ObamaFlex: Too much tight, too little loose

Followers of Fordham’s work know that, for the
better part of three years, we’ve been advancing an approach to federal
education policy that we call “Reform Realism”—a
pro-school-reform orientation leavened with a realistic view of what the
federal government can and cannot accomplish in education. It’s founded on the
idea of “tight-loose” (tight on results, loose on means to achieve them) and
heralds incentives over mandates and transparency over accountability.

Two weeks ago, Senator Lamar Alexander and a handful
of colleagues introduced a legislative proposal that embodies Reform Realism.
As I wrote then,
it demonstrates a combination of thoughtfulness and humility that is rare in
federal policymaking.

Rather than finding the Golden Mean, the Obama Administration has created golden handcuffs.


Obama Administration officials, for their part,
haven’t been slouches when it comes to Reform Realism. Secretary Arne Duncan
has appropriated the “tight-loose” terminology, and the Race to the Top
symbolized the triumph of incentives over mandates (even if it was a carrot that felt more like a

Which is what makes the administration’s new
plan for conditional NCLB waivers so worrisome. ObamaFlex pulls too taut both the
“tight” and the “loose.”

First, let’s talk tight. To be eligible for waivers,
Duncan et al. are asking states either to adopt the Common Core or demonstrate
that their own reading and math standards indicate college readiness, as judged
by institutions of higher education. (Those institutions would have to certify
that students achieving the state’s own standards would be eligible for
credit-bearing courses.)

On its face, this is perfectly reasonable, and is
close to where Checker Finn and I landed when we released our ESEA Briefing Book in
April. One of the greatest failings of No Child Left Behind was its agnosticism
about the content and rigor of state standards; asking states to peg their
expectations to real-world demands makes eminent sense.

But the Administration’s waivers aren’t simply
asking for proof of strong state-adopted standards. Instead, Arne Duncan is
further federalizing the Common Core by making it the only practical route for
states wanting immediate regulatory relief. Texas and Virginia (two states that
did not adopt the common standards) could easily make the case that their own
standards indicate college readiness. But that process will take time—time that
states aren’t being given. And they will want flexibility now.

quid pro quo photo

Sure you can have a waiver, but you've got
to do something for me in return
(Photo by JoelK75)

Even more disturbing is the way in which the
Administration’s quid pro quo will
lock all states into the Common Core indefinitely. What happens if a state
decides to back out—either for ideological reasons or pragmatic ones—say,
because the tests linked to the standards start to go off the rails (or simply
cost too much)? Will such a state have to adopt its own college-ready
standards instantly, or else risk losing the right to regulatory relief? Or federal
education funding? Or both?

Meanwhile, as ObamaFlex tugs too tightly in some
areas, it goes too light on “loose” in others. Just look at the details yourself:
A state can propose its own approach to accountability, for example—as long as
it includes “annual measurable objectives,” “priority schools,” “focus
schools,” “reward schools,” and myriad other catchphrases and prescriptions.
This is reminiscent of Henry Ford’s attitude about automobile colors.

The detailed new mandates on teacher evaluations are
piglets of the same litter. States and school districts will be required to “develop, adopt, pilot, and implement, with
the involvement of teachers and principals, teacher and principal evaluation
and support systems” that abide by a whole host of stipulations.

These guidelines for teacher and principal
evaluation are fine as they go—but not as mandates from Uncle Sam. If we’ve
learned anything from No Child Left Behind, it’s that to mandate a good idea
from Washington is to kill it. Consider what Senator Alexander recently told Education Daily:

We have had several good
experiments around the country that are identifying good teaching, rewarding
performance, relating it to student achievement, relating it to better pay. But
it has been very hard to do. No one is absolutely sure how to do it. The worst
thing we could do at this time with teacher and principal evaluations related
to student achievement, even though I think it is the Holy Grail of school
reform, is to impose any version from Washington.


To be fair, Team Obama got some things right. States
and districts will be allowed to ignore NCLB’s onerous yet meaningless “highly
qualified teachers” provisions, for example. States will able be able to focus
turnaround efforts on schools with particularly low subgroup achievement—rather
than schools with large achievement gaps. (That’s important if you don’t want
to penalize racially and economically diverse schools, whose gaps are often
gargantuan even though they are doing right by all of their subgroups.) And
states and districts will be authorized to move their formula funds—like those
for teacher quality—into Title I, which will make a real-world difference in
terms of spending flexibility.

Still, ObamaFlex begs for improvement. Some
additional vetting—via the congressional process perhaps? —might have made it an
A-grade pursuit. Too bad the Administration took that option off the table. Too
bad Congress is paralyzed.

This piece originally
(in a slightly different format) on Fordham’s Flypaper blog and on the Huffington
. To subscribe to Flypaper, click here.

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Michael J. Petrilli
Michael J. Petrilli is the President of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.