Education Funding Opinion

Anne Hyslop, Policy Analyst, New America Foundation

By Sara Mead — May 16, 2014 12 min read
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Since 2011, ESEA waivers have allowed a fundamental shift in how many states evaluate school performance and report on these results to parents and the public. No one’s been paying closer attention to this experiment than New America Foundation Policy Analyst Anne Hyslop, whose analyses of the impacts of ESEA waivers have played a critical role in shaping understanding of these issues in the field. A native of Richmond, Virginia, Hyslop attended the College of William and Mary and started her career working on early childhood issues for the State of Virginia. Hyslop, 29, lives in Washington, D.C., where, having finally secured an apartment with a full kitchen, she enjoys cooking for her roommate and friends.

What are the primary focus areas of your research?

I spend most of my time researching and writing about K-12 accountability policy, which mostly means that I spend a lot of time trying to understand and improve NCLB waivers. We don’t really know how the accountability systems states have set up with waivers differ from NCLB, and so I’m trying to study the effects of the choices states made in identifying and intervening in low performing schools, and determine whether some choices are more effective than others.

Of course, accountability doesn’t happen in isolation. It’s built on states’ standards, assessments, and other data, so I can’t ignore what’s happening around the Common Core, the testing consortia, and longitudinal data systems. And since the whole point of accountability isn’t just to identify poor performers, but also help them improve, I follow school turnaround efforts, including the SIG program, too. Finally, I think a lot about the push-and-pull between the federal government and states--definitely one of the biggest areas of party disagreement in D.C. right now. What is the appropriate role of the federal government, and what sorts of guardrails and guidelines should they establish for states, if any?

You’ve written a lot about accountability systems: how optimistic/pessimistic are you about the future of accountability in public education?

In the short run, I’m more pessimistic. The longer states have had waivers, the more problems they encounter. And I really believe waivers have weakened accountability efforts overall. The problem isn’t necessarily that fewer schools are identified as low performing, but rather that states have taken the guidelines around identifying those schools and stretched them beyond recognition or comprehension. And then, states and districts aren’t consistently enabling the conditions for them to improve once they are identified. State-driven innovation can be a great thing, but there are real trade-offs to this approach, especially if oversight is weak and states make poor choices.

That’s where we are now. We are essentially conducting a vast accountability lab experiment, and I’m not sure anyone is watching it to gather the results, and equally important, make sure there isn’t a freak lab accident. So far, the Department of Education doesn’t seem to have sufficient capacity to monitor waivers beyond the cursory, nor the tools to help states do better. Perhaps the decision to not extend Washington’s waiver is a turning point, but for now, I’m thinking of it as an anomaly.

Still, even though federal accountability policy is at a particularly low point, I don’t think the basic premise is going away. And that’s why I remain optimistic over the long term. A high-quality K-12 education system is a public good, essential to both our collective freedom and prosperity, and to our individual right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We spend billions of dollars on public education each year to support these ends, and it is only responsible to ensure that these dollars are being used effectively and that all children are getting the best possible education we can provide. We may need to rethink the mechanics of our current accountability policies, but the essential idea remains powerful and compelling.

Getting the mechanics right won’t be easy, but I think it’s possible. It will require much more research on states’ waivers, and that will require a significant investment of time and energy, particularly with each state taking a different approach. But if the policy and research community steps up and shares the effort, then I think waivers can ultimately revive accountability policy--so that when NCLB reauthorization is a serious possibility again, we will be able to point to some yet-to-be-identified waiver lessons and build consensus around smarter accountability systems from there.

The standards and accountability movement has been a dominant framework for public education reform over the past 20 years? Do you expect it to remain a key framework, or be replaced by something else? If the latter, what comes next?

I think standards-based accountability remains a key framework, but I’m not sure that it remains in place exactly as we know it. Given the importance of providing high-quality public education to all children, I think there will always be a need for some form of accountability in a system as fragmented, decentralized, and historically inequitable as ours. But I question whether we’ve always made the best policy choices when it comes to building accountability systems from the late 1980s, onward.

