WASHINGTON ― In December, the application from the State of California for a waiver from the provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) was denied by the U.S. Department of Education. This, we were told, was because California disagreed with some items on the Department’s reform agenda—especially those having to do with teacher quality—and did not include them in its application. State officials said that it would have cost them $2 billion to implement these unwanted features of questionable effectiveness.
What’s going on here? The American education system is being reshaped before our very own eyes in a truly fundamental way―and with little debate. National and state policymakers behave as if both levels of government have much the same roles in education: to set goals and standards, for example, and to create accountability systems, define teacher quality, determine strategies for producing quality teachers and improve the performance of low-performing schools. Left unresolved, the conflicts this creates are likely to deepen and worsen over time.
It has not always been this way.
Historically, the federal government’s role had been to aid, assist, prod and push the schools, districts and states. But the key word was always “aid.” From the 1950s to the 1990s, there was no question who was in charge and it was never the federal government. The feds avoided interfering in any important way with the design of the larger system and the way it worked, except with respect to school desegregation, which was primarily the result of decisions made by the courts rather than executive or legislative branch decisions.
The last few decades, the federal role in education has undergone a massive transformation. This process began in the George H.W. Bush administration, gained steam in the Clinton administration, was propelled forward powerfully by the George W. Bush administration and then given a big push over the fence by the Obama administration.
Over time, federal education funds had increasingly been thrust at states with few policy levers to impose responsible spending. Building on the work of George H.W. Bush’s administration, President Bill Clinton started the states on the road to adoption of national standards for student academic performance—a radical departure from the status quo and aided by a reliance on standardized testing. President George W. Bush and a bipartisan coalition then followed by imposing the draconian NCLB accountability scheme. As the new design for American education emerged, it became clear that standards could be a driver of accountability and the tests developed to match the standards could be used to reward or punish schools based on student progress.
The Obama administration took the next logical step in this process by redesigning the accountability system to focus not on schools, as under NCLB, but largely on teachers. This provided the country with a national system for improving teacher quality—or so it was argued. Along with the embrace of charter schools, merit pay and other measures to inject more competition into the education system, this has been the main education policy thrust of this administration.
This process over the past two-plus decades constitutes a fundamental redesign of the American institutional system for elementary and secondary education. In some cases, it was accomplished with the enthusiastic participation of the states, but in others it was done despite their strong resistance. Some parts of this agenda, like the push for explicit standards and the need to focus on teacher quality, are supported by research, but there is no evidence to support other key components, such as the idea that teacher quality is best improved by tying teacher promotion and retention to student performance on standardized tests or the insistence on the expansion of charter schools. Some of these components have enjoyed the enthusiastic backing of a significant—and bipartisan—majority of Congress. But significant items now are being added to this agenda in a process in which Congress has played no part, including the last two items just mentioned.
How can the United States have a Constitution that assigns responsibility for vital public education policy matters to the states, when, without deciding that such delegation was a bad idea, the nation one day opts to create a national system of academic standards, curriculum and testing; a national system for school accountability; and a national system for ensuring teacher quality?
No nation that has reached the top ranks of education performance has a system of governance in which the roles of the national government and the state or provincial levels of government are as ill-defined and overlapping in education as is now the case in the United States. The process has gotten this far because, in a time of acute financial distress, the states will put up with almost anything to keep their budgets from completely disintegrating. So the federal government, in this case meaning almost exclusively the executive branch, has managed to get a phenomenal amount of leverage for the amount of money it has had to spend.
Is that how we want these decisions made? Do we really want the executive branch of the federal government to decide, pretty much by itself, what the aims of American education should be and how they should be achieved?
The solutions as to how the American education system should be governed are not obvious. But we ought to have a conversation about it before we wake up one day to find that the executive branch of the federal government has become our national school board.
Marc Tucker is president and CEO of the National Center on Education and the Economy, a nonprofit think tank based in Washington, D.C. He is editor of Surpassing Shanghai: An Agenda for American Education Built on the World’s Leading Systems (Harvard Education Press, November 2011) and blogger for EdWeek.org.