Education Opinion

What Should Federal Involvement Look Like?

By Jack Schneider — June 03, 2014 6 min read
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This week Michelle and Jack discuss the role of the federal government in K-12 education policy, looking at the affordances and limitations of such involvement.

Schneider: I’d like to talk this week about the role of the federal government in education reform.

What is the appropriate level of federal involvement? What can the Department of Education bring to the table that state and local actors can’t? When does federal involvement become problematic?

Rhee: Great topic, as there’s a fair amount of hullabaloo about federal involvement in education of late.

I don’t think the federal government should be micro-managing school districts and states. The federal government should set general guidelines, incentivize the use of best practices, measure progress, and ensure a level of accountability for the use of taxpayer dollars.

I don’t think they should be prescribing specific programs or mandating curricula, as those are best determined at the local level. That said they could certainly distribute information about which programs, etc. are most effective.

Schneider: Can we agree, then, that the Department of Education has overplayed its hand? After all, you say that the federal government shouldn’t be micro-managing state and local activity; but that’s exactly what has happened over the past decade. In return for roughly nine percent of overall funding, the Department of Education has gained unprecedented influence. And it has wielded that influence with very little regard for research.

Rhee: Perhaps. But first tell me specifically what you’re talking about. Where do you think they’ve overplayed their hand?

Schneider: The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) was initially designed as an aid to support state and local efforts—particularly in high-poverty schools. In pushing for the act, President Johnson observed that “federal assistance does not mean federal control.” But when ESEA was reauthorized as No Child Left Behind, that changed. The federal government added strings to dollars that schools had long come to depend on. Those strings were well-intended. Yet they were also poorly-conceived. And the fallout has been well-documented.

The law is long overdue for reauthorization. But Congress is unwilling to touch it. So Arne Duncan has been operating like the Lone Ranger, issuing waivers in exchange for compliance with various—and sometimes arbitrary—commitments from the states. This form of policy-making is neither particularly democratic nor particularly effective.

Rhee: Well I definitely think we need to change the expectation that the Feds will send money to districts year in and year out without any expectations of real progress. Otherwise what stops districts from continuing to do the same things that don’t work? There has to be accountability for tax dollars that are being spent.

I strongly disagree with your characterization of Secretary Duncan and his approach. He’s incentivized states to adopt higher standards, develop rigorous teacher evaluations, etc. Those aren’t arbitrary areas to want states to focus on at all.

Schneider: Why does there have to be accountability for money being channeled to schools serving low-income students and children with disabilities? After all, federal compensatory funds were originally designed to address gross inequity. They represent an effort to compensate for our peculiar and inequitable approach to funding schools, which often relies quite heavily on property taxes.

As for Arne Duncan, I think it’s hard to disagree that he’s been operating with a level of independence the Secretary of Education was never intended to have. Whatever you think of his preferred projects, legislating is a power reserved for Congress, not for the Department of Education. And though Congress has unquestionably failed in this regard, I think it’s hard to craft a sound argument for an unelected leader making such high-stakes decisions. Do I think Arne Duncan is a bad person? No. But do I think he’s exercising powers that aren’t in his job description? Yes.

Finally, you’re right that the areas the Department of Education is focusing on aren’t arbitrary. But some of their specific policy choices are. Some of their specific efforts are guided by research. Some aren’t. What’s guiding those that aren’t? Intuition? That’s not a particularly strong basis for crafting wide-reaching policy.

Rhee: We have to have accountability for taxpayer dollars. If we don’t have accountability mechanisms it can lead to a dynamic where resources continue to be funneled into things that don’t positively impact student learning, which is hugely problematic.

I think that the Secretary has done what most executives in his position would do to ensure things are moving forward in a time of partisan political gridlock. Can you be more specific about actions that you think he’s taken that are outside of his job description?

Also, you state that some of his specific policy choices are guided by research and others are not. Which policies are the ones that you don’t feel are research based?

Schneider: Accountability can take a number of different guises. We can insist, for instance, that funds for low income and special education students get spent on those students. And that’s what we did for roughly 40 years, with the belief that the purpose of federal funding was to address radical inequality in funding. But that isn’t accountability as it has been redefined over the past 15 years. There’s a mountain of research from education and other fields that should promote caution about how, exactly, we hold organizations accountable—research indicating that organizations will change their behaviors in unanticipated, and sometimes undesirable ways, to produce target outcomes. Additionally, we know that there are some outcomes that schools simply can’t control and therefore can’t be fairly held accountable for.

As for Secretary Duncan’s overreaches, I’ll point simply to the NCLB waiver process. You’re right that something needed to be done, since Congress has completely fallen down on the job. But that’s a process that really should have moved through democratic channels.

Finally, in terms of policy choices that indicate a disregard for research, I’ll point to Arne Duncan’s insistence that states build standardized test scores into their teacher evaluation systems in order to receive an NCLB waiver. A number of scholarly organizations including the National Academies Board on Testing and Assessment, the American Educational Research Association, the National Academy of Education, and the American Statistical Association advise greater caution about such procedures. And I simply don’t see that in the Secretary’s approach.

Rhee: If you’re saying that we should hold districts accountable for the taxpayer dollars they’re using, then that’s a point of agreement. In terms of the fact that research shows that we have to be careful about how we do that, I agree.

I’d also like to note that the Department of Education has given states wide discretion on what measures they use to determine student growth. States are using a variety of models, and many states are allowing local districts to utilize locally-designed standardized assessments as part of the student growth measure.

The opinions expressed in K-12 Schools: Beyond the Rhetoric 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.