By far, the best education book I’ve read in the last year was Jal Mehta’s The Allure of Order. Obviously, I’m an unabashed fan of standards-based accountability, but Mehta’s writing forced me to question many of my assumptions about the efficacy of using accountability as the primary driver to improve our education system. Specifically, I worry about the lack of trust accountability engenders between those in government and those in schools. Stronger accountability over the last two or three decades has had enormous benefits, and there has been significant progress in some outcomes, like graduation rates. But accountability hasn’t fundamentally altered the capacity or abilities of many schools and teachers.

It’s in these low-capacity places that we’ve seen the worst side effects of accountability (e.g., narrowing curricula, teaching test prep skills, outright cheating). Unless we also invest in building the professional skills, resources, and capacity of those working in schools and districts--and embrace these efforts just as seriously as we’ve embraced systems-level accountability--we can’t act surprised when some actors respond to accountability in the only ways they know how .

I know it isn’t a new idea, and I know past efforts to “professionalize” teaching and the like haven’t lived up to expectations, but I hope that we can move beyond systems-building and figure out how to build people too. Given the energy around teacher evaluations and improving the human capital pipeline right now, the school accountability and teacher quality folks need to be talking to one another a lot more. Rather than duplicating efforts or doubling-down on systems-level accountability, I would like to see if the two reforms could work together to produce both systems- and classroom-level changes in the future.

What do you see as the most overlooked education policy issue right now?

I obviously think that we need more research on waivers. School accountability just isn’t among today’s education reforms du jour. But compared to accountability, issues of school finance and equity seem to be even more old-fashioned (except vouchers--they never go out of style). It’s no secret that funding is deeply inequitable, so it amazes me that we know so little about actual school budgets and how money from various sources and programs is ultimately allocated to schools.

So while everyone wants to talk about disparities in access to great teachers and how policy contributes to these inequities, there is not nearly as much discussion today on the fact that there are other resource disparities between low-income and more affluent schools--disparities that are also the direct result of policy choices. In this country, we typically choose to fund education not based on need, but rather on its very opposite: property tax revenues. And while more money isn’t the end-all, be-all to improve education, we must do better to ensure that the money we have is distributed fairly and spent well, just as we must do better to ensure all students have access to effective teachers.

That’s the state and local picture. Meanwhile, on the federal level, competitive programs, like Race to the Top, have obviously garnered a lot of attention over the past five years. There’s been much less fuss over the fact that most Title I and IDEA funds are allocated based on antiquated formulas that don’t work particularly well to right state and local disparities. But just as there’s little political will in state capitals to move away from the property tax funding model, there’s little will in D.C. to close the Title I comparability loophole or get into a formula fight (and very little money available to appease those who would lose out with any changes). Still, I think that we should be having these debates a lot more than we are, even if the chances for change are slim in the near-term.

Why/how did you come to work in education policy?

In all seriousness, it started with “The West Wing. Before watching the show religiously in high school and college, I had no idea what a career in policy looked like. I didn’t know these jobs even existed--that there was this whole group of people, beyond elected officials, that got to think about complicated public problems and create solutions to them.

So I decided to study government at William and Mary--for fun, of course, since I was still on the pre-med track. While education policy hadn’t been a particular interest of mine, it became one thanks to a senior seminar with Paul Manna. He had just published his first book on federalism and education, and we spent a good portion of the semester talking about the “upcoming” NCLB reauthorization. His class was the first time I engaged deeply with public policy and original research, and it was the most intimidating, challenging, and rewarding academic experience I’ve had. I loved it.

