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Federal Opinion

In Which I Debate Federal Ed Policy With a UFO

By Rick Hess — March 12, 2014 3 min read
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I awoke with a start last night. Hovering above the floor, inches from the bed, was a figure. He wore a nice suit and avidly thumbed his iPhone, before glancing up at me.

“Uh, who are you? What’s going on?” I asked. “And why are you hovering?”

“I’m an unidentified federal official. I’m here to chat. A bunch of us at the U.S. Department of Ed have been wondering why you’re being such a pain. We used to think you were a friend. But now, it seems like you’ve blown a gasket. What gives?”

“You’re a ‘UFO’? Seriously?”


“And the hovering?”

“C’mon. What gives? Why’ve you turned into such a tosser?”

“Look,” I said, “you guys ought to keep in mind that, on principle, I’m with you on a lot, like getting serious about teacher evaluation, embracing better assessments, promoting the smart use of ed tech, and expanding good charter schools. But, there are two big things. One, a bunch of this legalistic, OCR-driven stuff you guys are doing, on school discipline or teacher distribution, leaves me cold. I see lots of new rules, nervous educators, and mindless compliance, and no reason to believe it’ll add up to anything but more bureaucracy and lawyering.”

“Okay, well, that’s one. What’s the second thing?”

“That even on the stuff where I agree with you, there’s a profound difference between thinking it should be done and wanting the feds to use rules, borrowed funds, legal threats, and extra-legal ‘waivers’ to make people do it. I’ve said it a million times, but I’ll say it again. The federal government can make people do things, but it can’t make them do ‘em well. And when it comes to all the stuff we’re talking about, how you do it matters infinitely more than whether you do it.”

“Yeah, I’ve heard that whole little speech before,” he said. “But, seriously. You’ve got to admit that states are doing a lot of stuff on teacher evaluation and school turnarounds because of waivers and SIG. I mean, if it takes a federal nudge to help states do the right thing, how can you oppose that? Is it just being contrary?”

“Uh, no,” I said. “Did you hear me? I’m much less interested in how many states do this stuff than in whether the states that do it actually do it well. When the feds force states onto the bandwagon, I think most will do it poorly. And that it’ll lack staying power. And I fear that in a decade’s time, your push, however well-intentioned and however nice the early reviews, will leave a mess in a lot of states. By the way, that should help explain my lack of enthusiasm for what you guys are doing on the Common Core.”

He looked at me in disbelief. “Are you serious? Are you with the fringe crazies? What’s your problem with the Secretary offering some moral support for the Common Core? We helped get 40-plus states on board. That’s good, isn’t it?”

“Man, you don’t listen,” I said. “Standards are fine, but their value depends on everything else that happens when it comes to assessment, implementation, public acceptance, and the rest. Why the big push to have a lot of states do a half-assed job at that? We’d have all been better if two dozen states had done the Common Core of their own volition, and we saw how things shook out. You’d hear a lot less concern about massive federal overreach, or skirting statute that restricts federal activity on things like curricula.”

I paused. “Look,” I said, “let me say this for the umpteenth time. I like and admire the folks I know in the Department. I know you all are doing what you think best for the kids and our country. I agree with you all on a lot, and I’d like to be supportive. But I also have real problems with some of what you’re doing and how you’re going about it.”

He just shook his head. “Sheesh, so you really have turned into an ideological wingnut. What a wasted trip.” And he hovered out through the window and into the night.

My wife murmured, “Who was that?”

“Just a ticked-off UFO,” I said. “We were talking federal ed policy.”

She didn’t seem too surprised. I’ll take that as a sign of the times.

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