Where Uncle Sam stumbles

Sorry – I had planned to post the second part of this sooner, but I took a break to get my gall bladder yanked out. Not fun.

At any rate, Rick Hess and Andrew Kelly conclude their article by talking about some of the ways the feds stumble when they try to reform K-12 education.

When it comes to fixing schools, the federal track record is bleak. Little evidence exists that the federal government can improve schools through programs intended to enhance teaching and learning or otherwise turn around or transform troubled schools.

Uncle Sam has also stumbled in trying to make states, districts, and schools do things they do not want to do and in fostering innovation in education. Thus, while the federal government has successfully pushed states to comply with NCLB’s reporting, assessment, and intervention requirements, it could not ensure that any of these were done thoughtfully or well.

Why are the feds so ineffectual.

The fundamental answer is one my AP Government students should be able to come up with:

well-intended federal efforts to improve schooling are hindered by the structure of American government, which limits the authority of federal policymakers and circumscribes the tools they have to influence education policy. The design of the federal system means that Washington often lacks clear authority when it comes to K–12 schooling. Efforts to drive improvement from Washington therefore depend on the feds’ ability to coerce state cooperation.


When it comes to coercion, the feds can resort to bribery or blackmail. Hess and Kelly do not discuss the controversy currently raging over the common core, but one reason (among many) why the commonn core has aroused so much ire is surely the way the administration has used both bribery and blackmail to encourage state officials to short-circuit the usual, admittedly slow, process of consulting with stakeholders and building consensus.

So where does this leave us? Back at the state and district level, where real innovation is needed, and possible.

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