When Washington focuses on schools

With trivial exceptions, Washington does not run schools, employ teachers, buy textbooks, write curriculum, hand out diplomas, or decide who gets promoted to 5th grade. Historically, it has contributed less than 10 percent of national K-12 spending. So its influence on what happens in U.S. schools is indirect and limited. Yet that influence can be profound, albeit not always in a helpful way.

Uncle Sam is dreadful at micromanaging what actually happens in schools and classrooms. What he's best at is setting agendas and driving priorities. Through a combination of jawboning, incentivizing, regulating, mandating, forbidding, spotlighting, and subsidizing, he can significantly influence the overall direction of the K-12 system and catalyze profound changes in it (though the system is so loosely coupled that these changes occur gradually and incompletely).

It's just as well that such big directional shifts don't happen very often, because the change, however gradual, can be wrenching. And it isn't apt to happen much more often in the future, either, because the "federal government" is no single entity. It is, at minimum, three branches, two political parties, 535 members of Congress, innumerable judges, the White House, the Office of Management and Budget, and umpteen executive-branch agencies—a list that only starts with the U.S. Department of Education. Nearly all of these stars must come into rough alignment before anything important begins to change. And that only occurs once in a while, often under extraordinary political or historical circumstances, usually when the country faces a big challenge, crisis, or widespread injustice.

Let's look at seven examples of federal "agenda setters" in K-12 education, one per decade.

1950s. One could legitimately cite Sputnik and the National Defense Education Act, but the decade's real game-changer was the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision, striking down government-mandated racial segregation in Southern schools.

1960s. In the name of fostering opportunity, ending poverty, and giving needy kids a boost, President Lyndon B. Johnson launched the modern era of federal aid to K-12 education via the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, or ESEA, and the Economic Opportunity Act, which incorporated such high-profile programs as Head Start, the Job Corps, and the "domestic Peace Corps" known as VISTA.

1970s. Enacted in 1976, and signed (with some public misgivings) by President Gerald R. Ford, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, now the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, righted another historic wrong by declaring that every youngster with disabilities is entitled to a "free, appropriate public education" in the "least restrictive environment." Combined with the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the law meant public schools now had an obligation to educate such children in ways that responded to their needs

1980s. Though nominally just a commission report, A Nation at Risk (1983) told Americans that we faced a crisis of educational achievement and began to nudge the country through a 90-degree change of course from the "equity" agenda of the previous quarter-century to the "excellence" obsession of recent decades, complete with academic standards, tests, and results-based accountability systems.

1990 ushered in the first-ever state-by-state results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress as well as the first-ever reporting of NAEP results according to newly established performance benchmarks. This dual development opened a new era of awareness of academic achievement in the United States and made possible the first bona fide comparisons of state performance at a time when state-based reform was in the ascendancy and governors craved such comparisons. It also launched what amounted to the first real set of standards by which to determine just "how good is good enough" when it comes to student achievement in various subjects.

2001 brought passage of the No Child Left Behind Act, a momentous reauthorization of the ESEA, declaring not only that every single student should become "proficient" in math and reading, but also that every school in the land would have its performance reported, both school wide and for its student demographic subgroups, and that schools failing to make "adequate yearly progress" would face a cascade of sanctions and interventions. NCLB transformed the federal government from funder to would-be reformer of American public education. In the course of becoming a reformer, Uncle Sam also became a regulator as never before.

And the present decade opened with the Race to the Top, the brainchild of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, based on the bold hypothesis that sizable grants of federal dollars, disbursed via a competitive process, can induce states to jump through reform policy hoops that they likely would not otherwise have attempted.

Add them up: America desegregated its schools, with respect both to race and handicap. It inaugurated big-time federal aid to K-12 education, initially in the name of equitable opportunity, now more targeted on academic achievement and gap-closing. It devised new ways of assessing, judging, and comparing achievement across the states—and prodded those states to make politically difficult changes to reform a system that wasn't producing satisfactory results. And in the process, unsurprisingly, Washington evolved from funder and equalizer into enforcer and regulator.

None of this worked as well as ardent advocates had hoped. All brought unintended consequences, pushback, and sizable financial burdens. But American education is a very different enterprise—and for the most part a better enterprise—as a result of these game-changing initiatives from Washington.

What causes some federal initiatives to function, at least for a while, as positive game-changers, while so many others almost immediately become duds? I see four conditions:

First, there needs to be a sizable, pent-up problem in need of a large solution—a lot of accumulated pressure seeking a release valve. That's a very different thing from a notional seems-like-a-good-idea or scratch-a-minor-itch add-on to a pre-existing portfolio of programs.

Second, the problem needs to be one that affects the whole country (for example, economic competitiveness, social justice, national security), even if the solution focuses mostly on a region (the segregated South) or significant constituency (kids with disabilities).

Third, the solution needs to be something that can be crafted by implements in the federal toolkit, which is basically limited to financial incentives, regulation of state and district practices, research and data, and litigation or the threat thereof. (And, of course, the bully pulpit itself.)

Fourth, and finally, enough political stars must align—and stay aligned long enough to make a difference.

Not all of them need to be aligned, however. (If they were, the problem would likely have been tackled already.) Congress was not about to outlaw racial segregation in 1954, for example, and plenty of prominent educators declared A Nation at Risk wrong in 1983. Lots of states dragged their heels big-time on No Child Left Behind, and any number of psychometricians denounced the NAEP achievement levels.

But there has to be enough oomph of one kind or another—moral, economic, political, judicial, even occasionally (in the case of school segregation) military—behind these kinds of changes for them to overcome resistance and gain real traction. And when that oomph diminishes—whether because of fresh election returns, limited attention span, newfound prosperity, exhaustion, backlash, or whatever—what remains may be a country with its education direction lastingly changed for the better. Or it may be the husk of yet another federal initiative that was promising at the start but grew stale, obsolete, or oppressive. Or both.

This piece originally appeared as a commentary in Education Week and is adapted from an essay in the book Carrots, Sticks, and the Bully Pulpit (Harvard Education Press, 2011).

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