It Was the Best of Administrations, It Was the Worst…

I can’t decide what to think about the Obama administration on education policy.  This administration has said some of the best things about education reform I have heard out of any administration, but they have also said some of the worst things.

Take for example the plans for reauthorizing (or replacing) NCLB that came out over the weekend.  Obama/Duncan  have the good idea of getting rid of the unrealistic goal of universal proficiency in basic skills by all groups by 2014. But they have the bad idea of setting an even more unrealistic goal of universal college-readiness by 2020.  (Mental note — be sure to set deadline for unrealistic goals several years after end of one’s possible era of responsibility.  That way you are never responsible for failure. : ) )

They favor the good idea of focusing on growth in student achievement rather than percent proficient, but they endorse the bad idea of making the measures of achievement so mushy as to be useless, like including “learning environment” (whatever that is) in the measure and by wanting portfolio assessments.

They say they want to end micro-managing of schools from DC (not that this is really happening), but then they want national standards that would ultimately lead to a national curriculum, national testing, and national micro-managing.

They want to identify the worst schools and reorganize those schools, including firing bad teachers.  They also want to use test data to identify and reward the best teachers and schools.  This is all great!  But they don’t spell out any details in their proposals and want to leave drafting of legislation to Congress where these good things will almost certainly be removed or made impotent.

They deplore racial disparities in educational outcomes, but rather than empower low income minority families with vouchers, they want to empower them to sue their schools.  This sounds like No Lawyer Left Behind.  Giving disadvantaged groups legal power rather than market power hasn’t worked well for special ed and it won’t work well for low income minorities.

So, which one is it?  Is this the best education administration or the worst?  Or is it somehow both?  I can’t completely make up my mind, but one thing I do know — the good stuff they want is much less likely to happen than the bad stuff.  In that case, I guess I’d rather have a federal government that did as little as possible with education.

[UPDATED]  I left out the great idea in the new O’Duncan proposal that we get rid of “highly qualified” teacher requirements, which are understood as credentialing requirements and replace it with teacher quality assessments based on growth in test scores.  Of course, this was one of the ideas that has made the unions come out strongly against the proposal.


10 Responses to It Was the Best of Administrations, It Was the Worst…

  1. Jim Stergios says:

    What people often forget is that the goal of attaining academic proficiency was once seen as attainable. And, while that may have been foolhardy, there was more substance in that goal than there is in the Obama administration’s powdery “college and career readiness” goal line. In early February, the Boston Globe’s editorial board, which regularly demonstrates greater depth on education issues than its Mother Ship, the New York Times, scolded the Obama admninstration for its “retreat”

    “from a deadline to bring every child in 98,000 public schools to academic proficiency by 2014. What was seen as an attainable goal in the Bush years is now a ‘utopian goal,’ according to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.”

    The editorial closes strong:

    “The Obama administration wants to replace universal proficiency with a mandate for all students to leave high school ‘college or career ready.’ What that means isn’t entirely clear yet. But it would be a setback for standards-based education in America if the new requirement relies heavily on so-called ’21st century skills’ – global awareness, media literacy, and critical thinking – that are now the rage in education circles.

    Massachusetts manages to promote proficiency without punishing students who can’t reach that grade on the challenging MCAS test. Schools are required to create specific ‘education proficiency plans’ for such students that include intensive classes in areas of academic weakness. If students show good progress in these classes, they remain on track to graduate, even without achieving MCAS proficiency.

    In Massachusetts, where students rank at or near the top of national assessments, educators regularly produce students who are ‘college or career ready.’ The Obama administration could learn a thing or two by taking proficiency standards as seriously in Washington as they are taken here.”

    The problem with the Obama administration on many fronts is that it feigns interest in what states are doing (head fake here, tricky signal calls there), but does not draw policy lessons through systematic analysis of what works and what doesn’t. If they did on health care, we wouldn’t be where we are now. And if they did on education, we wouldn’t be talking about ephemera like a new goal line that’s based on college and career readiness skills.

  2. Jim, I agree with you that basic ability in reading and math should nto be considered a utopian goal. But given current school structures with a union stranglehold and very little meaningful accountability or competition, even that modest goal is utopian. We can make progress, as MA has, but we’ll never make big progress until we significantly expand choice and competition, which will keep accountability systems honest.

  3. […] For every good idea the Obama admin has on education, they have a bad one, writes Jay Greene. […]

  4. Rafe Lang says:

    That so many people are so confused about what it is that the Obama Administration is actually proposing seems pretty remarkable (and unusual) to me. It’s hard to believe that their proposal is limited to just what’s in the fuzzy blueprint. Surely they have mapped out the proposal in far greater detail; they probably even have legislative language written. Some good folks in the charter community say they have seen and commented on fairly detailed proposals. So why haven’t Duncan, et al been more forthcoming and shared more of the details? Have they been more forthcoming with the Hill? This all seems very strange.

