ObamaFlex: Too much tight, too light on loose
Mike Petrilli is more critical. Too critical I think -- he's for "tight on results" but anti- "annual measurable objectives"?
So what about the new plan for conditional waivers under ESEA? Is Team Obama right when it insists that its approach provides much-needed flexibility while pushing the reform agenda forward? That this is "tight-loose" in action?
Unfortunately, no. In short, ObamaFlex is much too heavy on the tight, and much too light on the loose.
Let's talk tight. Duncan et al want states to either adopt the Common Core or demonstrate that their own reading and math standards indicate college readiness, as judged by institutions of higher education. (Those institutions would have to certify that students achieving the state's own standards would be eligible for credit-bearing courses.)
On its face, this is perfectly reasonable, and is close to where Checker Finn and I landed when we released our ESEA Briefing Book in April. One of the greatest failings of No Child Left Behind was its agnosticism about the content and rigor of state standards; asking states to peg their expectations to real-world demands makes eminent sense.
But. It's one thing if Congress goes along with such an approach–and if states are given a reasonable amount of time to demonstrate that their own standards are in fact set at a college-ready level. That's not what we're getting through the waiver package. Instead, Arne Duncan is further federalizing the Common Core by making it the only practical route for states wanting immediate regulatory relief. I believe that Texas and Virginia (two states that did not adopt the common standards) could easily make the case that their own standards indicate college readiness. But it will take time. And they will want flexibility now.
A state like Alaska–whose own standards are terrible and which hasn't adopted the Common Core–is completely out of luck. It would take years for it to develop college ready standards. So Arne has forced Alaska's hand–has it "over a barrel" in Lamar Alexander's words–and opens up the Common Core to the label of "federally mandated" national standards.
Even more disturbing is the way in which the Administration's quid-pro-quo will lock all states into the Common Core indefinitely. What happens if a state decides to back out–either for ideological reasons or pragmatic ones–say, because the tests linked to the standards start to go off the rails? Will such a state have to instantly adopt its own college-ready standards, or else risk losing the right to regulatory relief? Or federal education funding? Or both?
Meanwhile, as ObamaFlex fails to get "tight" right, it also goes too light on "loose." Just look at the details yourself. A state can propose its own approach to accountability, for example–as long as it includes "annual measurable objectives," "priority schools," "focus schools," "reward schools," and on and on and on. This is kind of like Henry Ford's approach to car colors.