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Federal Opinion

The Learning Stimulus?

By John E. Chubb — July 15, 2009 4 min read
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The Obama administration recently opened the sluice gates again—directing $44 billion of the economic-stimulus package to the schools. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan immediately reassured Americans that this titanic sum is not just another boost to the flagging economy. It is meant to stimulate learning.

But will it?

The sum itself is startlingly large, more than the federal government currently sends to K-12 schools annually. It will be supplemented this fall by another $33 billion or so—in all, a double dose of the funding that normally comes from Washington, all in just one year. The funds are explicitly meant to leverage reform, with over two-thirds of the total—so-called state stabilization and “Race to the Top” incentive funds—with conditions.

States will have to assure the federal government they are committed to reform in four areas that can unquestionably boost learning, and where substantial improvement is long overdue—increasing teacher effectiveness, raising standards and toughening assessments, turning around the lowest-performing schools, and building better information systems—so the progress of reforms can be carefully monitored. States must also report annual progress on these reforms. They will have to produce data that will provide unprecedented transparency in school performance.

The administration should be applauded for its concern. But the dollars and demands, radical as they surely are, are doomed to disappoint. Part of the problem is timing. To get money into the economy quickly, the $44 billion will be released with no effective strings.

A quarter of the funds—$11.6 billion—are being distributed to aid students with special needs, through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or schools with disadvantaged students, through Title I. These federal laws, and the conditions they impose on spending, have not been modified to provide for the sudden influx of stimulus funds. Nor have these programs proven to be highly effective in the past. The remaining funds for state stabilization—the administration has assured governors—can be accessed with a “streamlined application” that will get funds flowing in just two weeks, far too quickly for any conditions to be effectively met.

States might make strides toward reform with a second tranche of funds in the fall. But once again, that money includes another $11 billion for IDEA and Title I, not slated for timely reform. The remaining $16 billion in state stabilization funds will flow as long as states have fashioned plans to collect data about reform (without actually having gathered the data or made real progress).

In short, only $5 billion in the “Race to the Top” incentive grants out of nearly $80 billion in education stimulus funds will be spent on the basis of any evidence of school reform or student learning.

Whatever this is, it is not an education stimulus package.

To ensure that these monies actually produce results, the administration could take additional steps. While its emphasis on transparency in performance is a good first step, the administration must also hold states accountable for that performance. And therein lies the rub. The federal government already has a nationwide education accountability system, established as part of the No Child Left Behind Act. Although passed with bipartisan support, NCLB has proved to be wildly unpopular—among educators who see it as unfair, Democrats who see it as a tool of the Bush administration, and Republicans who see it as federal overreaching.

No Child Left Behind now awaits reauthorization, with the president promising to revise and renew the law at some unspecified time. Unpopular though it may be, NCLB is the nation’s accountability system. Now is the time to take a hard look at the law, overhaul it as necessary, and ensure that the vast sums now being sent to the states are governed by rules that insist on achievement.

The changes NCLB needs happen to also be ones the administration supports. These are:

• Requiring state information systems to identify the teachers who have taught each student—the best way to identify effective and ineffective teachers;

• Giving states meaningful incentives to raise their standards and toughen their assessments (perhaps until 2020 instead of the current 2014);

• Allowing kids in failing schools real opportunity to choose other schools, including by providing startup grants for new charter schools in districts with high percentages of failing schools;

• Getting serious about schools that fail for years on end; and,

• Toughening NCLB’s restructuring provisions so that the worst schools either close or reopen with wholly new staff or management.

The principles underlying these measures are those of the Obama administration—to drive teacher quality, raise standards, provide choice, and not tolerate failing schools.

There is time yet to provide for accountability—if the goal is to truly stimulate learning.

A version of this article appeared in the August 12, 2009 edition of Education Week as The Learning Stimulus?

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