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Education Think Tanks Require a Better Class of Customer

February 07, 2008 7 min read
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This is the last of this series of essays on federal education policy think tanks.

The saying, “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink” was recorded as early as 1546 in a book of English proverbs collected by John Heywood. I imagine something similar exists in every culture, but it reminds me of the relationship between outfits like AEI, Brookings, the Center For Education Reform and the Center on Education Policy, Fordham and Education Sector and the U.S. Department of Education. Washington is awash in education reports, meetings, articles, audio and video on federal education policy, but Department leadership and senior civil servants have never drunk much from the fire hose.

Some education policy marketing shops might evolve into true think tanks, if only the Department consumed policy innovation and the kind of expertise RAND provides to the Air Force and management consulting firms are now providing to state education agencies. It does neither. The Department of Education does sponsor a lot of research and a growing amount of program evaluation to inform the public, researchers and other education agencies. It does use informal consultants and others working under contract to deal with specific issues. But as noted in an earlier essay, the Department lacks the focus on public policy that values and builds a strategic culture. Until the passage of Non Child Left Behind, its activities were largely political – negotiation with states over the largely toothless provisions of Title I, and the administration of disbursing federal program funds. The Department of Defense has an Under Secretary for Policy, State – which is all about policy – actually has a sometimes influential Policy Planning Staff; Treasury has an Assistant Secretary for Economic Policy; Health and Human Services, an Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation; Interior has an Assistant Secretary for Policy. In each of these departments there is a staff, generally constituted in the legislation establishing the agency, with specifc responsibility for public policy questions and departmental strategy.

Not so the Department of Education. The Under Secretary has line responsibility for the administration of federal higher education programs, the Deputy Secretary the same for k-12. The Assistant Secretary for Innovation and Improvement has line responsibility for a long set of k-12 programs that either fall outside the traditional routines of federal relations with states and districts around pre-NCLB versions of ESEA, or come out of the Congressional pork barrel.

There is an Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development led by an Assistant Secretary and reporting directly to the Secreatary. But if you look into how that office is staffed, the word policy only appears with the “Policy and Program Studies Service,” one of the offices that purchases research and evaluation services. If you look further into its publications, you will see that most of the work amounts to compliance with Congressional reporting requirements. No other office in the “Coordinating Structure” diagram on the Department of Education website contains the words policy or strategy. (And to the retort “everyone’s responsible for policy,” I suggest that only underlines my point.) The other staff offices reporting directly to the Secretary have narrow functional support responsibilities. Policy and strategy is solely the Secretary’s job, and unlike the other Departments, the agency offers her/him no core of institutional capacity to provide specialized support in that arena.

To understand why the Department of Education never grew policy capabilities like many other federal agencies, we need to appreciate the political consensus up to NCLB. I would summarize it as a bipartisan agreement among the states and the federal government that public education policy and operations were broadly within state control under the 10th amendment, and that this power would only recede in the face of civil rights guaranteed to all citizens elsewhere in the Constitution. Up until No Child Left Behind, the strings tied to Title I aid amounted to record keeping demonstrating that the funds were applied the education of economically disadvantaged children identified in the law, and did not supplant funds the states and localities would have spent on those children if the law did not exist. States were not required to demonstrate anything special about student performance, and the Department of Education never intervened in the market supplying public schools with the products and services involved in classroom teaching and learning. In effect, the Department lacked public policy and strategy capabilities by design.

Cutting through a lot of politics and history, I would argue that today’s debate over federal education policy comes down to three schools of thought. One – that finds expression in vouchers, implies an abolition of the Department, and a transfer of federal funds to the states in the form of education block grants. A second is perfectly happy with the original consensus and conception of Departmental activities. The third seeks to seize powers now held by the states to establish the performance required of public education.

The third school won a great victory in the passage of No Child Left Behind. I would argue that this legislation is to education policy as the National Security Act of 1947 was to national security policy. The latter reflected a recognition by Congress that the federal role in international conflict no longer distinguished much between peace and war – the post-war world demanded a permanently high level of involvement; put the nation’s disaggregated military, intelligence and atomic energy activities under one roof; and brought them all under tight political control. NCLB had similar motivations – it reflected an emerging view in Congress that the country was loosing its relative advantages in general education, that the solution involved a much higher level of federal intervention in state and local action than was necessary in the past, and moved towards creating a federally regulated common market in the products and services employed in the classroom.

The military services and the vast array of intelligence activities were no more interested in giving up their independence than states and school districts. Two factors differentiated the success of the National Security Act and its subsequent amendments from No Child Left Behind’s amendment of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. First and foremost, while support for higher defense spending remained bipartisan throughout the Cold War, the Bush Administration almost immediately reneged on its agreement to substantially increase the k-12 budget.

The second factor is the politically appointed civilian staff. Civilian control over the military was not finally won until the Vietnam War – compare David Halberstam’s account of Secretary of Defense Robert MacNamara’s humiliation by the Chief of Naval Operations in the Naval Operations Center during the Cuban Missile Crisis with his portrayal of McNamara advising President Johnson on the selection of individual bombing targets around Hanoi and Haiphong. It took 20 years of engagement by highly capable political appointees of both parties with vast defense expertise, committed to the ideas behind the Act, working from the top of the department down to its third and forth level offices.

The Bush Administration certainly placed political appointees throughout the Department of Education. But Margaret Spellings is no Robert McNamara, Elliot Richardson, James Schlesinger, Harold Brown, Caspar Weinberger, or Don Rumsfeld. Her capacity derives primarily from her President’s. Theirs was in no small part independent, earned by their own impressive accomplishments, decisively analytical minds, and the (often grudging) respect of their colleagues and adversaries. The same can be said of the two agency’s second, third and fourth tiers. Moreover, rather than expanding the basis of political appointment to the Department from what you did on the campaign, to what you know about education policy and your capacity to survive bureaucratic politics, the Administration stuck with an approach that worked perfectly well before NCLB.

The bottom line here is simple. In order to have federal education policy think tanks, we need a Department of Education that consumes policy, and has a policy agenda to pursue. Today’s department has neither. For those of us who buy into NCLB’s potential to create a market for school improvement driven by school and program performance, our objective should be to see policy offices and policy people embedded in the department – from top to bottom. First and foremost we need a Secretary of Education who understands his or her job as McNamara, Rumsfeld and the others understood theirs - to gain control of an apparatus held by the traditional interests however the legislation might read, can attract a small army of effective political appointees, and expects a long engagement for change.

In effect, if we want education policy “think tanks” rather than “marketing shops,” we need a better class of customer than today’s Department of Education.

The opinions expressed in edbizbuzz 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.

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