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I am enjoying the online debate between Rick Hess and Peter Cunningham. Rick is located at the conservative American Enterprise Institute in D.C., Peter runs a blog funded by Walton and Broad and served as Arne Duncan’s Assistant Secretary for Communications in Obama’s first term.
In this post, they debate whether Uncle Sam should tell schools how to improve.
Peter, of course, echoes the Obama administration’s position that this is a proper federal role.
With thousands of schools defying every effort to improve after decades of reform, can we really just throw up our hands and quit? Even with the flexibility and financial incentives associated with SIG—multiple models and up to $6M over three years—most states and districts choose the least aggressive and least impactful interventions, presumably to avoid a messy fight over staffing.
Children have only one chance for an education. When states and districts allow chronically struggling schools to continue indefinitely, the federal government has a moral obligation and an economic incentive to step in. When it comes to protecting kids at risk, the buck still stops in Washington.
Rick argues cogently that the feds should not tell schools how to improve because Uncle Sam (Congress and the U.S. Department of Education) doesn’t know how to improve any school.
Here’s the problem: there’s no recipe for identifying which schools need to be “turned around” or for helping those schools improve. This means that identifying those schools, figuring out how to help them, and then actually doing so are complicated tasks that require a lot of judgment, discretion, and good sense.
Unfortunately, these are not the strengths of the federal government. This is simply because federal officials a] don’t run schools or systems, b] have to write policies that apply to 100,000 schools across 50 states, and c] aren’t accountable for what happens in schools and systems. These three factors mean that federal “school improvement” efforts amount to efforts to write rules and directions that can apply everywhere, including many places where the formulas may not make sense. The result is a whole lot of grudging compliance, a fair bit of aimless activity, and not a whole lot of smart problem-solving.
The results are evident in efforts like the Obama administration’s School Improvement Grant program. There, we’ve spent $6 billion and a third of the schools receiving SIG funds have seen their test results get worse. Of course, it’s hard to find really reliable numbers on all this because the Department of Education hasn’t been forthcoming with the data (and has had to retract flawed data). One can make a case for Andy Smarick’s claim that SIG is “the greatest failure in the U.S. Department of Education’s 30-plus year history.”