What Uncle Sam can (and cannot) do to improve K–12 schooling: Lessons for the next four years

By Frederick M. Hess, Andrew P. Kelly | American Enterprise Institute

President Barack Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan talk in a hold area before the President delivers his third annual back-to-school speech at Benjamin Banneker Academic High School in Washington, D.C.

During his first term, President Barack Obama has, with the help of his Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, pushed many aggressive reforms to improve K–12 education in the United States. Programs such as the $4.35 billion Race to the Top competition have been widely praised even by conservatives who are otherwise critical of the Obama administration. As Obama and Duncan prepare for a second term, it is worth examining what the federal government can and cannot do to reform America’s system of education. Washington has been particularly effective in ensuring constitutional protections are upheld in education, connecting education reforms to national priorities, giving states and districts incentives for implementing policy changes, and collecting and reporting data related to school reforms. However, because decisions directly affecting individual schools are made at the state and local levels, Washington bureaucrats have largely failed at enforcing mandates and fixing poorly performing schools. The new Obama administration would do well to embrace a more measured approach to education reform that reflects lessons learned from past successes and failures.

Key points in this Outlook:

  • With the aid of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the Obama administration has devoted billions of dollars to bold K-12 reform efforts like Race to the Top. But too often, federal policy fails to reflect an understanding of what the federal government can and cannot do when it comes to improving the nation’s schools.
  • Although Washington has had success in placing educational reform on the national agenda and in providing states and school districts with incentives to implement clear policy changes, it has been much less successful in its efforts to fix poorly performing schools.
  • In the next four years, the Obama administration will have fewer resources to work with and significant implementation concerns and should work to ensure that any new reforms avoid overreaching in areas where the federal government has previously failed.

The Obama administration’s first term was marked by a blast furnace of efforts to reform K–12 schooling. Fueled by billions in borrowed stimulus dollars, and building on the expansive precedents set forth by the George W. Bush administration with No Child Left Behind (NCLB), Obama’s Department of Education launched several novel, high-profile efforts. These included the $4.35 billion Race to the Top competition, the $650 million Investing in Innovation Fund, and the $3.5 billion School Improvement Grant program. The administration also made headlines with its waiver process, which permitted states to opt out of NCLB if they embraced administration priorities, and its controversial efforts to promote the Common Core State Standards in reading and math.

Despite the current partisan political climate, President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have received kudos from across the political spectrum. Even conservative voices like New York Times columnist David Brooks and the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal have heaped praise on Race to the Top, the administration’s signature initiative, with Brooks calling the program a “quiet revolution.”[1] More recently, journalist Thomas Friedman, after taking stock of Arne Duncan’s ability to diplomatically navigate the school reform and teacher union communities, gushed that Duncan should become the next secretary of state.[2]

As the administration embarks on a second term, Duncan has made clear that he hopes to be equally aggressive in the next four years. It is an open question whether that will even be possible. Absent the one-time splurge of stimulus dollars, and with the heavy lift of encouraging responsible implementation of first-term initiatives, Duncan may not have the funds or political resources to mount anything like the first-term effort. Political controversy around the Common Core and NCLB waivers will make a repeat performance even less likely.

This makes it an opportune moment to step back and take a longer look at the federal role in K–12 improvement. With Duncan suggesting that Uncle Sam should play an active role in state accountability systems, school turnarounds, teacher evaluation policy, and school leadership, we should examine what we have learned over time about what the federal government does and does not do well.

This is particularly appropriate for two reasons. First, the kinds of glowing press that accompanied the administration’s first-term efforts can conflate the good and bad and discourage hard questions about what the administration got right and wrong. Second, even when one is broadly sympathetic to the direction of many of the administration’s policies, it is useful to focus on which reforms can productively be pursued from Washington and which, no matter how well-intentioned, are best tackled closer to the ground.

On this score, we look back on 50 years of federal involvement in K–12 schooling to highlight some lessons that can inform the next four years. In doing so, we draw on our 2012 book Carrots, Sticks, and the Bully Pulpit: Lessons from a Half-Century of Federal Efforts to Improve America’s Schools, which culls the experiences and observations of a diverse group of leading education thinkers and practitioners.[3] We identify a few things Uncle Sam can do well and a few areas of potential difficulty, and we close with some general observations about the federal role in education.

What Can Uncle Sam Do Well?

The federal government can play a productive role in improving American schooling in a number of areas. Indeed,  despite the wide variety of perspectives and viewpoints from the authors in Carrots, Sticks, and the Bully Pulpit, we were struck by just how much consensus came to light about what the feds can do when it comes to K–12 schooling. Four insights stood out.

