Editor's note: This post is the final entry of a three-part series on Race to the Top's legacy and the federal role in education. You can read the first two entries here and here.

In two recent posts about Race to the Top (RTTT), I expressed skepticism about a sunny assessment of the program’s influence and critiqued the mindset behind federal efforts to remake complex education systems.

But my M.O. is not to disparage all federal K–12 activity. From Brownthe National Defense Education Act, and Title I to the charter school grant program, NCLB’s disaggregated data, and the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, Uncle Sam has done some serious good for our schools. So I believe that there should be a federal K–12 agenda (for instance), and I hope both parties’ presidential candidates start articulating one.

What I’m interested in is fashioning some rules of the road. The agnosticism/nihilism of insisting on no federal activity ever would’ve amounted to a “Road Closed” sign to high-return investments like NAEP and seed funding for charters. The progressive hubris of believing that the feds can solve everything, on the other hand, is the on-ramp to P.J. O’Rourke’s bon mot about government-induced pileups. I think the...

Editor's note: This post is the second entry of a three-part series on Race to the Top's legacy and the federal role in education. You can read the first entry here and the final entry here.

The super-talented Joanne Weiss, former chief of staff to Secretary Duncan, has convinced me in two recent articles that Race to the Top (RTTT) was a skillfully administered program. Weiss and her colleagues cannily handled public transparency, technical assistance to applicants, and intra-department coordination. They deserve credit for the how of RTTT.

But the articles don’t directly address whether the federal government should’ve undertaken RTTT. Obviously, the administration would say yes. But why? The articles imply an answer, one consistent with progressive ideology and the administration’s approach to health care, environmental regulation, and much more: Expert central administrators can and should solve complex social problems, and the federal government is the logical perch from which to do so.

In Education NextWeiss is transparent about the federal government’s ambitions. “Race to the Top aimed to drive systems-level change,” she acknowledges. The administration wanted “comprehensive and coherent” state agendas aligned with the administration’s preferences on standards, tests, teacher evaluations, and more. RTTT didn’t aspire to influence “discrete silos”; it wanted...

Boehner is out! McCarthy is in! No, wait, McCarthy is out! Maybe Paul Ryan is in? Or even John Kline?!? What will this mean for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act?

It reminds of this famous Buddhist story:

An old farmer had worked his crops for many years. One day, his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. "Such bad luck," they said sympathetically. "Maybe," the farmer replied.

The next morning, the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. "How wonderful," the neighbors exclaimed. "Maybe," replied the old man.

The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. "Maybe," answered the farmer.

The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son's leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. "Maybe," said the farmer.

So will the current House chaos kill off reauthorization chances this year?



  • Say for the sake of argument that there are two education initiatives aimed at promoting upward mobility. One, a college preparation track, pushes its participants to complete high school and pursue postsecondary education at markedly higher rates than their peers, shaving off ten points from the socioeconomic graduation gap in the bargain. The other, a job training option, imparts years of workplace instruction and regularly places its students in well-paying positions after they finish. Both sound great. But which is the more promising path for kids hoping to make it into the middle class? Thankfully, we don’t have to choose—career and technical education actually comprises both. A new profile of Philadelphia’s CTE movement reviews all the familiar merits of the approach, including a new, city-issued report suggesting that freshmen who take part in vocational education are simply better prepared for college and career than those who don’t. Unfortunately, it also highlights the serious funding deficit faced by Pennsylvania CTE programs, which receive a piddling $900 per-student subsidy from the state. When convicts have an easier time learning job skills than schoolchildren and under-enrolled schools are being converted into yuppie event spaces, it means we’re ignoring a potential
  • ...

TNTP’s new report, “The Mirage,” is essential reading for anyone interested in educator effectiveness. It’s smartly researched and delivers an uppercut of a conclusion: Today's professional development doesn’t work.

There’s just one small problem. I’m not sure I believe it.

To trust its findings would mean admitting that we’ve wasted hundreds of billions of dollars. It would mean we’ve misled millions of educators and families about improving the profession. It would mean a load-bearing wall of the Race-to-the-Top and ESEA-waiver talent architecture is made of sand. All of this would be hard to swallow, but I suppose it’s possible.

But to accept and act on these findings would mean putting our full faith in today’s approach to evaluating educator effectiveness. It would mean believing generations of schools, school systems, PD providers, institutions of higher education, and parents were wrong when it comes to assessing and improving teacher performance. For me, this is a bridge too far.

The study encompassed four large school operators and surveyed thousands of educators. It used multiple measures to assess teacher effectiveness and tried to find variables that influenced whether a teacher improved (things like “growth mindset,” school culture, and access to different types of...

