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Standards Opinion

What Betsy DeVos Can Learn From Bush-Obama School Reform

Four takeaways for the U.S. secretary of education
By Rick Hess & Michael McShane — October 22, 2018 5 min read
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MADAM SECRETARY, as you well know, American education suffers from more than its share of posturing, invective, hype, and spin. All that noise too often drowns out lessons that experience might otherwise teach. When we look at the George W. Bush or Barack Obama education legacies, for instance, it’s all too easy to find glossy PR or ad hominem critiques. Much harder to find are analyses that tease out practical lessons. In our new book, Bush-Obama School Reform: Lessons Learned, we tried to identify those, with the aid of a double handful of thoughtful analysts more interested in seeking insights than in scoring points. In this memo, we’ve sketched four key takeaways that might help inform the Education Department’s efforts today.

1. Uncle Sam is good at making schools give tests and at promoting research and reporting, but lousy at making schools improve. Your rhetoric sometimes suggests that there’s nothing Washington does well when it comes to K-12 schooling. That’s not the case. Indeed, your critique is most compelling when it recognizes that there are some areas where Washington has a useful role to play. The legacy of No Child Left Behind is instructive. NCLB yielded a wealth of data on how students were faring in reading and math. NCLB created a uniform, consistent national framework for testing—yielding a boom in transparency, research, and data-informed practice. It was NCLB’s “adequate yearly progress” measure, its remedies for “low performing” schools, and its legacy of top-down compliance that were defective, requiring unwieldy standardization and putting an undue faith in bureaucratic routine.

Takeaway: When it comes to federal guidelines governing school discipline or addressing state plans under the Every Student Succeeds Act, don’t simply denounce the federal role or grudgingly bow to procedural requirements. Rather, move forward with the recognition that federal efforts can be a boon for transparency and research. At the same time, keep explaining, over and over, that Washington may be good at making schools perform simple tasks, like giving tests—but is poorly equipped to steer more complicated improvement processes.

While it may be tempting to pursue a big win, such a path would exact a huge cost."

2. Nationalizing a policy can make things tougher for state-level coalitions. When the Common Core State Standards or Race to the Top-style teacher evaluation took on the veneer of “national” initiatives, backed by directives from the U.S. Department of Education, these became fixed in the public mind as Washington’s handiwork. This made it tougher for local leaders to credibly argue that their approach was sensitive to the local context—no matter how true that might be. Given that the educational and political dynamics are different in New Jersey and Nebraska, and that Washington is disliked almost everywhere, this invited blowback—especially in places where the president was unpopular.

Takeaway: America doesn’t need a 50-state effort on school choice. The lack of federal leadership has allowed school choice advocates in places as different as California, Arizona, Louisiana, and Indiana to build powerful, broad-based coalitions that don’t suffer from the need to rally around a dictate cooked up in President Donald Trump’s Washington. While it may be tempting to pursue a big win, such a path would exact a huge cost—tarring the issue, making coalitions more fragile, and potentially doing more to stymie school choice than to stimulate it.

3. Public officials are forced to operate on political timelines, but those timelines can undermine reforms. Rebooting policies, training educators, revising instructional materials, and changing what happens in classrooms is a slow, frustrating process, especially when the goal is competence and not merely compliance. Yet, political realities lead officials to think in terms of expedited timelines. Elected officials want results in time for re-election. Appointees to the Education Department know that they have only a few years to make their mark. NCLB and President Bush’s Reading First program sprinted out of the gate, only to be hobbled by myriad design flaws that weren’t immediately apparent. The Obama administration pursued teacher accountability even as new standards and tests were being rolled out and value-added assessment was still being pioneered—leaving little opportunity to work out the kinks.

Takeaway: This is one place where your distrust of Washington serves you especially well. The Bush and Obama teams were racing to implement a raft of new federal initiatives, and those wound up tripping over one another. As you look to move forward on higher education reform and your efforts to promote “rethinking” in K-12, you’ll do well if that deliberate and measured impulse continues to guide you.

4. It’s politically potent to wrap education advocacy in the garb of “civil rights,” but doing so carries costs. Casting school reform as a civil rights issue, a hallmark of both the Bush and Obama years, has lent the cause heft and urgency. It also, however, has made it harder to accommodate practical concerns about how reforms were working. After all, civil rights enforcement is a moral absolute. Once that flag is planted, any perceived softening on testing, accountability, or school improvement—even when necessary and appropriate—risks being depicted as a “retreat” on civil rights. This rigidity magnified NCLB’s impact in the early years, but it also ensured that the law’s provisions would eventually become less tenable, and thus less sustainable.

Takeaway: The power of framing school reform in terms of civil rights cuts both ways. More importantly, it is at odds with the kind of bureaucratic humility that you have sought to bring to the department. Try to resist the temptation to use claims that your stance is the only one consistent with a respect for civil rights. Avoid using that as a cudgel with which to promote school choice or higher education reform.

Madam Secretary, we know that your job looks a lot easier from the outside. But it’s also the case that there are lessons which it may be easier to see from outside than from within. So, if you’ll permit, we’ll close with a final thought. There’s great pressure for those in your position to say: “We have to do something!” But the hard lesson is that clumsy action in Washington can poison the well for promising ideas and undermine ongoing efforts, and that restraint is sometimes the wisest course.

A version of this article appeared in the October 24, 2018 edition of Education Week as Four Takeaways From Bush-Obama School Reform

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