On Tuesday, President-Elect Obama ended weeks of speculation by selecting Chicago schools CEO Arne Duncan
to be his secretary of education. The conventional wisdom is that
Duncan is a "consensus" pick, bridging the Democratic Party's major
divide on education.
The camps on either side of this divide have been described,
variously, as the establishment versus the reformers, incrementalists
versus disrupters, or, by some, the true progressives versus closet
Republicans. Let us add another pairing: the System Defenders versus the
Army of the Potomac.
System Defenders--including the teacher unions, other traditional
education groups, and their friends on Capitol Hill--believe that the
public school system is basically sound but needs additional resources
to be more effective. Their view of the federal role resembles the
pre-NCLB version with scads of programs and complexities--albeit a lot
more money and a lot less accountability.
Meanwhile, members of the Army of the Potomac--including civil rights groups such as Education Trust, "New Dem" bastions such as Education Sector and the Progressive Policy Institute, and putatively bipartisan initiatives such as the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Commission--hold
generally sound instincts about reform. They see unions and school
boards as barriers to achievement and equity gains; they favor holding
schools to account for results; they would reward success; and (up to a
point) empower parents. Their Achilles heel is a near-boundless faith in
Washington's ability to accomplish these and more whopping improvements
in K-12 education. They downplay the unintended consequences caused by
NCLB (and other well-intended federal statutes); indeed, most of them
would ratchet up Uncle Sam's pressure on states and local schools.
These two camps have been wrangling all year, and it's widely
understood that Duncan's job is to forge a truce by finding compromises
and commonalities. (To the right of these contending Democratic factions
is where many Republicans find themselves, among what we call Local
Controllers. They want Uncle Sam to butt out of education policy--but to
keep sending money. In the current political environment, however,
Duncan and his boss can mostly ignore them--at least ‘til they need
sixty Senate votes.)
How can Obama and Duncan find common ground between the System
Defenders on the left and the Army of the Potomac in the center? One
good way would be turning to Reform Realism, which we introduce today in an "Open Letter" to the President-Elect, Secretary-Designate, and the 111th Congress.
We Reform Realists share some core assumptions with the Army of the
Potomac. We embrace standards, assessment, and accountability; we
believe that America's achievement gaps are morally unacceptable,
socially divisive, and politically unsustainable; and we recognize that
for the U.S. to remain secure and prosperous in a dangerous, shrinking
and flattening world, our education system must become far more
But as Arne Duncan has learned in Chicago, we also believe that
federal action too often yields unintended and undesirable consequences.
Uncle Sam would be wise to adopt medicine's maxim of "first do no
harm." His education levers are few and none too powerful and, in the
real world, he can do little to coerce states and districts to do things
they don't want to do or are organizationally incapable of doing--much
less to do those things well. School reform is a heavy lift and the
application of federal carrots and (less commonly) sticks can only go so
We favor a targeted, strategic federal role in K-12 education with
Washington sticking to the essential elements that it can do well (and
that others do less well)--but leaving the rest to states, communities,
educators, and families. In particular, Uncle Sam should:
1. Foster common standards and tests.
While asking federal officials themselves to set standards and create
tests would be perilous, the President could task the governors with
agreeing on what students should know in core subjects at key stages of
their schooling. Tests and transparency should follow. (Watch for an
announcement tomorrow from the National Governors Association et al.)
2. Provide flexible dollars targeted at disadvantaged children.
Principals and superintendents, facing the sun beaming down on their
schools' results, should be free to spend federal dollars as they see
3. Offer incentives to states and districts to embark upon promising reforms.
One way is to enhance the federal Title I payments to jurisdictions
that push for such innovations as performance pay for teachers and more
quality school choices for families.
4. Produce high-quality data and solid research on what does and doesn't work. Today, education R & D and statistics is the caboose of federal education policy when it should be the engine.
5. Continue to protect the civil rights of individual students and educators.
Meanwhile, Uncle Sam should eliminate some items from his job description:
1. Oversight of state accountability systems.
Once we have national tests that yield reliable, comparable data on
pupil and school performance, states should be free--under the watchful
eyes of their own citizens--to decide for themselves which schools are
succeeding and what to do about those that aren't.
2. Mandated school sanctions. Along with much else, we would eliminate NCLB's school transfer, free tutoring, and restructuring provisions.
3. "Highly qualified teacher" dictates. If reformers want to encourage changes in the human capital pipeline, they should incentivize it, not make rules about it.
Sure, there's more--the Open Letter awaits you--but
you can already glimpse the contours of a "Reform Realist" approach
that's oriented to systemic change yet humble about Washington's role.
Such a strategy could form the basis for a grand compromise. For System
Defenders, it would mean an end to federally-mandated sanctions on
low-performing schools. For Local Controllers, it would mean a much
lighter regulatory load emanating from Washington. And for reformers,
including faithful foot soldiers in the Army of the Potomac, it would
mean an environment with national standards and tests coupled with far
greater transparency, data, and research--all contributing to a healthy
environment for reform at the levels of government that actually run
Yes, it's a dramatically different approach than we've grown used to.
But it's a terrific fit for Duncan, and maybe for Obama, because it
recognizes that Washington's powers in this sphere are limited and
places like Chicago have accumulated much relevant experience and
wisdom. It points a path out of today's NCLB political thicket. Most
importantly, it might actually work.
This piece also appeared today on National Review Online.