Ms. Hubris vs. Mr. Humble

first blush, it would appear that Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels and former
Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings have a lot in common. Both served as
cabinet members in the George W. Bush Administration. Both are generally
pragmatic centrists. And both hold strong school-reform instincts.

look closer and the similarities—on federal education policy at

Photo of Mitch Daniels

Photo in the public domain

In his big speech last week at the American
Enterprise Institute, Governor Daniels went out of his way to stress that
school reform—at the state and federal levels—is a work in progress. “The real
test for us is dead ahead, and that is to implement these tools,” he said. “I will
never stop learning about learning.”

while applauding President Obama and Secretary Duncan for their excellent work
on education in general, and Race to the Top in particular, he indicated that a
smaller federal footprint is appropriate. Of the federal education bureaucracy,
he said, “There’s a lot more of it than we need.” The governor is humble about
his accomplishments in Indiana and humble about what the feds can do to fix our
schools. “I don’t have magic answers,” he said.
“If I did I would have been here giving this talk years ago.”

Spellings, however, will have none of it. In a new ESEA reauthorization
she penned for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce last week, she
encourages Congress to double-down on No Child Left Behind and set its sights
even higher on what Uncle Sam can do to improve the nation’s schools.

Chamber’s proposal starts by maintaining almost every detail of NCLB as we know
it: State standards and cut scores benchmarked against NAEP; a “date certain”
for getting “all students to proficiency in reading and math”; annual
measurable objectives with “ambitious” timelines; consequences for (all)
schools and districts not meeting their goals. And on and on it goes, traipsing
through the greatest hits of NCLB ideas that have been tried and failed.

Photo of Margaret Spellings

Photo in the public domain

Give Spellings
some credit for consistency. This is, almost verbatim, the same proposal she
made a few years ago as Secretary. And yet, she writes,
her blueprint builds “on what we’ve learned.” How so? What exactly has she
learned? Clearly not that the feds have proven wholly incapable of implementing
such key NCLB components as public-school choice and interventions in failing
schools. Nor has she recognized that, while Uncle Sam can force states
and districts to do things they don’t want to do, he can’t force them to do
those things well. And she seems completely blind to all the research showing
that prescribing timelines and objectives and mandatory consequences gave
states a big fat incentive to maintain a low bar on the standards
themselves—and that “benchmarking” against NAEP proved useless to thwarting
this trend. If she’s “learned” so much, why hasn’t her position budged an inch
since 2001?

I may be caught up in the Mitch Daniels fervor. If he were to run, to make it
past the primaries, and to get elected president (three HUGE ifs), who knows
what his actual federal education policy would be. Maybe he’d end up more like
Ms. Hubris than Mr. Humble. But for now I’ll just celebrate the fact that a key
Republican governor is willing to admit: None of us knows for sure what to do,
so let’s give it our best shot and remain willing to change our minds along the

Click to play

Click to listen to commentary on the Chamber's ESEA proposal from the Education Gadfly Show podcast

This piece originally
(in a slightly different form) on Fordham’s blog,
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Michael J. Petrilli
Michael J. Petrilli is the President of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.