Education Opinion

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

July 30, 2008 7 min read
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Last week’s Letter From explained that scientifically based research and its siblings scientifically based reading research and research based (referred to collectively as SBR) in NCLB are important as a matter of consumer protection; that it has not been addressed in the Presidential candidate’s education platforms because it is neither something the voting public cares about very deeply nor simple enough to explain quickly; and that unless taking a position might have an impact on the outcome of the election, SBR is likely to remain not only on the back burner, but off the stove.

In my view, the concept of program evaluation represented by these terms is the most important issue in federal education policy the candidates don’t discuss. This week’s Letter addresses the options available if a Presidential candidate decides to take a position. It’s a lengthy discussion, so I won’t get to whether some options might be more favorable to McCain or Obama until next week. My suggestion that neither campaign is likely to take a real stand SBR only if African-American and Latino votes prove to be crucial when the Presidential election is viewed from the perspective of the Electoral College, will also have to wait..
The Options. It is not beyond the realm of possibility for a smart education reporter or edwonk to ask a candidate or surrogate some thing like:

The term scientifically based research and variants appear over 100 times in No Child Left Behind, and in almost every program authorized by the law. Program evaluation, or the lack thereof, has led to controversy in the implementation of Reading First, Supplementary Educational Services, and educational technology. Some observers say it’s been honored in the breach; some observers suggest that any technical standard will leave schools with only a handful of programs to choose from. We’ve heard about your views on NCLB accountability and funding. What’s your position on scientifically based research and program evaluation in NCLB reauthorization? Are you satisfied with the law, or are changes in order?

The question is unlikely to be posed in this way or at this length. I’m trying to give edbizbuzz readers the gist, appreciating that the more general the question the more likely the response will be something listeners will understand to mean: “I’m not ready to answer that question.”

Assuming a direct, relatively spin-free answer, the candidate or surrogate has four broad choices.

1. The policy in force before NCLB. Option One - no regulation - can be ruled out from the start. No candidate is going to come straight out and say that there should be no federal role in assuring the quality of teaching and leaning programs offered for same in k-12, and paid for by the federal taxpayer. Choosing that answer simply hands the opposition the moral high ground: “My opponent would trust the future of our children to the good will of providers. That’s a recipe for a market in educational patent medicine… I don’t doubt that most companies are responsible, but not every company. We need some standards….”

2. NCLB. Option Two is another reason not to choose Option One. This approach allows one to favor what appear to be reasonable standards and processes without actually altering the market that prevailed before NCLB and that remains more or less intact. Add something like “there are a few areas that we need to look at, we need to learn from mistakes, but the structure is basically correct.” At worst, this answer leaves the opposition with a similar response, or discussions about NCLB’s shortcomings in implementation that are too detailed for any voter to care and pretty much blunted by the first candidates admission that mistakes were made. From a political perspective, as things stand now, it’s the easiest answer.

I am not the only person who believes NCLB requires providers to submit their specific market offerings to program evaluation. Whether we are right or wrong, the fact is that the Bush Administration adopted an interpretation that permits a provider to enter the market with a written document asserting a relationship between their offering and a body of relevant scientific research.

3. Require Program Evaluation and Publication. Even today, most Americans believe we could shoot down an intercontinental ballistic missile aimed at the United States. (FYI: We can’t.) I suspect most Americans’ believe some government agency reviews instructional products and services sold into public school classrooms. Everything else has to pass some government test for safety; why would our kids be any less important? Option Two perpetuates the second myth.

Option Three makes the myth a political issue. It requires providers to conduct formal program evaluations, based on experimental or quasi-experimental designs, with the results published in some readily accessible repository. Although there is the question of determining whether a given evaluation meets the methological requirements of experimental or quasi-experimental research, because it leaves purchasing decisions in the hands of starts, districts and schools, its is a relatively manageable proposal.

As a campaign ploy it ups the ante for the opposition. Support for Option Two becomes untenable; a principled defense is too arcane. The alternatives are “me too,” or….

4. Set a Standard of Program Effectiveness. Option Three requires rigorous evaluation of programs sold to improve teaching and learning in public school classrooms. Option Four would take the results of those studies and restrict market choice to programs that exceed some standard combining statistical significance and effect size. The first measures the extent to which any change in student performance is attributable to the program under study; the second measures the size of the change in performance.

I and others argue that NCLB as written requires this approach as an entry condition for those sections of the law employing the terms scientifically based research and scientifically based reading research, and that it requires such research be done to demonstrate the efficacy of Supplementary Educational Services after they are permitted into the market under the research-based variant. Nevertheless, debate over the hurdle that must be set is likely to become a muddle, and the perception of impracticality is likely to rub off on the candidate who suggests the option.

I would argue that there’s an advantage to the first candidate who claims Option Three as his own. It is not going to hurt in an environment where k-12 education is not all that important to the election’s outcome. It puts the opposition in the tactically disadvantageous position of choosing between defending an unattractive status quo; ceding the issue to the opposition, or suggesting an unrealistic alternative; and if education becomes important. If education becomes an issue, a tactically disadvantageous position takes on strategic dimensions.

Where the Campaigns Stand Now. There’s a pretty limited database to draw on in assessing where the candidates stand now. Based on Lisa Keegan’s appearances at the Association of American Publishers with Obama advisor Jeanne Century (June 6), Linda Darling-Hammond the National Council of State Legislatures (July 23), and the New America Foundation with John Schnur (July 24), I’d say the McCain campaign might wind up in the vicinity of Option Three. The same events imply that Century would suggest Senator Obama adopt Option One, but I doubt Darling Hammond or Schnur would agree. But when you get right down to it, neither side has locked in on any option.

Public education is not high enough up on the list of voter priorities for either candidate to invest a great deal of money developing and communicating their message in any detail. That is not to say that one position or another is would not advantage a particularly candidate; only that so far it doesn’t seem likely to matter enough to enough voters come the first Tuesday in November to make a difference.

Next: Under what circumstances might this situation change? And who might benefits from taking what position when?

Marc Dean Millot is the editor of School Improvement Industry Week and K-12 Leads and Youth Service Markets Report. His firm provides independent information and advisory services to business, government and research organizations in public 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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