Where Uncle Sam can make a difference to education

One of my small frustrations as a blogger is that I can’t link to books. One of the best books I’ve read on education reform is Carrots, Sticks and the Bully Pulpit: Lessons from a Half-Century of Federal Efforts to Improve America’s Schools (Harvard Education Press, 2011). AEI’s Rick Hess and Andrew Kelly edited this compilation of essays, and wrote an intriguing summary chapter. But again, I can’t link to a book.

So I was pleased to see that the same two authors have written a shorter summary of their arguments, timed to coincide with the onset of President Obama’s second term and another reform push by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

As the authors note:

The Obama administration’s first term was marked by a blast furnace of efforts to reform K–12 schooling. Fueled by billions in borrowed stimulus dollars, and building on the expansive precedents set forth by the George W. Bush administration with No Child Left Behind (NCLB), Obama’s Department of Education launched several novel, high-profile efforts. These included the $4.35 billion Race to the Top competition, the $650 million Investing in Innovation Fund, and the $3.5 billion School Improvement Grant program. The administration also made headlines with its waiver process, which permitted states to opt out of NCLB if they embraced administration priorities, and its controversial efforts to promote the Common Core State Standards in reading and math.


The whole article is well worth reading, but here are some highlights. I’m going to post about what Hess and Kelly think the feds do well today, and save Uncle Sam’s blunders for my next post.

First, the feds are good at ensuring constitutional protections are upheld. When states or districts are unwilling to protect the rights of vulnerable populations, Washington has played a valuable role.

This particular federal role isn’t especially popular in Utah . . . but I think it’s especially needed. Especially considering the limited resources available, Utah does a remarkably good job educating most of the state’s children, but the gap between minority and disadvantaged students and everyone else is disturbingly large. Yes, I think it’s good to have the Feds call us on this. Sorry.

Second, the federal government has shown an ability to highlight education challenges and link them to national priorities. The bully pulpit can set the agenda, express national goals, and frame education issues, proving at times to be a powerful force for reform.

I’ve said this before, but for all its shortcomings the No Child Left Behind Act did focus the spotlight on some of our neediest kids.

On that note, Hess and Kelly observe:

Third, the federal government has enjoyed considerable success in compelling or offering incentives for states and districts to implement well-defined, or “bright-line,” policy changes. The disaggregation requirements in NCLB are a case in point. Prior to the passage of NCLB, just 11 states disaggregated student achievement data by gender or ethnicity. When NCLB made disaggregation a requirement for states to continue receiving Title I funds, compliance quickly became universal.

The changes states made to charter school and teacher quality policies in response to Race to the Top are another example of how Uncle Sam can compel states to adopt specific, discernible policy changes. It is worth noting that federal efforts to shift state policies via Race to the Top provided incentives for a coalition of willing states to make changes that enjoyed substantial local support (as opposed to compelling all states to make those changes).

In supporting charter schools, in particular, the Obama administration has proven willing to take a lot of heat from some of its staunchest allies. It will be interesting to see how this plays out in a second term.

In my next post I’ll share the authors’ views of where Uncle Sam “stumbles.”


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