First, Do No Harm

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The assumptions and strategies underlying most federal interventions in K-12 education are not just archaic and ineffectual but also damaging.

The Hong Kong bird flu is nothing compared to the epidemic of "programmitis" that infects Washington today with regard to education. The president has proposed dozens of new federal programs. Bills already introduced in the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives would create dozens more. Sizable sums of money are being tossed around. My advice, after 30-plus years in the education field and almost as many inside the Capital Beltway, is to be very, very cautious. Not only is most of what is being proposed apt to do little or no good. It is, I believe, quite likely to do harm.

Like fledgling physicians, federal education policymakers should take the Hippocratic oath, which includes the doctor's promise not to harm his patients or make them sicker. Today, alas, the assumptions and strategies underlying most federal interventions in K-12 education are not just archaic and ineffectual but also damaging. This harm arises from three great errors of federal policy for K-12 education: a grave misreading of today's fundamental problems; selection of the wrong client; and the endless recycling of a failed reform paradigm. If this were in fact medicine, we might say "misdiagnosis, wrong patient, and wrong treatment." Let me explain.

Misdiagnosis. The central failings of U.S. education today involve mediocre quality, weak performance, low efficiency, and slack productivity. Yet the entire federal education apparatus is still geared to a different diagnosis: the mid-1960s view that not enough people had access to enough education. Logically following from that diagnosis, nearly all the major federal programs were designed for expansion of access and extension of services.

And they have indeed helped to bring about all manner of quantity-style improvements, including many more professionals employed by the schools, steadily shrinking class sizes and student-teacher ratios, and many new varieties of specialized services. As a result, just about everyone can obtain just about as much education as they want. And the nation can take pride from having mustered the will and the means to have largely solved the problems of supply, access, and quantity.

Today we face a different set of problems. Today we realize that few young people are learning enough and that our educational institutions aren't delivering value for money. That's why we're still a "nation at risk." (Anyone who needs evidence should study the recent Third International Mathematics and Science Study results.) Yet today our federal programs are still quantity-centered. They're still designed to solve yesterday's problems.

Today, most of the dynamism in education reform is bubbling up from energized states and localities.

Though "quality" has recently entered the rhetoric of some federal program managers and advocates, it's not what those programs were intended for or how they were designed. It's not how they spend their money. It's not the thrust of their regulations. It's not something they have successfully induced in the past. And there's little reason to believe that they will do so in the future (although one hears repeated claims by senior federal officials that "we've finally got it figured out"). We really shouldn't expect them to. That would be like taking an 18-wheeler and entering it in the Indianapolis 500.

Wrong patient. Another momentous decision was made in the mid-1960s: to treat school systems as Washington's principal clients in all K-12 education transactions. Uncle Sam did not forge a relationship with the student or family, nor even the town or state. Rather, the key mechanism in essentially all elementary-secondary programs is the transfer of federal money (and regulations) from Washington to "state education agencies," or SEAs, and "local education agencies," or LEAs.

It made some sense at the time. Governors and legislatures and mayors weren't much involved in education. And if quantity enhancement and service delivery were the primary points of federal involvement, who better to work through than the entities that make up the "delivery system"?

In retrospect, though, it looks awfully much like a decision to aid the chickens by funding the foxes. Today, we understand that it's the delivery system itself that is failing to produce results--and it's those LEAs and SEAs and the interest groups surrounding them that (with rare exceptions) constitute the "education establishment." Yes, the very education establishment that protects the status quo and resists serious efforts to change it, particularly efforts to change it in the direction of greater productivity, flexibility, and parent-responsiveness. That's the establishment to which we still entrust nearly all federal K-12 dollars.

Wrong treatment. What produces change in education, and who decides what changes need to be made? In the mid-1960s, this was a no-brainer. It was taken for granted that change is wrought by a combination of dollars (carrots) and regulations (sticks), that change is best dictated from on high (the higher the level of government making the decision, the wiser and more progressive it was assumed to be), and that education experts are the proper decisionmakers.

