Education Opinion

The Letter From: The Most Important Issue in Federal Education Policy Presidential Candidates Don’t Discuss (Between II and III)

August 06, 2008 9 min read

Last week, I suggested that if Presidential candidates McCain and Obama could be forced to take a stand on the concept of program evaluation reflected in the “scientifically based research,” “scientifically based reading research” and “research based” provisions of No Child Left Behind (referred to collectively as SBR), they have four choices:

• Option One. Go back to days before NCLB, when there were no requirements for program evaluation even on paper.

• Option Two. Stick with NCLB as implemented today, when the standards are virtually meaningless.

• Option Three. Propose to implement NCLB’s program evaluation provision based on mandatory experimental or quasi-experimental designs, and publication in an accessible repository.

• Option Four. Implement NCLB so as to base market entry on some measure of statistical significance and educational effect.

I suggested that the first candidate to select Option Three will have a rhetorical advantage. At a time when every consumer has experienced a crisis of product safety, his opponent cannot choose the message of “no evaluation” implied by Options One and Two. Setting a viable standard of efficacy for market entry seems hopelessly impractical, ruling out Option Four. Saying “me too” after ones opponent opts for Option Three hardly symbolizes leadership. I argued that the candidates hover somewhere between Options Two and Three. McCain seems closer to Three than Obama. Neither candidate’s position is set in stone, or even wet concrete. I also recognized that at current course and speed there is no reason to expect a great debate over SBR or program evaluation during this campaign.

My intent for this week’s letter was to take a closer look at the circumstances in which either contestant might take a real stand on SBR. I suggested that the most likely scenario involves African-American and Latino votes in states that might prove to be crucial when the election is viewed from the perspective of the Electoral College.

I do my best to offer objective analysis and to lay out enough facts, analysis and context to help readers decide for themselves. My perspective on the subject of this series is not without partisan overtones, and that’s relevant. Consequently, I decided that before I discuss my scenario, readers need to appreciate how my interest in SBR intersects with my support for John McCain.

As one who favors a market to improve school performance in teaching and learning, I am an unabashed supporter of the concepts of accountability and program evaluation incorporated into No Child Left Behind. (Indeed, Secretary Spellings finally succumbs to political pressure by offering all manner of ways to soften the law’s school accountability provisions, I find myself to the right of the Bush Administration.) Implementation notwithstanding, the legislation - the words on paper - incorporates the view of insanity as “doing the same things over and over again while expecting different results” into federal education policy. What’s important to me is that it applies this perspective to private providers selling into the classroom as well as those who direct and staff public schools. I support the law’s relevant sections as necessary complements and as written.

Accountability for Public Schools.NCLB’s accountability provisions establish demand for school improvement products and services. The difficulty schools and districts have had meeting the law’s goal of Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) towards universal proficiency in math and literacy by 2012 creates demand for products, services and programs that change teaching and learning from the classroom to the central offices. To support the accountability scene, federal funding is provided for the relevant information systems. Additional federal resources are made available to schools identified for improvement. Students in those schools are eligible for federally funded tutoring. Above all, schools seeking to avoid or escape improvement status have a strong incentive to adopt new educational strategies and to purchase new private sector products and services in the process. The demand for school improvement offerings is all about the implementation of AYP.

Other things being equal, I find this a perfectly reasonable approach to making pubic education better. Because it is unrealistic to expect schools in need of improvement to develop and implement innovative curriculum and instructional strategies, and even more of a leap to expect it at scale, it is entirely reasonable to ask the private sector to meet this demand. NCLB’s accountability scheme is hardly perfect, but Congress only set up a framework - it allowed the states to make choices about standards, tests and benchmarks appropriate to their circumstances. The bottom line of AYP is easy to understand and focused, and there is a reason why Leonardo Da Vinci called “simplicity the ultimate in sophistication.” Reliance on tests measuring individuals’ capacity to know and do what others consider essential at a given age is problematic, but no strategy can be improved upon until it has been adopted.

And while I appreciate the discomfort AYP gives educators, administrators, school boards and real estate agents, I reject their arguments that an accountability scheme aimed at the schools serving students inflicts the same pain on children. What I see is quite different - that the kinds of students having difficulty proficiency, have not received the specific support they need for decades, and are finally getting it. NCLB is objectionable to school board and administrator associations and teachers unions because the law 1) spotlights longstanding failures of the institutions their members lead, manage and staff, and 2) triggers automatic, non-discretionary changes to school and district organization and operations. These alterations disrupt the structure on which union and association power are based. And power is never given up willingly.

