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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Federal Opinion

A Couple Thoughts on Tuesday’s NYT Op-Ed

By Rick Hess — December 08, 2011 4 min read
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On Tuesday, Linda Darling-Hammond and I published an op-ed “How to Rescue Education Reform” in the New York Times. (I take no responsibility for the immodest title; those of you who have written op-eds know how little control authors have on that score.) The piece has generated a number of notes, with several asking how the piece came about. The piece also seemed to raise the ire of various colleagues, including Bellwether’s Andy Rotherham and Cato’s Neal McCluskey.

The background on how the piece came to be is only mildly interesting. Linda and I had no scheme to hatch a grand compromise. Rather, when the Senate HELP Committee held its final hearing on Harkin-Enzi last month, I was invited to testify. Linda, with whom I am friendly, reached out to say, much to my surprise, that she had heard what I had to say and that we were on the exact same page. Given that the two of us happened to agree on this issue, despite our substantial differences on many issues, we thought it worth writing something that sketched out some shared principles as to what a smart federal role should look like. We knew the “odd couple” pairing would attract notice, but we thought what was most interesting was that we could start from very different places and still agree on the shape of a sensible federal role.

Let’s address my friend Andy’s concerns. First, I’ve noticed that Andy seems to have developed a tic: whenever I make an argument he deems insufficiently “reformy,” he accuses me of triangulation. His lede in discussing our piece? “Look ma! I’m reasonable!” Okay, then...

More substantively, Andy thinks I’m flip-flopping because I’ve frequently argued against subgroup-based accountability but here am fine with subgroup reporting for transparency purposes. There’s no flipping; these are distinct questions. I’ve problems with subgroup-based accountability systems because they tend to steer all of our energies into “gap-closing” amongst particular subgroups. That said, I believe that transparency-minded subgroup reporting provides a valuable X-ray of how various populations are faring (though I strongly prefer basing subgroups on income or needs rather than race, because I’m skeptical of race-based policies).

Andy also takes issue with our statement, “Instead of the vague mandate of ‘adequate yearly progress,’ federal financing should be conditioned on truth in advertising...” Andy seems unable to reconcile this with the fact that Linda and I have previously noted that NCLB is too prescriptive. AYP is a vague mandate because it doesn’t actually mean anything: its meaning changes state-to-state based on standards, assessments, cut scores, and the rest (it can even change school-to-school depending on subgroup size, safe harbor, etc.). At the same time, the machinery of the law, the AYP calculation, and the remedy cascade are unduly prescriptive. What we’re advocating is a truth-in-advertising standard, where folks have a better idea what the results mean but where the feds aren’t trying to rate schools or specify interventions.

Third, he seems annoyed, in noting the principled case for a federal role in supporting basic ed research, that we didn’t list various administration efforts or proposals (like i3 and ARPA-ED). I won’t bother here dwelling on the fact that i3 isn’t basic research (key difference: basic research is a public good, leading to a dearth of private investment, while applied research has benefits for private actors and therefore is less in need of public investment. For example, the difference between investigating the chemical properties of a new compound versus designing a marketable drug, or in education, between funding research in neuroscience versus developing that research into instructional resources). And ARPA-ED was mentioned by name in the initial piece, but we had to trim in many places during the editing process. Our point was precisely the value of federal research investment and support for the principle of ARPA-ED (of which I spoke approvingly to HELP).

Finally, he objects to our relatively harsh characterization of Race to the Top as “demanding that winning states hire consultants to comply with a 19-point federal agenda, rather than truly innovate,” by firing back, “Really? Of all the critiques you can level at RTT that’s a pretty weak one.” Andy knows that I’ve offered much more extensive discussions of the pros and cons of RTT (given that he’s pushed back on several of my points in his blog and over beers), but I thought this phrase pithily captured the problems with RTT as an example of competitive grants. Again, if we had another 100 words, we could’ve said much more with more nuance; but, well, we didn’t.

Anyway, it’s nice to see that the op-ed prompted some conversation, which is kind of the point of these kinds of pieces.

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