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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

The Good Kind of Schizophrenia

By Rick Hess — March 15, 2010 4 min read
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When the Obama administration released its proposal for the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind on Saturday, I had two immediate, conflicting reactions. The first was that the administration deserves kudos for sketching a vastly more modest conception of Uncle Sam’s role and for dramatically scaling back NCLB’s attempts to fix K-12 schooling from Washington. Indeed, I’d have expected this sensible stance to be a bitter pill for Kati Haycock and the champions of “the feds should fix it” legislation (more on that in a moment).

The second reaction was puzzlement at what seems a schizophrenic vision of the federal role. Despite Duncan’s declarations that he wants to be “tight” about ends but “loose” about means, Race to the Top has struck me as pretty prescriptive about means. And I’m not sure how a reauthorization less aggressive about singling out troubled-but-not-awful schools and dictating school improvement strategies squares with the Office of Civil Rights’ (OCR) interest in investigating schools based on the racial representativeness of Advanced Placement enrollments and issuing detailed guidance on feeder patterns, early enrollments, and who knows what else. That seems real prescriptive to me. (For more on that score, check out terrific pieces by the Fordham Institute’s Mike Petrilli and the University of Colorado’s Josh Dunn).

So, what to do? Because I’ve sometimes been hard on the administration, will get around to Russlynn Ali’s OCR efforts eventually, and do think the Obama team has so far outpaced the Bushies on education, I’m inclined to focus on the good. So, let’s go there.

The proposal does away with much of the panoply that skeptics of bureaucratic overreach have long flagged. The administration proposal would do away with the “cascade of sanctions,” including federal mandates governing supplemental educational services and public school choice; eliminate “Adequate Yearly Progress;" end the requirement that 100 percent of students be “proficient” by 2014; and halt the ability of lousy performance by a particular subgroup to trap a reasonably performing school in the gears of the “needs improvement” machinery.

Despite fierce protests from the NEA (amazing how little gratitude $100 billion in stimulus spending can buy you nowadays), the proposal is a big win for the teachers unions frustrated with NCLB’s Rube Goldberg-esque interventions, heavy-handed reliance on math and reading tests, and byzantine AYP rules. This is just fine, as the NEA happens to be largely correct on these points.

The proposal also reminded me why New York Times columnist David Brooks’ sycophantic columns on Obama’s education efforts make him such an unreliable narrator. Just last week, Brooks panted, “Obama has taken on a Democratic constituency, the teachers’ unions, with a courage not seen since George W. Bush took on the anti-immigration forces in his own party...Obama has been the most determined education reformer in the modern presidency.” Whoops. It’s a good thing that Obama dialed it back here. But it does leave Brooks, dizzy and a little disoriented from his man-crush, sounding like an overcaffeinated sales rep.

Now, like I noted above, I was stunned by the Education Trust’s bizarrely cheerful response to the substance-free goal that 100 percent of students graduate high school “college and career ready” by 2020. After a decade of Ed Trust advocating increasingly intrusive targets and federal interventions, this response would normally leave me wondering whether the public proposal was accompanied by some private understandings. But, I’m going to put away such doubts for now and congratulate the administration for savvy negotiating and skillful politicking that somehow convinced Kati Haycock, Amy Wilkins, and their colleagues to embrace a plan that seems a crushing defeat for their Great Society-style aspirations.

And I could only scratch my head at former Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings opining that the proposal represents “a more nuanced approach to accountability.” It is some kind of alien abduction deal? It’s hard for me to square that comment with those of the Secretary who said, “I talk about No Child Left Behind like Ivory soap: It’s 99.9 percent pure or something.” After all, this proposal explodes the intricate, problematic architecture of NCLB and erases the “bright lines” that Spellings tried so adamantly to draw around 100% proficiency, AYP, disaggregation-based accountability, and the rest.

The problem with D.C. is that you never know whether this kind of cognitive dissonance is the result of backroom handshakes and quiet understandings, the need for advocates and consultants to stay in the game and curry favor, advice from media handlers and P.R. advisors, or an honest read of the proposal. Fortunately, we’ll have plenty of time to sort it all out.

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.