Still, I wasn’t particularly confident about pursuing a career in policy, because I didn’t know how to do it--what was the process for becoming the next Josh Lyman, exactly? I postponed grad school to figure it out and applied to be a fellow in the Governor’s office working with Virginia’s Secretary of Education. That summer, my main project was to finalize the rubric for a Quality Rating and Improvement System for public and private Pre-K programs, and at end of the summer, I was asked to stay on and help pilot it. Two years later, I was managing the program and giving out the first star ratings to about 200 early childhood providers across Virginia.

It was challenging to build a program from the ground up, and I often had to make policy adjustments on the fly--a lot of responsibility for a 24-year-old! Without a background in program administration or early childhood, I often felt under-qualified for the job. I also wasn’t sure I wanted to limit my work to state government or early childhood. Grad school seemed like the best way to both pick up the skills I missed when I was taking molecular biology instead of statistics, and make a career shift. I considered law school too, but finally, and permanently, went the policy route when I saw the bill from a joint JD-MPP program and realized I’d be paying at least $75,000 in student loans for my indecisiveness.

Who are some of your heroes/mentors/people you respect whose examples shape your work?

I was so lucky to start my career in D.C. working with not just one strong mentor, but three. Bill Tucker, Kevin Carey, and Elena Silva were a dream team--all incredibly smart and talented, and working alongside them at Ed Sector showed me three different ways to be an effective leader in the field.

Without a doubt, I have never worked for a better manager and tactician than Bill, someone who remembers the details and sees the big picture. He’s perceptive and a master in handling tough situations with integrity, empathy, and grace. Meanwhile, working closely with Kevin has made me a much more persuasive writer. If I can one day write, after multiple drafts, as well as he crafts an argument on-the-fly, I will consider it a major accomplishment. Kevin also gave me some of the best career advice I’ve ever received: if you take the time to read something--really read something--you are already more informed than 90 percent of people in the room. And it’s completely true. But in general, when it comes to advice, I probably trust Elena’s critical judgment more than anyone--she’s never afraid to tell it like it is and steer straight into the heart of the issue. Her honest counsel and probing questions have given me a better understanding of my work, and myself.

While I admire and follow the work of many others, their examples are the ones that most guide me on a daily basis. I often ask myself at work: “What would Elena say about that?”, or “How would Bill handle this?” I feel so fortunate to have had their examples to draw on early in my career as I learn how to do my job better and think about where I’d like to go next.

What do you hope to be doing 5-10 years from now? What do you hope to have accomplished?

I hope I’m still not working on NCLB waivers! All kidding aside, I’m not quite sure where I’ll be exactly. I still have a lot of interest in state-level education reform and would love to bring some of that back to Virginia, where tradition tends to be the rule, rather than innovation and change. But I’m not sure I’m ready to disregard federal work just yet.

I have to believe that at some point we will get around to reauthorizing ESEA. It’s not going to happen in this administration, and frankly, with states and districts in the throes of implementing new standards, tests, technologies, accountability systems, teacher evaluations, and so on, it doesn’t make much sense to tackle a permanent reauthorization right now. Instead, we need to follow and study the waiver process, and then step back from it to see what’s worked well at the local level and where specific federal guidelines, safeguards, and supports are needed. So that’s what I’m doing now--trying to figure out what’s working. And when a serious reauthorization conversation does come along, I hope I can play a part in it and shape some of the policy choices and changes that are made.

Other than Jal Mehta, what other authors do you enjoy?

I’m one of those weird, Jane Austen-obsessed people. Jane Austen is perfect, and she is timeless. I re-read Pride and Prejudice every year. And I own nearly every version, of every film adaptation, available (12 films and mini-series at last count, not including modern remakes). Why have only one version of Emma, when you can have four? But what really takes the nerd-prize is that I used my freshman scholarship at William and Mary to “study” Jane Austen by experiencing the places she lived and the settings of her novels. In other words, it was an excuse for my hallmate and me to traipse around England for three weeks. Some of my colleagues would probably use this as an example of the misuse of merit aid in higher education, but it was fabulous. And how else would I have ever visited Lyme Regis?

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The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook 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.