  5. Jim Stergios says:


    Back in 2001, few people understood how little capacity NCLB would have to “turn around” schools or give parents choice options. I am all for choice, because the charter schools are great “delivery mechanisms” that work from pretty drastic accountability.

    But that accountability has to be for something — and it better be for proficiency and not just to give parents a sense that their school is a little better than the one next door. I think you will agree that the Milwaukee choice program and the rather uninspiring charter performance in some states have not led to “big progress” (Sol is right on that).

    But I also agree with you that high standards alone won’t get the job done either, especially in urban districts. In MA, for the most part urban districts have resisted aligning the local curricula with the state’s high-quality standards. So, often, kids in these districts get tested on stuff they haven’t even seen. That’s an issue of, as you put it, structures and interests.

    Clearly, those are districts where we need urgency in expanding charters and choice. But the MA experience with charters demonstrates that choice is most effective when paired up with high standards, proficiency goals and accountability.

    So losing the focus on proficiency, which is where we have always set the goal line (not saying we’ve fully succeeded in scoring!), is troubling. Especially when it’s being replaced with something as amorphous as the College and Career Readiness skills, which stand at the top of the Obama administration’s standards ladder.

  6. Greg Forster says:

    Ah, but why have we seen only modest improvements from Milwaukee vouchers or from charters in most states?

    Is it because these programs aren’t sufficiently constrained by control mechanisms imposed by the loving and totally benevolent arm of the state? Or is it because we haven’t yet sufficiently expanded the scope of parental choice, such that these programs are too small to open up a market for innovation and transformation?

    Everyone has always agreed that the positive results in Milwaukee are modest. The question is why. Would stricter, tighter, more paternalistic regulatory power improve results? If so, then why did choice produce any improvement in the first place? Why doesn’t the public monopoly – the ultimate expression of the paternalistic approach – do better than choice? If choice does better than the monopoly, I think that shows the problem has been too much paternalism. When we declare that we need “tough standards,” we’re handing the blob power. And the blob doesn’t use power the way it’s supposed to. And it never will – or not until we have sufficiently large and robust parental choice to hold it accountable.

  7. Daniel Earley says:

    Jim, as a co-founder of a charter school a few years back (a high school focused on science, math and engineering) I can assure you that the accountability imposed by parents significantly exceeds any arbitrary benchmarks any state can concoct. Nobody can hold your feet to the fire like customers who know they can walk away and potentially even take others with them. That being said, we still had it relatively easy since all we had to do was outperform one other STEM competitor and the local district schools.

    If, however, parents had been empowered with a universal voucher — that would have been a genuine challenge and we would have needed to raise the bar considerably. Of course, even the broadest (existing) vouchers in the nation contain market barriers and handicaps that significantly dampen their competitive impact. I believe this is what Greg is referring to, and what Sol unfortunately overlooked.

  8. Jim Stergios says:

    I am not arguing for constraining the market, folks. I’d open it as widely as possible, notwithstanding the big human capital problems that that would pose int he short-term.

    I am instead arguing for (1) really content rich standards, (2) a stronger assessment process, and (3) accountability that closes down schools that don’t demonstrate the kinds of improvements we need to see in student achievement. Not constraining, but to translate 1, 2, and 3 pretty simply: goals, transparent information for the marketplace, and a corrective mechanism that ensures that public dollars are spent wisely.

    I don’t buy the argument that choice is enough because there is plenty of data to show that in environments where there is not clear information on who is showing results, parents tend to think of “their schools” as pretty good.

    I simply don’t buy the argument that choice by itself does the trick. There are many states that have pretty crappy charters, which is a situation that is not proving self-correcting. At least not so far.

  9. Daniel Earley says:

    We live in an age, Jim, in which consumer watchdogs like and are born daily. Mere seedlings at present, even Consumer Reports pales in comparison to what is coming. You will shortly see independent third party accountability far more rigorous, meaningful, comprehensive, transparent and customized for public consumption at any level of sophistication than anything seen before. Best of all, evaluation criteria will be as free of politics as a parent wishes.

    Keep in mind that the only reason governments have ever needed to invent arbitrary education standards in the first place was as an artificial substitute “middle man” for this kind of direct public transparency and accountability to parents. This is quickly changing and we really are entering a new era.

  10. Greg Forster says:

    Jim, tell me if I’m hearing you right.

    You’re saying you’re not in favor of constraining the market. You’re just in favor of giving a central regulator the power to close down any schools that don’t meet a very high standard of academic quality (as defined by the regulator).

    Am I hearing you right?

    Daniel has already pointed to the real answer – markets don’t presuppose transparency, they create it. If you wait until after you have transparency to create a market, you’ll never get either. If you start by creating a market, you’ll get both.

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