Education is a field teeming with worthy objectives and well-meaning advocates trying to improve the lives of children, leading to an esprit de corps amongst many school advocates. There is a common belief, even, that education is one of the last remaining areas for collegial bipartisanship in a deeply fractured political landscape, with everyone from pop stars to tennis pros permitted a say in school reform.
But, with any change-based effort, good intentions are not enough. Good intentions don’t change schools or create smart policies. What’s more, good intentions can blind even the best school reformers from the gritty lessons of implementation, policy design, markets, bureaucracy, and the real nuts and bolts of what it takes to actually fix our schools.
AEI Education aims to fill this void through our research and commentary. It is a role that is increasingly important due to recent developments in Washington and across the states.
Here are a few issues on our radar:
No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Waivers
There’s been an ongoing debate over the Department of Education’s NCLB “waivers”. With Congress’ inability to reauthorize NCLB and clear evidence that most states would fail to hit the 2014 proficiency deadline, the Obama administration decided to grant waivers from the onerous provision in return for states’ adopting administration-approved policies around reading and math standards, among other things. Regardless of what you think about Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, NCLB policies, or the NCLB waivers, Uncle Sam just might be wholly ineffective in trying to fix things from Washington. With all of these top-heavy reforms, an oft-overlooked practical question remains: can the federal government effectively fix schools in 50 states and some 13,000 school districts?
Related is a recent announcement by the Department of Education that to qualify for NCLB waivers, states will need to ensure that teachers rated as “effective” will be equitably distributed across school districts. While the good intentions here are easy to spot – wanting to ensure that the best teachers go to the neediest students – as my colleague Rick Hess argues in The Hill, “Skepticism is warranted when considering Uncle Sam’s ability to start telling states where to assign teachers…Ill-conceived policies might move teachers from schools and classrooms where they are effective to situations when they are less effective. Heavy-handed efforts to reallocate teachers could drive good teachers from the profession. And we are far less able to identify ‘effective’ teachers in any cookie-cutter fashion than federal officials might think.”
It’s not just policymakers who are guilty of ignoring issues of federal overreach and policy design. Well-intentioned school reformers often overhype reforms of the day or fail to consider how polices they are promoting might have unintended consequences. One example is school choice, which numerous school reformers have reverently spoken about as capable of fixing a broken education system almost by itself. Yet as I’ve written before, “To [support school choice] isn’t to assume that the mere presence of charter schools or other forms of competition will magically force underperforming district schools to improve…Instead, it’s the belief that allowing dynamic and creative leaders to start schools, freed from rigid district strictures surrounding teacher recruitment and pay, length of the school day and year, and so forth, can potentially yield impressive results.” School reformers would do well to consider that charter schools operate in a certain context, beholden to federal and state regulations; the ability to raise funding and recruit new teachers; and other conditions that are crucial for success.
College loan reforms that connect a student’s loan eligibility to their family’s expected contribution run the risk of discouraging savings. Again Rick Hess is helpful, surveying proposals including those sponsored by the Gates Foundation and the Brookings Institution. Overall, he finds that such “proposals start, reasonably enough, by asking how to help low-income students attend college, but they too often fail to consider how doing so might undermine desirable norms such as encouraging working families to save aggressively for college.”
In all these areas—NCLB waivers, equitable distribution of good teachers, school choice, and student loans—policymakers and reformers are starting from noble positions and with well-intentioned impulses. What’s needed, though, is a complementary look at how these proposals, plans, ideas, and laws play out on the ground. It’s a task AEI seeks to perform.