Monday, December 12, 2011

How to Rescue Education Reform

This NYT op ed is noteworthy by its authors, Rick Hess and Linda Darling-Hammond, who come from two different sides of the ed reform debate:

We sorely need a smarter, more coherent vision of the federal role in K-12 education. Yet both parties find themselves hemmed in. Republicans are stuck debating whether, rather than how, the federal government ought to be involved in education, while Democrats are squeezed between superintendents, school boards and teachers' unions that want money with no strings, and activists with little patience for concerns about federal overreach.

When it comes to education policy, the two of us represent different schools of thought. One of us, Linda Darling-Hammond, is an education school professor who advised the Obama administration's transition team; the other, Rick Hess, has been a critic of school districts and schools of education. We disagree on much, including big issues like merit pay for teachers and the best strategies for school choice.

We agree, though, on what the federal government can do well. It should not micromanage schools, but should focus on the four functions it alone can perform.

I really wanted to like this article, but other than their first (of four) points (which I agree with), I wasn't even sure what they were saying.  Andy Rotherham captures the confusion and contradictions:

Strongest Evidence Yet That The Obama Administration Is On The Right Track On Education?

Look ma! I'm reasonable!  In The Times today Rick Hess and Linda Darling-Hammond lay out an odd-couple agenda for federal education policy.

Some of it is stuff that the federal government is already doing now, for instance they call for more research and development but don't mention various administration initiatives (eg i3, ARPA-ED, etc…).   And some of it is cheap shots.  They write that, "The Obama administration's $4.35 billion Race to the Top competition tried to do some of this, but it ended up demanding that winning states hire consultants to comply with a 19-point federal agenda, rather than truly innovate."  Really?  Of all the critiques you can level at RTT that's a pretty weak one.

But their two main points bear some discussion.  They write that:

"Instead of the vague mandate of "adequate yearly progress," federal financing should be conditioned on truth in advertising — on reliably describing achievement (or lack thereof) and spending. To track achievement, states should be required to link their assessments to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (or to adopt a similar multistate assessment). To shed light on equity and cost-effectiveness, states should be required to report school- and district-level spending; the resources students receive should be disclosed, not only their achievement."

I'm all for transparency but "vague mandate?" I thought the problem with "adequate yearly progress" was that it is too prescriptive.  Where did I read that? Oh right, it was in this 2009 article by Rick Hess and Mike Petrilli. Darling-Hammond also says – at least recently said – it's too prescriptive.

They extend the thought in their second point writing:

Second is ensuring that basic constitutional protections are respected. No Child Left Behind required states to "disaggregate" assessment results to illuminate how disadvantaged or vulnerable populations — like black and Hispanic students and children from poor families — were doing. Enforcing civil rights laws and ensuring that dollars intended for low-income students and students with disabilities are spent accordingly have been parts of the Education Department's mandate since its creation in 1979. But efforts to reduce inequities have too often led to onerous and counterproductive micromanagement.

Wait, wait, wait. I thought the thing to do was to "drop the racial subgroups and wishful-thinking accountability. If such changes offend civil rights advocates, who may clamor to keep race-conscious labels or want nclb to stick to goals more aspirational than actual, so be it. Their offence can only lead to a debate that conservatives should welcome."  Gosh, where did I read that? Wait, it was that exact same Rick Hess and Mike Petrilli article.

Rhetoric of the day inconsistencies aside, I think Rick and Linda are right that some accountability efforts have led to micromanagement but absent those federal prods there is no evidence that states systematically address these issues.  It's an evolving balancing act. So from where I sit in addition to civil rights enforcement a good civil rights policy is ensuring a floor for performance and expectations not merely rooting through the data looking for pervasive violations (which are awfully hard to make stick anyway).

Bigger picture: The right-left confluence on education reform marches on. That's too bad.


Op-Ed Contributors

How to Rescue Education Reform

Gracía Lam

Published: December 5, 2011

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