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Chat Wrap-Up: The Changing Federal Role in Education

October 30, 2006 6 min read
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On Oct. 18, readers questioned Christopher T. Cross, a former assistant U.S. secretary of education for research and improvement under President George H.W. Bush and the author of Political Education: National Policy Comes of Age, on the changing role of the U.S. Department of Education. Below are excerpts from the discussion.

Read the full transcript of this chat.

Question: Do you think that the evolving focus on policies aimed at improving the quality of our teaching force will continue, and move from almost a sole concentration on professional development (in-service) to more stringent quality controls for preservice education (admission and exit requirements), together with substantive reform of the content as well as the structure of such programs?

Cross: A great question, and one that is at the heart of the disconnect in policy between the K-12 world and the higher education world. Unfortunately, both Congress and the executive branch operate in stovepipes that rarely permit the kind of discussion across sectors that needs to occur for there to be major changes in federal programs and policy. There is also a question of reach. The federal role in higher education is even more distant than in K-12 education. Unless Congress provides authority through something like the ability to recognize accrediting agencies, there is little that can be done, other than through incentive grant programs that would focus on the issue of quality controls for admission and exit. It is also true that the marketplace among colleges is a major factor. With several hundred teacher-preparation programs, there will always be some—usually many—with low admission and graduation standards.

Question: While much of the teacher-quality emphasis has been on how to find and equitably place teachers, the problem of teacher turnover is growing. What can be done at the federal level to support an overall improvement of the management of state labor resources?

Cross: If one looks at the barriers to teacher mobility between states, they almost always come down to issues like portable pensions and the peculiarities of state licensing requirements. There is, in the mid-Atlantic area, an effort run by the Mid-Atlantic Regional Teachers Project to treat these as regional, not state-specific issues. For example, the project has instituted a “meritorious new-teacher-candidate” credential that is recognized in several states. That’s a good start, but more can be done.

Question: Is the No Child Left Behind Act a political issue that will change with a change in Congress? How do you foresee the law’s being modified? Will there be national standards in content subjects?

Cross: I don’t believe that a change in control of Congress will undo the No Child Left Behind law. Two of its biggest supporters, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., would become the chairs of their respective Senate and House committees. The law also has substantial support from many in the civil rights community. Yes, there will be some changes to the NCLB legislation, but at the margins, not at the core. For example, it is possible that sanctions for years two and three (choice and tutoring) might be reversed, as has been done on a pilot basis. As to national standards, I don’t believe we will see those being created and mandated by the feds. I can see the potential for incentives to use national standards created by content areas, but there will be a major debate before even that happens.

Question: Given what is known about early brain development, the increasing need for “educare” (developmentally appropriate care and education), and the cost-effectiveness of quality early experiences for children, what do you see as the primary obstacles for federal funding of universal preschool, similar to the funding commitment for national optional kindergarten?

Cross: Some of the obstacles are bureaucratic. Head Start is in the Department of Health and Human Services; other education programs are in the Education Department. They are authorized in different laws, often by different committees. It is also true that we are unlikely to see a federal mandate for preschool, since there are some cultures and religions that don’t support that. In the end, the greatest obstacle is probably funding. Having a federal program would take billions of new dollars. The research in this area is good, but the will is missing.

Question: Has the Education Department’s capacity to act independently of the White House declined since 1980?

Cross: In many ways, the creation of the federal department in 1980 placed education in the spotlight, so the issue—and hence the agency—became more important politically. That has meant more oversight by the White House and the Office of Management and Budget. In the Reagan administration, the department was constantly under the eye of the White House, largely because its very existence had been a campaign issue. After the publication of A Nation at Risk, and then the appointment of William J. Bennett as secretary, that attention became less intense. In the Clinton administration, the relationship between Richard W. Riley and President Clinton meant that there was a great deal of freedom at the agency, although it was hardly immune from scrutiny. In the current Bush administration, the department has been very important to the White House, but has, since Secretary Spellings arrived, been less under White House control, in my view.

Question: The current accountability system is one in which the state and the federal government mandate what (the standards) and how (the textbooks and pacing guides) to teach, and then hold teachers and school sites responsible for the results of those mandates. Why not have one national test every year specifying the what, and then let the schools and districts decide the how?

Cross: Having a national test is something that I don’t expect to see in my lifetime. But then, I am 66 years old. The National Assessment of Educational Progress is supposed to be the benchmark for states, and that is why its use was expanded in the No Child Left Behind Act. Remarkably, states and voters seem to shrug off data showing that their own standards are substantially different from those shown by NAEP. On the other hand, holding people accountable for the results seems intellectually like the right thing to do. Engineering such a system is tough. As the saying goes, the devil is in the details.

Question: How has the federal research-and-development enterprise in education changed since you were at the department’s office of educational research and improvement? Has the current Institute of Education Sciences strengthened or weakened the federal role in school improvement and education reform? Why is the funding for education R&D so meager compared to the investments in R&D by other federal agencies?

Cross: In the past 15 years, the federal role in research has moved almost exclusively to the side of control-group/gold-standard research. That was a needed change. The question that I have is: What are we missing by this change, such as, perhaps, policy research? There is also a great deal of ambiguity about the evaluation role in the Education Department. When the IES was created, all of the innovation and improvement programs were transferred to another part of the department. While some of that was appropriate, it did leave the IES without a stake in the area of implementation. Education research has always been tremendously underfunded. We have yet to make the case as to how important it is. I recall a conversation I had 30 years ago with Harley Dirks, then the clerk for the Senate Labor-HEW appropriations committee. When I asked him about research funding, he said, “No one ever died because of the lack of education research.” Then he proceeded to pump tons of money into the National Institutes of Health. Had I been quick enough, I would have retorted, “Kids’ life chances are dying in school because we are not educating them as we should.” Hindsight is wonderful.

A version of this article appeared in the November 01, 2006 edition of Education Week as chat wrap-up: The Changing Federal Role in Education

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