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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 Problem With NCLB-Style ‘Political Cover’

By Rick Hess — January 30, 2015 3 min read
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As Congress debates the reauthorization of ESEA, those arguing for keeping NCLB-style mandates claim that reform-minded leaders in the states require “political cover” from Washington. It’s not an unreasonable argument, but it’s one that I ultimately reject. Today, I want to say a few words about why.

Now, let’s make sure we’re clear on the case for “cover.” State superintendents in places like Tennessee and New York have argued that they could only push as far and as fast as they did on teacher evaluation or adopting new Common Core-aligned testing because they could tell local critics, “Hey, it’s not me. It’s those guys in Washington. And if we don’t do X, we’re going to [lose out on Race to the Top, lose our waiver, get in trouble, etc.].” Local superintendents have said the same thing about NCLB’s accountability requirements. There’s obviously something to all of this. “Cover” can help produce tactical wins. And those early wins can build momentum—energizing and mobilizing champions. I get it.

That all said, I’m unpersuaded for at least three reasons (and this is true even presuming I happen to agree with whatever the feds are pushing).

First, early wins can make the case for “cover” look like a no-brainer. But it’s not hard to argue that NCLB’s early “wins” have actually eroded support for educational accountability. Similarly, it’s pretty likely that Race to the Top and Secretary Duncan’s “waivers” ploy will ultimately prove, on balance, counterproductive for Obama administration priorities like teacher evaluation and the Common Core. Of course, NCLB and Duncan’s waivers got states to do things. But waivers led to the rushed adoption of not-ready-for-prime-time teacher evaluation systems and NCLB led to a hurried reliance on poorly designed accountability systems and problematic school improvement strategies. Federal “cover” can push states to do things, but hurried adoption on a politically driven timeline means they’ll be done poorly in lots of places, undermining public confidence and support.

Second, school improvement is invariably better off, in the long run, when ambitious reforms have local political backers and meaningful local support. Sometimes, as noted above, a federal push can help spur state-based efforts that change the status quo and generate indigenous political support. But I think, more often, would-be reformers get out ahead of what their state is willing or able to do and invite backlash. Or they win some early victories and then new governors, legislative majorities, or state chiefs come in and throw out baby, bathwater, and the rubber ducky, too. The irony is that the very act of providing federal “cover” can also serve to undermine local backing, or cause it to atrophy, by making it seem less necessary or urgent.

Third, federal “cover” works best when bright lines are involved and it’s crystal clear whether a state or district is doing what Uncle Sam is requiring it to do. If districts have to test annually and one isn’t, the state superintendent can say, “X will happen if you don’t administer the test.” That tends to move the needle. The same holds when arm-twisting legislators pass a teacher evaluation bill with provisions X and Y (though arm-twisting legislators tend to create the other kinds of problems noted above). On the other hand, when it comes to school improvement, districts can say, “Yeah, we know we have to do it,” and then do a lousy job with it. At that point, federal “cover” is of limited value, because all a state official can say is, well, “The feds really want us to do this seriously.” And it’s not clear how cover helps on that score. This is why NCLB-style school improvement and waiver-driven teacher evaluation have had such a minuscule impact in the real world.

A final thought: “cover” can lead to political miscalculations and a failure to pay enough attention to what a given state is willing and able to do well. It’s just a thought, but that may have something to do with the ferocious rate at which “reform-minded” state chiefs have come and gone during the Race to the Top/waiver years.

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