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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: State Goals for Adequate School Performance

By Rick Hess & Peter Cunningham — February 06, 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 Congress require that state goals for adequate school performance be approved by the U.S. Department of Education?

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.

Given our history of unintended consequences stemming from education policy decisions, let’s ask how the incentives would play out if the federal government stopped approving performance goals for states. Would states do the right thing and set responsible, achievable, and ambitious targets? History suggests otherwise.

A state that wants to look good and protect the status quo might set easily achievable targets to weaken the case for change. A state that wants to make the case for choice might set impossible targets so schools consistently fall short.

America cannot leave educational outcomes to chance, politics, or ideology. High expectations for all kids—low-income, minorities, students with disabilities, English language learners, and every other child at risk—should not be optional for states or subject to the whims of the political leadership in power at the time.

Our job is to protect every child and give him or her the best education possible. That’s a national imperative that warrants a meaningful federal role to ensure that all children are making progress every year.

The challenge, however, is for performance targets to reflect the aspirations and realities on the ground—to be more “bottom-up” than “top down.” To that end, and recognizing that NCLB’s one-size-fits-all goals were unrealistic and led to a variety of unintended consequences, we should build on the work of the current administration and negotiate performance targets at the state level.

Any state or district that believes lower or higher performance targets are in the best interests of kids should be required to make the case to parents, educators, taxpayers, and the federal government. That way, everyone will own it.

Rick Hess Responds

It’s a good thing for every state to be clear and public about how it gauges adequate school performance. However, while Congress should require this transparency, Congress should not require that the U.S. Department of Education play any role in approving these state decisions. As I see it, there are four key problems with that kind of prescriptive federal role.

First, performance targets can be powerful motivators when they are concrete, when they are shared, and when the goal-setters are accountable for the results. The problem with federal involvement is that federal officials have no responsibility for meeting the goals they insist upon and no accountability if schools fail to do so. All the blame falls on local educators and on local and state officials. The result is that it’s all too easy for D.C. officials to insist upon ridiculous goals. In fact, the inclination to aim high (as with NCLB’s 100% proficiency targets) yields aspirational goals that are more a symbolic statement than a serious tool for improving schools or systems.

Second, when federal officials promulgate grand goals, real people are then required to treat these as a practical gauge of success. The Soviet Union showed where this tends to lead, as decades of ludicrous five-year plans that promised heroic increases in agricultural production produced little grain, but lots of cynicism, deception, and lies.

Third, a federal sign-off inevitably means federal guidelines or requirements. Given the need to fit fifty states with 100,000 schools, any meaningful parameters will be too rigid to be a good fit for many systems and schools (as with NCLB’s requirement that any school was failing to make AYP if any single subgroup failed to hit a proficiency bar).

Finally, giving the feds a role in approving state targets presumes a false certainty and science when it comes to determining adequate performance. There’s simply no rational basis for federal officials to insist there is a best-practice system or set of expectations. These are open questions, and we’re best served by states exploring a diverse array of systems.

Let me put it this way. The NFL season just ended. Over the next couple months, coaches should sit with their executives and owners in order to set goals regarding the kind of performance they expect to see. That process is valuable and I heartily endorse it. At the same time, I don’t think it would be constructive for the Pennsylvania legislature to declare that the Eagles and Steelers need to go at least 11-5 next year.

Other Posts in This Series

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

Monday, February 9 - Issue #3: What the federal government should require when it comes to school improvement

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.