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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Carrots, Sticks, and the Bully Pulpit

By Rick Hess — May 25, 2011 3 min read
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Monday, at AEI, we hosted one of our major conferences, on “Carrots, Sticks, and the Bully Pulpit: Sobering Lessons from a Half Century of Federal Efforts to Improve America’s Schools” (you can watch it here). The conference featured eleven new papers by authors including Mike Smith, Checker Finn, Maris Vinovskis, Mark Schneider, Jane Hannaway, Paul Manna, and Mike Casserly (you can find copies of all of the papers here), and reactions from discussants including DC Chancellor Kaya Henderson, L.A. supe John Deasy, ED chief of staff (and former RTT chief) Joanne Weiss, former Congressman Mike Castle, RI state supe Deborah Gist, Ed Trust’s Kati Haycock, and Fordham’s Mike Petrilli.

The question of the hour was what we’ve learned over time about what federal government has does relatively well, and what it hasn’t done as well, when it comes to K-12 schooling. There was surprising consensus from an array of authors with diverse perspectives and frames of reference. There seemed to be a shared sense that the feds can have enjoyed substantial success when it came to ensuring access for vulnerable populations (think IDEA), using cash to push states to adopt clear-cut policies (as with NCLB’s assessment requirements), using the bully pulpit to raise issues on the agenda, and promoting transparency and information.

There was much more skepticism about the federal government’s ability to actually improve schools. As Harvard’s Jal Mehta succinctly observed, Uncle Sam has stumbled when has tried to “make schools get better, make schools do what they don’t want to do, [or] foster innovation.” Thus, the federal government was able to push states to comply with the reporting, assessment, and intervention requirements of NCLB, but it couldn’t ensure that they were done thoughtfully or well.

The limited ability of the feds to “make” states, districts, or schools improve was a recurrent theme. Rhode Island chief Deb Gist was the first of several to talk about the advantages of focusing on a “coalition of the willing,” and of encouraging leaders rather than policing laggards. L.A. supe John Deasy argued that the feds do better when they think of their role as working to “improve” schools and not as “fixing” schools.

Andy Rudalevige, Dickinson’s gifted scholar on the presidency, pointed out the conundrum that, too often, “Good lawmaking leads to bad [education] policy.” He explained that the broad coalitions needed to enact laws means that the policies are defined so broadly that they mean different things to different actors, creating implementation headaches that ultimately involve angering and then alienating some legislative supporters. This kind of “definitional ambiguity” can cripple implementation, meaning that the price of enacting a law might be the coherence of that law.

Mike Casserly offered a riveting take on the lessons he’s learned in the Beltway’s back rooms over the course of three decades. Wireless Generation founder Larry Berger and Drew University political scientist Pat McGuinn penned a piece that delves into four decades worth of federal efforts to promote innovation, and the bitter fruit it has often yielded. DFER federal policy honcho Charlie Barone and U. Georgia political scientist Elizabeth DeBray explained why federal requirements work best when they entail bright lines and measurement.

Checker Finn identified a number of game-changers and duds that have emerged from federal policy, and tried to reflect on what we might learn from these, while former Clinton and Obama hand Mike Smith drew on decades of lessons to try his hand at a “zero-based” reauthorization of ESEA. And there was much more in this vein, including terrific papers on the role of the courts, federal research, accountability, transformative change, and the lessons of programs like Head Start and OERI.

Anyway, you get the idea. What I found most energizing about the exercise was the opportunity to move past circular, stale, or naïve debates about whether something is a nice idea or whether it has “worked” in order to talk about what role the federal government is actually well-suited to play when it comes to the nation’s schools. I can’t do justice to the papers or the conversation in less than 3,000 words, so I’m just going to yank the cord and encourage interested readers to check it out for themselves.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.