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Federal Opinion

My Take on the Harkin-Enzi ESEA Proposal

By Rick Hess — October 17, 2011 8 min read
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The horrified shrieking you heard last week was the anguished cry of liberal NCLB enthusiasts denouncing the Harkin-Enzi ESEA proposal as a dreaded retreat into the distant past. They fretted that it would whip us back to the primitive year of 1994--when Bill Clinton was president and the feds didn’t mandate school improvement plans based on the performance of racial subgroups. The keening will continue apace, as this is the week for the big mark-up.

For my friends at Education Trust and the Center for American Progress, the Harkin-Enzi proposal marks an unfortunate retreat from the Bush-era ambitions of NCLB. For most of the rest of us, the proposal elicits a more positive reaction. Now, I don’t think the Harkin-Enzi proposal is nearly as good as the Alexander et al. proposals rolled out a few weeks ago. But the five Alexander bills are elegant and appealing because they don’t make the compromises required by bipartisan legislation--they are markers more than anything else. For better and worse, Harkin and Enzi managed to cobble together a bipartisan proposal--with all the fudging and unwieldiness that implies.

I’m not worried about going “back” to 1994, partly because edu-world has changed (due in substantial part to NCLB) and partly because some of the “retreats” are actually sensible steps informed by a better sense of what the feds can and can’t do well. There have been three big shifts, in particular, this past decade, and they augur a more measured federal role. First, testing and transparency are here to stay. Second, the idea that the federal government can intervene effectively in the nation’s school systems has been discredited. Ten years ago, Al Gore spoke during the presidential campaign of “SWAT” teams of experts being dispatched by the feds to help turn around troubled schools. Today, no one has any illusions the Department of Education can fix schools. Third, a critical mass of reform-minded leaders exists across the land, and what they seek from the feds is political cover.

On the big-picture politics, there’s been some hand-wringing in “reform” quarters about the fact that the NEA embraced Alexander’s proposals. Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) even tried to argue that the Republicans--the same folks DFER savaged last spring for supposedly horrific and mean-spirited attacks on teacher unions in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, and elsewhere--are now NEA dupes. For what it’s worth, I think a far more sensible take was offered in early 2009, by a couple analysts who observed:

Conservatives should also be willing to draw a principled line in the sand with liberal reformers. After all, conservatives are justified in regarding as suspect much of NCLB's approach to accountability, especially its obsession with race, its narrow focus on low-level math and reading skills, its fairy-tale treatment of students with disabilities and English language learners, and its pie-in-the-sky dream of universal 'proficiency'...Poorly conceived and overly ambitious policies championed by progressives have only increased the pool of people sympathetic to union complaints about NCLB. Rather than carrying the progressive reform movement's water on these issues in the face of union pushback, conservatives should be willing to throw off decades of conditioned responses and say to the unions something that doesn't come naturally: 'We agree.' By addressing the legitimate concerns the unions have raised (yes, there are a few), reformers can highlight the unions' less justifiable stances on questions like merit pay and teacher accountability.

Self-proclaimed “reformers” have to understand that they have sometimes driven past the bounds of common sense and a well-ordered federal role, and it should hardly surprise that Republicans seeking to bring Uncle Sam back in line are going to find some common ground with teacher unions on this score.

Accountability: Happily, Harkin-Enzi sticks a fork in AYP and the idea of setting 100 percent proficiency targets by a set date. Instead, it goes for a big-time fudge, requiring “continuous improvement.” That massively ambiguous phrase is interpreted by the states. It’s not as good as an honest admission that the feds just aren’t equipped to make states fix schools--and it’s not nearly as good as the Alexander bill’s emphasis on transparency rather than accountability--but it’s still certainly better than the Rube Goldberg contraption in NCLB. States would be required to flag the 5 percent of schools with the lowest rates of student achievement, the 5 percent with the largest achievement gaps, and all high schools with graduation rates of less than 60 percent. According to proponents, this will flag about 5 to 10 percent of schools in a state each year--and they expect the list will be fairly stable. Skeptics argue that, because states will have to generate the list each year, the real number will be much, much higher. Because it’s all kind of vague, I’ll admit right here that I’m not 100 percent sure how it would play in practice. A big bill with so many details and so much ambiguity will benefit from some hard scrutiny; I trust I’ll understand its practical impact much better a week from now than we do today.