First, the feds are good at ensuring constitutional protections are upheld. When states or districts are unwilling to protect the rights of vulnerable populations, Washington has played a valuable role. The most obvious examples involve desegregation and protecting children with special needs. Momentous decisions like Brown v. Board of Education righted a clear historic wrong and set the stage for school integration. And landmark federal efforts to ensure access for disabled children (such as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act) prompted significant improvements in the way schools educate students with disabilities. Although government action on this front has often been heavy-handed, not infrequently giving rise to interest-group demands downstream, it seems clear that the federal government has played an important role in instances when states have run afoul of the Constitution.

Second, the federal government has shown an ability to highlight education challenges and link them to national priorities. The bully pulpit can set the agenda, express national goals, and frame education issues, proving at times to be a powerful force for reform. Presidential pronouncements and commissions have elevated issues of equity and student achievement, shifting political lines and sending school systems onto a new course.

Examples of such agenda-setting include the release of A Nation at Risk in 1983, which alerted the country to the poor performance of American schools; the NCLB-era emphasis on testing and accountability; and the Obama administration’s advocacy for school turnarounds, charter schooling, and teacher evaluation. Federal policies and rhetoric can provide cover for leaders at the state and local levels to enact controversial policies, making it easier for them to pursue goals that would otherwise foster fierce backlash. As Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, summarizes, “Washington is often at its best when a president is using the bully pulpit to highlight national educational and civil rights challenges and then tying them to our shared goals.”[4]

Third, the federal government has enjoyed considerable success in compelling or offering incentives for states and districts to implement well-defined, or “bright-line,” policy changes. The disaggregation requirements in NCLB are a case in point. Prior to the passage of NCLB, just 11 states disaggregated student achievement data by gender or ethnicity. When NCLB made disaggregation a requirement for states to continue receiving Title I funds, compliance quickly became universal. Political scientists Paul Manna of the College of William & Mary and Jennifer Wallner of the University of Ottawa note that federal support for state data systems played a crucial role in promoting the transparency requirements in NCLB.[5]

The changes states made to charter school and teacher quality policies in response to Race to the Top are another example of how Uncle Sam can compel states to adopt specific, discernible policy changes. It is worth noting that federal efforts to shift state policies via Race to the Top provided incentives for a coalition of willing states to make changes that enjoyed substantial local support (as opposed to compelling all states to make those changes).

Fourth, the feds have played a vital role in collecting common data, fostering transparency, and otherwise keeping score across states and districts. From the original data collection efforts of the 19th-century Office of Education to NCLB’s requirements for annual testing and data disaggregation to the ongoing National Assessment of Educational Progress, Uncle Sam has both collected its own data and successfully pushed states and districts to measure their own performance even when they have little interest in doing so. The feds have also fostered transparency by developing states’ and districts’ capacity to collect their own data on school performance.

At the same time, Mark Schneider and Jane Hannaway of the American Institutes for Research argue that the federal government has tended to do far better with collecting data and reporting statistics than promoting high-quality or useful research.[6] The birth of the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) in the first Bush administration was a major step forward in improving the federal role in research. But whether Washington can do better at sponsoring and disseminating useful basic research is a challenge with which IES continues to struggle.

In short, Uncle Sam has historically enjoyed real success in ensuring constitutional protections, using the bully pulpit to spotlight national education priorities, offering states incentives to implement bright-line policy, and fostering greater transparency. These are all good and useful functions, and those whose education policy agenda consists of simply turning off the lights at the Department of Education should take note.

Where Does Uncle Sam Stumble?

At the same time, we see very real limits to what Uncle Sam can do. Indeed, when it comes to fixing schools, the federal track record is bleak. Little evidence exists that the federal government can improve schools through programs intended to enhance teaching and learning or otherwise turn around or transform troubled schools.

Uncle Sam has also stumbled in trying to make states, districts, and schools do things they do not want to do and in fostering innovation in education. Thus, while the federal government has successfully pushed states to comply with NCLB’s reporting, assessment, and intervention requirements, it could not ensure that any of these were done thoughtfully or well. And although federal dollars have fostered limited experimentation with education innovations, especially in the context of Race to the Top, these experiments have rarely resulted in large-scale adoption of successful programs.

Three particular limits stand out.

First, well-intended federal efforts to improve schooling are hindered by the structure of American government, which limits the authority of federal policymakers and circumscribes the tools they have to influence education policy. The design of the federal system means that Washington often lacks clear authority when it comes to K–12 schooling. Efforts to drive improvement from Washington therefore depend on the feds’ ability to coerce state cooperation.

