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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

ESEA Cabin Fever: Should Uncle Sam Tell States How to Turnaround Schools?

By Rick Hess & Peter Cunningham — February 09, 2015 4 min read
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“Cabin Fever” is a virtual conversation between two friends who come from the opposite ends of the political spectrum but share a belief in the power of public education to improve lives and brighten our collective future. The focus of the conversation is the federal K-12 education law known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (No Child Left Behind), which is in progress in Congress. Our initial post on February 4 reflected areas of agreement around annual testing and transparency. Additional posts focus on areas of disagreement and will run simultaneously through February 19 every other day on Rick’s blog at Education Week and on Education Post.

Should the federal government require specific school improvement strategies in low-performing schools?

Peter Cunningham Responds

Peter Cunningham is the Executive Director of Education Post, a Chicago-based nonprofit supporting efforts to improve public education. He previously served as Assistant Secretary for Education in the Obama administration from 2009 to 2012.

The Obama administration’s School Improvement Grant Program (SIG) is essentially NCLB interventions on steroids: it’s both more aggressive and more prescriptive. But there are two big differences. SIG is voluntary and it is better funded. The only states participating in SIG are those that won competitive grants or those awarded flexibility waivers from NCLB.

Conservatives should love SIG because it’s not mandated. Liberals should love it because it is funded. In fact, both hate it: conservatives do not like Washington prescribing interventions and liberals do not like interventions that might include replacing staff in underperforming schools.

And some policy wonks just do not think it works very well, even though 60 percent of the schools improved in the first year—including 20-25% that made double-digit gains.

With thousands of schools defying every effort to improve after decades of reform, can we really just throw up our hands and quit? Even with the flexibility and financial incentives associated with SIG—multiple models and up to $6M over three years—most states and districts choose the least aggressive and least impactful interventions, presumably to avoid a messy fight over staffing.

Children have only one chance for an education. When states and districts allow chronically struggling schools to continue indefinitely, the federal government has a moral obligation and an economic incentive to step in. When it comes to protecting kids at risk, the buck still stops in Washington.

Rick Hess Responds

We can all agree that schools should always be getting better. And that’s true many times over when it comes to schools that aren’t getting the job done. But it’s a mistake for Congress to involve federal officials in this process. Here’s the problem: there’s no recipe for identifying which schools need to be “turned around” or for helping those schools improve. This means that identifying those schools, figuring out how to help them, and then actually doing so are complicated tasks that require a lot of judgment, discretion, and good sense.

Unfortunately, these are not the strengths of the federal government. This is simply because federal officials a] don’t run schools or systems, b] have to write policies that apply to 100,000 schools across 50 states, and c] aren’t accountable for what happens in schools and systems. These three factors mean that federal “school improvement” efforts amount to efforts to write rules and directions that can apply everywhere, including many places where the formulas may not make sense. The result is a whole lot of grudging compliance, a fair bit of aimless activity, and not a whole lot of smart problem-solving.

The results are evident in efforts like the Obama administration’s School Improvement Grant program. There, we’ve spent $6 billion and a third of the schools receiving SIG funds have seen their test results get worse. Of course, it’s hard to find really reliable numbers on all this because the Department of Education hasn’t been forthcoming with the data (and has had to retract flawed data). One can make a case for Andy Smarick’s claim that SIG is “the greatest failure in the U.S. Department of Education’s 30-plus year history.”

Nearly a decade ago, after co-editing two books on the NCLB remedies (Leaving No Child Behind? and No Remedy Left Behind), I concluded that federal efforts to make schools better just don’t help much. Worse, writing federal rules to tell states and districts how to manage schools creates confusion, disperses responsibility, and creates new layers of bureaucracy. This all tends to get in the way of judgment, discretion, and good sense, making real accountability rarer and improvement harder.

Other Posts in This Series

Wednesday, February 4 - Issue #1: Testing and transparency

Friday, February 6 - Issue #2: Federal mandates around student performance

Wednesday, February 11 - Issue #4: Title I portability

Friday, February 13 - Issue #5: What the federal government should require when it comes to teacher evaluation

Tuesday, February 17 - Issue #6: Federal support for innovation

Thursday, February 19 - Wrapping Things Up: The proper federal role in K-12 education

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up 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.