Teachers: Within five years of the law’s passage, states and districts would be required to set up an evaluation system that includes at least four rating categories for teachers and principals. And districts have to create evaluation systems based in “significant part” on evidence of improved student achievement (though determining what that means is left entirely to the several states). In one of its most disturbing bits of overreach, the proposal requires states and districts to use these systems to report on the percentage and retention rates of teachers in each performance category, and to then take steps to equalize disparities among high- and low-poverty and high- and low-minority schools. In this, much like over-caffeinated state level champions of teacher evaluation, the self-styled “reformers” are getting way ahead of themselves and of what current practice can justify, and opening the door to all kinds of gaming, federally ordered mischief, and troubling use of data.

Otherwise, Harkin-Enzi is pushy but vague and largely toothless when it comes to trying to prescribe teacher evaluation from DC. The proposal is weak enough that it amounts to little more than exhortation to do teacher evaluation better. Where the Alexander package kills the awful paper-chase that is NCLB’s highly qualified teacher provision, Harkin-Enzi retains it. But, it does drop it for veteran teachers as states adopt the mandated teacher evaluation systems. The proposal also makes clear that Teach For America corps members, and similar entrants, qualify under HQT.

Flexibility: The Alexander proposals take a much-needed meat cleaver to the slew of categorical programs. But proponents of Harkin-Enzi argue that while it may not go that far, it does go as far as the House GOP proposal. The House bill reduced the number of categorical from 82 to 42. Harkin-Enzi cuts the number to 40. Its advocates assert that it creates 100 percent flexibility in funding, aside from the protections for special populations. Again, the actual degree to which the proposal zeroes out categoricals and reduces federal micromanagement should be much clearer a week from now.

State standards: Harkin-Enzi requires that state standards prepare students to be college or career ready. States can adopt the Common Core or other standards as they see fit. In the administration’s “Blueprint,” higher ed institutions have to sign off on the state’s standards. In Harkin-Enzi, there’s no such requirement. The proposal’s language prohibits the Secretary from approving or reviewing the standards, but does empower him to ensure that states are in compliance. Exactly how that bit of fudging is supposed to work is unclear. The limited federal role seems reasonable, but that kind of ambiguity can create lots of room for mischief.

Charter Schools: There’s an effort in Harkin-Enzi to standardize and federalize charter schooling. This has some obvious appeal, especially setting a bar for the kinds of autonomies that charters should enjoy. But the resulting rule-writing is almost sure to eventually prove troubling in one context or another, while the effort to bring uniformity to performance metrics will inevitably yield some concerns about narrowing and homogenizing the charter space.

As we turn our eyes towards these draft proposals, it’s a useful time to think about what the feds can and can’t do when it comes to school improvement. The feds can make states and districts do things, but it can’t make them do them well. Washington is good at prohibiting things or writing checks. It’s not good at fine-tuning the operations of thousands of complex organizations. We can’t fix schools from Washington, and trying to do so is more likely to yield burdensome regs and rule-bound management than improvement. That said, I’m firmly convinced the feds can play a very valuable role.

First, it’s appropriate and helpful for the feds to insist upon transparency and clean reporting of performance and spending data as a condition for federal dollars. This entails special attention to the information regarding vulnerable populations and communities, including bright line guidelines regarding regularity of reporting, what gets reported, and so forth.

Second, the feds can offer support for leaders who choose to step out front, without trying to dictate just what those policies should look like. Hence, better to award Title 2 funds to states pursuing ambitious plans for teacher evaluation than to lay out a particular system of evaluation or mandate its adoption. Providing competitive funds for those state and district leaders willing to tackle the tough task of upending century-old routines focuses those dollars in useful ways and makes it more possible for those leaders (and the union chiefs with whom they’re working) to present efforts to rethink tenure, pay, evaluation, and the rest to affected teachers as a potential win-win.

Third, basic research is a public good, and one that demands an active federal role. In principle, I’m supportive of Senator Bennet’s proposed amendment to create an ARPA-ED. That said, the focus must be on cultivating new tools and technologies that will fuel problem-solving. If it’s designed to focus on “reforms” and implementation-dependent strategies, then I’m going to jump off the bandwagon real quick.

Anyway, should be an interesting week. With any luck, we’ll know much more at the end of it than we do today.

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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.