NCLB, We Hardly Knew Ye

Kevin Carey did a long and interesting post last week about whether or not we officially are in the post-NCLB era of federal education policy.  You should read the whole thing, because he creates an interesting narrative about how NCLB’s implementation coincided with the robust growth of extra-system education actors (i.e. TFA and charters).  It’s the first time I’ve seen someone articulate these as two parallel tracks, without a terrible amount of causality posited.

Later he says this about the future of federal education policy:

Every attempt to move ESEA reauthorization forward has faltered, because it means having a brutal political argument over a set of accountability system design issues that people care less and less about as time goes by. And while I doubt he would put it this way, U.S. Secretary of Education (and mayoral control alumnus) Arne Duncan has embraced a post-NCLB vision of federal education policy. In his implementation of ARRA via Race to the Top, SIG, I3, etc., as well as in his “blueprint” for reauthorization of ESEA, Duncan has shown little interest in continuing the project of federal accountability for every child nationwide. Instead, he has focused on identifying the worst schools in America and replacing them with better ones while injecting accountability and talent into the teaching profession.

This sounds about right to me, but I’ll add a couple of wrinkles.  First, I’m not sure there needs to be as robust a federal regime vis-a-vis the categorization of individual schools, in 2010.  Whereas statewide education standards were a relatively new phenomenon when NCLB burst onto the scene, they’re the norm today.  And if I may be so bold, the notion that individual schools perform differentially seems to have embedded itself in the public consciousness as well.  Most importantly, there are now plenty of public examples of schools that far exceed what we once thought was possible in terms of educating disadvantaged students.  Schools that “beat the odds” are big NYTimes stories.  Short story: most folks know both that not all schools are created equal, and that we don’t have to accept the status quo.

Second, I think it’s important to frame federal education policy in terms of the problems we’re out to solve.  A decade ago, there was a sufficient lack of high-level accountability in our public education systems; now, there is appreciably more accountability, and as a result we know a lot more about the overall performance of schools and systems.  So, the problem – at least to me – doesn’t seem to be, “How can we hold schools more accountable?” but rather, “How can we ensure that we eradicate some of the massive inequities in our systems of public schools, while ensuring that America does not continue to get schooled* educationally by the rest of the developing world?”  Figuring out the federal response to that question is substantially more difficult than framing it.  But there are definitely some good unifying concepts behind i3, RtTT, and SIG: providing more resources where both need and promise are high; realizing that in systems wherein failure is an everyday reality, risks must be taken; understanding that there is a need for more intelligent public-private partnership; rejecting the idea that “more of the same” will deliver different results; and using a balance of federal carrots and sticks, rather than veering too far in either one direction or another.

In any event, it seems increasingly unlikely that any reauthorization of ESEA will happen this year, but you’re bound to see more and more reflections on what the future of federal education policy should look like.  Inevitably, a lot of that commentary will be a direct reaction to (or against) its most recent iteration.  That’s natural, as NCLB is everyone’s current touchstone.  But I hope at least some of the debate can have more to do with what an appropriate federal role should be, as opposed to using NCLB eulogies as the only starting point.  I hope Kevin provokes others’ thoughts as much as he did mine.

*Pun – admittedly – intended.

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One Response to NCLB, We Hardly Knew Ye

  1. Pingback: Perspective « Meeting the Turnaround Challenge

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