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.

Three 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.

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 stick).

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

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.

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


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 appeared (in a slightly different format) on Fordham’s Flypaper blog and on the Huffington Post.

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