  • If Pennsylvania Avenue’s barricaded sidewalks didn’t make it obvious, the whooshing pantaloons of the Swiss Guard certainly will—Pope Francis is officially touring the capital! And while his three-day visit will be punctuated by extensive coverage of the Church’s role in American life and politics, Kavitha Cardoza’s piece on the fate of urban Catholic education is our recommended read (or listen) for anyone intrigued by the issue of school choice. Initially established as alternatives for the children of European immigrant families (who objected to compulsory Protestant indoctrination in nineteenth-century classrooms), Catholic schools grew to serve five million students by their 1960s peak. Since then, tuition increases and fraying religious communities in inner cities have sliced that number by more than half, but optimistic signs exist. As one of Cardoza’s sources remarks, last year’s drop in national Catholic school enrollment was the lowest since 2000, and the decline has substantially slowed over the past few years. That’s a dramatic turnaround from 2008, the year that the pope last visited and Fordham issued its gloomy dispatch on Catholic education, amid freefalling enrollment and tumult in the Church. For families seeking the combination of educational rigor and moral direction that
  • ...

Here’s a line that deserves to be committed to memory by all who would seek to improve literacy outcomes for children. Maybe it should be tattooed onto our flesh: 

“One striking fact is that the complex world of education—unlike defense, health care, or industrial production—does not rest on a strong research base. In no other field are personal experience and ideology so frequently relied on to make policy choices.”

That excellent observation, from a 1999 National Research Council paper, is quoted in this report from the Alliance for Excellent Education, The Next Chapter: Supporting Literacy Within ESEA. Author Mariana Haynes laments that literacy instruction in our schools “is not grounded in the science of reading development and learning.”  Another “striking fact” is that the Alliance’s report itself overlooks a great, glaring chunk of that science itself in making an otherwise unimpeachable case for research-based reading instruction. Writing in the Core Knowledge Blog, Lisa Hansel rightly observed that the report ignores the need for building broad academic knowledge across the curriculum as a means of raising reading achievement. “Like almost all discussions of literacy, the focus is on literacy instruction and reading and writing skills,” Hansel lamented. “If...

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Last week, Bellwether Education Partners analyst (and Obama administration alumnus) Chad Aldeman pointed out that I’ve changed my views on reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act since 2011. He’s absolutely right. What’s perplexing is why he would find this surprising. I assume that many foreign policy analysts reexamined their positions after 9/11, and that housing policy experts did the same after the Great Recession. Does Chad not understand that the unprecedented, autocratic, and quite possibly illegal actions of the president’s Department of Education have changed things a bit?

Yes, four long years ago, Checker Finn and I were still wedded to the “tight-loose” formula of federalism in education: Uncle Sam should be tighter on the outcomes expected from our schools but much looser on how states and districts achieve those ends. What we meant by “tight” was that Washington should require states to adopt “college- and career-ready standards,” either developed with other states (i.e., the Common Core) or unique to themselves. This was in part a response to the perverse incentives of No Child Left Behind—namely the mandate for states to attain near-universal proficiency...

As everyone knows, the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education act is closer to the finish line now than at any time in the past eight years. (The law was due for an update in 2007—soon after NASA sent New Horizons to Pluto. That was a long time ago.)

For a great overview of where things stand, it’s hard to beat this excellent rundown by Alyson Klein of Politics K-12. But that won’t stop me from trotting out my ever-so-popular color-coded table. (Previous editions here, here, and here.)

The items that are “up in the air” are those that the Senate, House, and Obama administration will wrangle over in conference.

A few caveats: First, some of these provisions aren’t in current law—some were in the stimulus bill (like Race to the Top), some are in Arne Duncan’s conditional waivers (like teacher evaluations), and some are in one of the bills passed this month (like Title I portability). Second, the administration may very well try to add more items to the “up in the air” column in conference. For instance, it might try to save...

Yesterday, the Senate debated an amendment proposed by Mike Lee (R-UT) that would have required states to allow parents to opt-out of federally-mandated tests without penalizing their schools or districts. After Senate HELP committee chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) voiced his opposition, it failed 32 to 64. However, a similar amendment succeeded last week in the House, so is now included in the Student Success Act that was approved along party lines.

Senator Alexander’s floor speech on the Lee amendment, as printed in the Congressional Record, follows.

Mr. President, I thank the senator from Utah for his comments. We will be voting on the senator’s amendment this afternoon at 4 o’clock, and I want to just make a couple of comments about it. I have a little different view of what his proposal is. He talks about our being opposed to Washington’s heavy-handed approach. The way I understand his proposal, it is even more of a heavy-handed approach than the bill we are voting on today, and this is why.

His proposal is that Washington tells Utah or Oklahoma or Tennessee or Washington State what to do about whether parents may opt out of these federally required tests. Now, they are not...