Strawman Alert!


(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I went to read the Fordham Report on ESEA reauthorization. I didn’t even make it past the preface without finding a gigantic strawman argument:

The local controllers.

These folks, led by conservative and libertarian think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute, want Uncle Sam, for the most part, to butt out of education policy—but to keep sending money. They see NCLB as an aberrant overreach, an unprecedented (and perhaps unconstitutional) foray into the states’ domain. Many within this faction also favor reform, particularly greater parental choice of schools, but at day’s end their federal policy position resembles that of the system defenders. They want to keep federal dollars flowing, albeit at a much more modest rate than those on the left; but they want to remove the accountability that currently accompanies these monies. They have given up on Uncle Sam as an agent for positive change, period. And they have enormous confidence that communities, states, and parents, unfettered from and unpestered by Washington, will do right by children.

I’ll let the Cato Institute speak for itself, but as the coauthor of a piece on NCLB with Gene Hickok for the Heritage Foundation, I must say that this characterization of Heritage is sloppy. Gene and I noted some very real problems with the formulation of NCLB, and recommended a process by which states could negotiate with the federal Department of Education to have a single unified system of school accountability. No burning down the Federal Department of Education, no abandonment of accountability and transparency, nor any fever dreams of federally driven vouchers for all.

NCLB led to a net increase in transparency, and put a bright spotlight on achievement gaps- both very admirable outcomes. NCLB’s formula however contains dozens of ways for districts and schools to fail AYP and back loaded proficiency requirements will be changed, or else AYP with either lose all credibility, or else will lead states to dummy down their tests to absurd levels. The only reasonable assumption to make is that those that crafted the original law intended to reboot the provisions well before 2014. The Safe Harbor provision is not going to save the day, lawmakers must change the law.

Gene and I suggested a reboot that would allow states to have a single system of school accountability (many have a state system and AYP, which often contradict each other). States proposing a reasonable system- something AYP will no longer be in 2014 absent changes-could have a single system for ranking schools. I’m fine with the Federal Department of Education being tough-minded about approving alternatives. No federalist bone in my body would ever compel me to approve a cruel joke of a testing system (I’m looking straight at you Mississippi) and I’m not certain that the Obama administration has a federalist bone in any case. They did however win the election, and they may win the next one as well.

Call me crazy (it’s been too long since anyone has) but I think the federal government allowing parents the clarity of a single system of accountability is good thing if the state is proposing something that provides transparency and will nudge improvement out of the system. Not “perfection” by some arbitrary deadline, but sustained improvement. This strikes me as an especially good idea when the federal system is set to implode.

9 Responses to Strawman Alert!

  1. Hey Matt,

    I was a little unsure what you were advocating in this post. On first reading it seemed like you were embracing something like the Fordham proposal of requiring states to adopt national standards, curriculum, and assessments unless the Secretary of Education approved a state opting out to use their own (as in your MS example).

    But then I read the report you referenced and was much more clear on where you stand. You and Gene wrote:

    “Supporters argue that this would end the gaming and race to the bottom, but national standards represent not only a constitutionally inappropriate course, but most likely an ineffective one. There is no reason to believe that federal officials would write solid standards or that they would be immune to the political pressures decried in the states.”

    Instead you proposed that states should simply be required to test and report results, but there would be no high stakes and no nationally determined standards, cut-scores, curriculum, etc…:

    “states would have the opportunity to opt out of NCLB and reassert their policymaking authority in public education. States would continue state-level academic assessments and public reporting free from the testing and accountability requirements of No Child Left Behind. Restoring state control of state testing policies could protect the academic transparency that is needed to hold public schools accountable for performance to parents, taxpayers, and policymakers.”

    That is, you seem to favor a transparency mandate with no federal high stakes accountability. Is that right?

  2. matthewladner says:

    Yes- under the Cornyn/DeMint bill states successfully opting out of AYP would have to have their own system of transparency and accountability, but would be free from AYP.

    As President Obama and Secretary Duncan have noted, AYP is getting ready to label the vast majority of American schools as failures, so something has to give.
    Rather than Gosplan 2.0, why not challenge states to do better than NCLB and opt out?

    We just might learn something…

  3. A transparency mandate sounds reasonable to me, but who gets to decide whether the states can opt out or not? Is it the states, the Secretary, or Fordham’s death panels. Er, I mean expert panels.

  4. matthewladner says:

    I believe that the Federal Department of Education makes the decision under the Cornyn/DeMint bill. It is hardly a wild-eyed turn everything back to the states type of proposal.

  5. Lindsey Burke says:

    Right. And as opposed to the performance agreements with the Secretary offered under the Senate version, the House version uses a “declaration of intent,” which has to include an outline of the state’s plan for maintaining direct accountability to parents and taxpayers in the state. As long as the declaration includes assurances that the state will comply with federal civil rights laws and special ed laws, etc., the Secretary must honor the declaration for 5 years.

    And, after a year, a state must disseminate disaggregated student data to parents.

  6. Mike Petrilli says:

    Hi everyone. When you look closely at our proposal (if you can get past the preface, Matt!) you’ll see that we’re all advocating more or less the same thing: Mandate “transparency” but not accountability. We can quibble about the details.

  7. matthewladner says:


    Glad to hear it-I’ll promise to read the rest of your study if you will promise to switch from carpet bombing to laser guided ordinance when triangulating.

  8. I suspect that I differ from both Matt and Mike on this issue. I might be on board for a transparency requirement from the feds (requiring that some test be administered and results reported), but I am opposed to mandating any particular set of standards, curriculum, or assessment from the federal level — even with an opt-out possibility. If the burden is on the state or localities to prove that they be allowed to opt out, then it is the same as a mandate from the feds. And nationally mandating those key aspects of education would severely restrict the choice and competition we need to learn, adapt, improve, and customize education.

  9. matthewladner says:


    I think there are plenty of ways to deal with the Mississippi, Arizona and Wisconsin type states that fall well short of dictating curriculum or standards.

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