This letter appeared in the 2014 Thomas B. Fordham Institute Annual Report. To learn more, download the report.
Closing the books on the year that just passed has special resonance this time around—both for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and for the education-reform movement at large. For us, 2014 marked the first leadership transition in our organization’s history, with founding president Chester E. (“Checker”) Finn, Jr. moving into his new role as senior distinguished senior fellow and president emeritus and with our board of trustees electing me to succeed him. Almost six months into this challenge, I remain honored by the faith they placed in me and appreciative of Checker’s pitch-perfect management of the transition process.
For the education-reform movement, 2014 was more of a mixed bag. It was famously the year when America was supposed to, but did not, achieve “universal proficiency”—a goal set by the No Child Left Behind Act back in 2002. That nearly thirteen years have now passed without a much-needed ESEA reauthorization gives us one clue as to what went awry: gridlock in Congress and an administration incapable or unwilling to move lawmakers to act. It’s hard to make improvements in policy when the policymaking machine grinds to a halt. Unilateral—and, arguably, unconstitutional—action by the executive branch is not a durable solution.
Yet that dysfunction also offers lessons worth heeding. If statutory updates are to materialize as often as the thirteen-year cicada, we should make sure that laws are written in a way that allows states and districts the room to make tweaks along the way. Likewise, we should be careful about locking in prescriptions or mandates, because we might have...