Given my views on the importance of NCLB’s accountability provisions, my reasons for supporting John McCain should be apparent. No doubt, to weaken AYP is to reduce demand for school improvement product and services. But this result is a by-product of taking the spotlight off failure, reducing threats to the traditional power structure, relieving the pressure for fundamental change, and so allowing the system to return to a state of relative complacency and existing operations. The interest groups determined to defang AYP are key constituencies of the Democratic Party. A reauthorized NCLB is far more likely to include something closer to today’s AYP provisions if a Republican is elected President.

Accountability for Private Sector Providers. Whatever the reliability of AYP as an approach to accountability, there is little practical value in pointing out the academic shortcomings of thousands of schools across the nation if we lack the means of helping students demonstrate proficiency on a national scale. Those who expect schools to improve, must also accept that they are unlikely to do so using the same educational products and services that contributed to their failure. NCLB’s approach to program effectiveness reflects a recognition that schools in need of improvement require educational products and services with a track record.

To assure that our private sector’s immense capacity for innovation extends beyond marketing, NCLB required that the efficacy of products and services purchased with federal funds be demonstrated through “scientifically based research” or “scientifically based reading research.” In the case of Supplementary Educational Services, NCLB set a lower, “research based” standard. (For simplicity the three standards are referred to here as SBR.) These restrictions on the buying behavior of schools and districts were intended to shape a new kind of supply for school improvement. They reward providers offering the first wave of products and services incorporating scientific advances in teaching and learning in a century. They stimulate an advancing state of the art in program evaluation. Most important, they protect students, educators and taxpayers from the great injustice of programs that add no value to learning.

The school improvement market I support holds schools and providers equally accountable for student outcomes. NCLB incorporates this kind of market into law. I understand that program effectiveness is hard to measure and achieve, that our techniques of evaluation are far from perfect, and that if enforced they will result in great disruption of the dominant marketing channels, supply chains and providers. Just as AYP creates discomfort in education associations, enforcement of SBR gives firms selling products and services with poor, little or no evaluation reason to worry. I don’t see the downside of refusing to purchase worthless offerings for the students most in need of assistance. It’s no different from refusing to purchase placebos for sick children, in lieu of the medicine that will save their lives.

Returning to politics. As a Republican I am ashamed to recognize that the Bush Administration did not hold schools and providers equally accountable under NCLB. Secretaries of Education Paige and Spellings ignored SBR even as they adopted “a just say no” policy towards administrative changes to AYP. I consider it a complete failure of government regulation and management, as well as a moral outrage. Because NCLB’s SBR provisions were not implemented as required by law, I do not consider recent experience a failure of the market.

I expect Senator Obama to agree with my critique of SBR implementation. Nevertheless President Obama will not bring AYP and SBR into the balance required for an effective market. By gutting AYP, he is more likely to end the school improvement industry.

This brings me back to Senator McCain. I believe his tough stance on AYP is principled - there are quite a few local Republican politicians whose lives would be much easier if the federal approach to school accountability went away. If President McCain hopes to see his views on school accountability reflected in a reauthorized NCLB, he will have to offer the Democrats higher levels of funding. If he wants fence sitters in Congress to believe his position on AYP is principled, he will need to embrace SBR.

This brings me back to why I believe the concept of program evaluation embodied in SBR is the most important issue in federal education policy the Presidential candidates have yet to discuss. For McCain it’s a way to demonstrate that his views on AYP are based on principle. For Obama, SBR provides an opportunity to cast McCain just another Republican intent on ending public education through vouchers. Indeed, it is a testament to the subject’s arcane nature that the Obama campaign has not tied McCain’s strong support for NCLB to the mismanagement of SBR in Reading First and Supplementary Education Services in its efforts to cast the Republican candidate as Bush III. Even in the campaign’s for a for education policy wonks, evaluation has been a very minor topic.

Next Week. Finally, a scenario where SBR might actually be important to the election. A fantasy for sure, but one that offers some interesting insights on why education policy has moved in the direction I favor, but not at the pace I want.

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