Students and families benefited from being told what to do. Laymen were ignorant. Elected officials were grubby politicians. States and localities could not be trusted to do right by children. (They might also do things differently, which was messy and perhaps even inequitable.) National was best. Top-down was best. Uniform was best. Experts were best. Top-down national experts were best of all.

Uncle San is seeking quantity enhancement at a time when quality is the issue.

Today, however, this paradigm is obsolete. Today, most of the dynamism in education reform is bubbling up from energized states and localities--note that I did not say from SEAs and LEAs--from the private sector and from grassroots, populist initiatives such as charter schools. There is an education reform earthquake shaking the land. It includes, for example, a dozen new forms of schooling in addition to traditional "public" and "private" institutions, and almost as many policy strategies for helping families choose among these forms. Yet Washington seems to have retreated into an earthquake shelter. With trivial exceptions (for example, the trickle of aid for charter schools), the view from the Potomac is that none of this is happening--or, if it is, it shouldn't be.

Sure, there have been halting efforts to get Uncle Sam onto the real education reform bandwagon. Last year, for example, Congress made several attempts to provide federal support for school choice (none of them ultimately enacted). And on those ever-rarer occasions when it's wearing its "New Democrat" hat, the Clinton administration may pop up with a proposal that indicates that it is not completely clueless about the changing nature of education reform in America--and wants to participate. But that impulse nearly always leads to a proposal for a new program. Meanwhile, all the old programs (for most of which fat budget increases have again been requested) trundle along in their Great Society mode. The old programs--where most of the money goes--still take for granted that the only reform strategies worth the name are top-down, uniform, expert-designed, bureaucracy-run, government-centered, input-driven, and heavily regulated.

Wrong diagnosis. Wrong patient. Wrong treatment. Uncle Sam is seeking quantity enhancement at a time when quality is the issue. He is funding public school system monopolies at a time when they have become the source of the problem. And he still acts as if big-government strategies will bring about worthwhile change, even though today's real dynamism in education reform comes from very different directions.

My advice, not surprisingly, is to undo all three of those great mistakes: Reorient federal policy and programs so that they foster quality, efficiency, and productivity; specify children and families as Washington's clients; and embrace the reinvention of public education, and all that it implies, as the most promising strategy to bring about the changes we most need.

What would such a transformation mean in practice?

First, resources would be entrusted to families and to general-purpose governments (states and cities), rather than to school systems.

Second, market-style mechanisms rather than expert-driven "central planning" would be embraced--and given maximum freedom and minimum constraint.

Third, when a child is deemed eligible for federal aid, for whatever reason, that aid follows him to the school (or other vendor) of his and his family's choice. Families that do not want certain services for their children (bilingual education comes to mind) would not be obliged to accept them.

Fourth, Washington ceases subsidizing state and local education bureaucracies. Let them pay their own overhead.

Fifth, Washington also stops underwriting middlemen to furnish "technical assistance" and suchlike. Either states and communities and families are trusted to know what to do--and to find the information they need--or they aren't.

Sixth, if we're serious about flexibility, we don't need hundreds of separate "categorical" programs. We need a couple of block grantor, voucher-style programs. (There's a big decision to be made: whether Washington wants to deal directly with 50 states or with the families of 50 million schoolchildren.)

Seventh, if we're serious about quality, much greater attention needs to be paid to assessment and evaluation of educational performance, both with respect to federal programs and with respect to the performance of children and schools. If we mean to take quality seriously, we must know what we're getting.

Seven big changes. If we muster the imagination and political fortitude to make all seven of them, I believe that Uncle Sam could become an effective education doctor rather than a carrier of infection.

Return to the first of three Commentaries revisiting A Nation at Risk, "'A Single Garment of Destiny,'" by U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah.

Vol. 17, Issue 32, Pages 38, 52

Published in Print: April 22, 1998, as First, Do No Harm
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