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Federal Opinion

Obama Administration and K-12: The Good and the Bad

By Rick Hess — September 26, 2012 4 min read
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We’re rolling into the final sprint to the election; this makes it a good time to look back at what the Obama administration has done with its time in office. As I see it, here’s the good and the bad from the administration’s first term when it comes to K-12.

The Good:

Especially through Race to the Top, the administration aggressively encouraged states to uproot anachronistic institutional barriers when it comes to things like data firewalls and charter caps. This kind of support made it possible for governors and legislators to rally the votes needed to overcome opposition from unions, school boards, and others reluctant to change the status quo.

The administration, under the savvy hand of Jim Shelton, championed smart, more rigorous standards of evidence in designing the Investing in Innovation program (i3). One result was that naming the exercise an “innovation” fund turned the word into a misnomer; but the big upside was that i3 created a precedent for funding promising nontraditional operators on an equal footing with districts and schools of education.

The i3 effort was just one example of the Department’s admirable willingness to treat new charter school operators, teacher training programs, and tool builders as full and legitimate providers. In doing this via RTT, i3, and in public remarks, the administration showed an admirable commitment to helping dynamic, high-quality providers pose a “jurisdictional challenge” to the existing monopolies and oligopolies (in the parlance of Harvard’s Jal Mehta and Johns Hopkins’s Steven Teles).

The administration also did a terrific job wielding the bully pulpit. Secretary Duncan admirably noted the “New Normal” and publicly discussed the need to do better with the dollars schools currently have. He flagged the problems with simple-minded NCLB metrics and made clear the need to rethink the law’s crude accountability system and remedy cascade. He also did an impressive job broadening the national K-12 reform conversation to include teacher quality, school choice, school improvement, and school safety.

The Bad:

The Department undermined cost-effective efforts by making excuses for districts while showering on new dollars, as well as by touting the need to add or preserve K-12 jobs in promoting Edujobs and celebrating ARRA. I was particularly taken by the state-by-state mock-ups that showed how many education jobs were “saved” by the stimulus, and by Secretary Duncan telling the press two year agos that districts had been cutting their budgets for a half-decade or more (false) and had already cut “through, you know, fat, through flesh, and into bone.”

Also, the administration missed the opportunity posed by the “New Normal” to push for more informative bookkeeping and accounting, so that we can start to more accurately compare costs and determine bang-for-buck across districts and programs.

More to the point, the Obama administration didn’t distinguish those areas where federal action is useful and those where it is less likely to be so. In particular, it ignored the simple admonition that the federal government can make states and districts do things, but it can’t make them do them well--and therefore, the feds ought to be cautious about dictating action in realms where how things are done matters far more than whether they’re done (e.g. when it comes to teacher evaluation or school improvement). Along the way, the administration turned RTT and ESEA waivers into an exercise seemingly uninformed by an understanding of what ED can do effectively given the design of the federal system.

The Department soaked up limited state education agency bandwidth with RTT, while committing to union sign-offs and buy-in that yielded timid or hard-to-enforce pledges on school improvement and teacher quality. The result encouraged big schemes for new spending and led to the enthusiastic touting of jargon-laden, ambiguous applications consisting of cut-and-paste promises (along with the odd Maya Angelou poem) stitched together by consultants. I still can’t believe, with every state now out of compliance with its promised plan, that journalists aren’t revisiting those RTT applications to make fun of the hundreds of pages of ludicrous promises and unintelligible edu-jargon.

As with the Bush administration before it, the Obama administration has seemed to reduce school improvement to “gap-closing,” treating the needs of already-proficient and advanced students as a peripheral concern. At the same time, it has added a newly partisan dimension to the federal education debate by establishing a worrisome precedent with its novel approach to ESEA waivers and by functionally nationalizing the Common Core effort.

One final word. Though the administration has worried me at times, I want to go on record as saying that I think this is a Department staffed by smart, committed people who are trying to do what they think is right for the nation. Now, I disagree with them a lot (less based on principle and more because I don’t think they ultimately have an especially sound grasp of what the feds can and can’t do usefully when it comes to schooling). But they’re good people, they’ve worked hard in unusual circumstances, they’ve shown an interest in dissent, they’ve engaged critics, and-whether one agrees or disagrees with them on this or that call-it’s important to give credit where credit is due.

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