill their Race to the Top and waiver promises.

But this won’t come without substantial headaches. In particular, the Common Core State Standards may be the next in line to demonstrate the complexities of the federal role in education. While the feds were certainly successful in compelling states to adopt the Common Core through Race to the Top and NCLB waivers, merely signing on does not ensure states will do what it takes to faithfully implement the program. In particular, states may not have the funds, resources, or political will to make the necessary decisions to purchase new materials and train teachers. Future federal efforts would do well to embrace the potentials and heed the cautions Hess and Kelly discern.

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