As Bowdoin College political scientist Andrew Rudalevige posits, Washington has two kinds of tools to employ in such efforts: one is bribery, as when NCLB conditioned Title I dollars on states’ adopting prescribed annual testing regimens, and the second is blackmail. As Rudalevige explains, the latter is “parallel to the forms of blackmail pursued in classic detective mysteries of a more innocent age. Comply, writes the blackmailer, or something you don’t want known will be publicized.”[7]

These tools can change the politics of reform in a state or community, but they are necessarily limited—not least because they require cooperation and faithful implementation by state and local leaders and significant monitoring by federal regulators. Such joint action leaves federal efforts vulnerable to local policy shifts, changing political conditions in states and districts, and local shirking when monitoring is difficult or costly.

Second, federal institutions are poorly configured for the rigors of school improvement. The federal government can spend dollars, write rules, and monitor compliance. After that, matters get dicey. Such tools work reasonably well when it comes to collecting taxes and mailing checks to eligible citizens, creating wildlife preserves or setting environmental rules, or funding highway construction. When it comes to services that depend more on intricate interactions between provider and client, like schooling or health care, the challenges for the federal government get more daunting. Thus, measures that may be promising in their own right if pursued at the school or district level may disappoint as federal initiatives.

The limits of this federal system are especially evident when it comes to Uncle Sam’s attempts to promote innovation. Drew University political scientist Patrick McGuinn and Wireless Generation’s Larry Berger and David Stevenson describe a fundamental obstacle to fostering innovation: the pressure to distribute federal benefits widely across states and districts. Although federal innovation programs are often large, the amount going to any particular provider or program is typically quite small, watering down the potential impact that federal dollars might have. In addition, federal officials have a difficult time defining what constitutes an “innovative” approach or provider, leading federal grant makers to reward, in their words, “the status quo in innovation’s clothing.”[8]

Third, the vagaries of the coalition-building process in Congress can often lead to policies that look good on paper but are difficult to implement; as Rudalevige summarized, too often “good lawmaking leads to bad education policy.”[9] Charles Barone of Democrats for Education Reform and Elizabeth DeBray of the University of Georgia argue that the legislative process often yields slow progress, polarized politics, and the deal cutting that creates these ambiguities.[10] To attract the broad coalitions needed to enact laws, policymakers must often define policies so broadly that they mean different things to the different actors involved. This kind of ambiguity can cripple implementation, meaning that the price of enacting a law might be the coherence of those policies on the ground. Thus, the irony is that implementation of the most broadly supported education legislation—from IDEA to NCLB—ultimately emphasizes compliance because bureaucrats are confronted with so much ambiguity that they stick to process as the thing they can safely insist on.

Put simply, although the federal government can force states and districts to do things, the strictures of federalism, the limits of federal institutions, and the messiness of the lawmaking process greatly restrict federal policymakers’ ability to ensure that these things are done well.

Where Does This Leave Us?

In attempting to make sense of the federal role, we were struck by a number of rarely acknowledged complexities. Six seem particularly relevant.

First, the federal government can play an especially effective role in securing rights and promoting bright-line requirements. At the same time, however, Washington has done far better at ensuring formal access and procedural rights than at ensuring students are actually well-served. Indeed, whether the issue is special education, data disaggregation, or school turnarounds, the federal government fares best when it insists on specific processes (like individualized education plans, annual subgroup reporting, or a school restructuring process) and is least effective when it seeks to ensure that these efforts are executed energetically or capably.

Second, an important but often-overlooked distinction exists between advocating for national action and advocating for federal action. In reading the initial drafts of the various chapters in Carrots, Sticks, and the Bully Pulpit, it became clear to us how casually and interchangeably these notions are sometimes used. When reformers think something should happen on a national level, they immediately gravitate toward discussions of federal policy. But various national efforts—whether a state-led effort to create common standards, research-driven efforts to identify promising instructional practices, or a push to cultivate high-quality providers of professional development—can be national in scope without being led by the federal government. As such, federal policymakers would be wise to guard against the tendency for national solutions to reflexively morph into new federal policies. Finding ways to promote promising national reform efforts is a challenge that has received remarkably little attention.

Third, many federal policymakers are convinced that doing something productive means enacting programs that directly affect schools and classrooms—even if Washington is not well equipped to do so. Washington can cut checks and make rules, but these measures are rarely enough to change what happens in a school or classroom. However, if Washington cannot successfully mandate increasingly intrusive measures, it can help lay the groundwork for state and community efforts to improve schools. For instance, whereas states have cause to favor inflated or ambiguous metrics for gauging student performance, Washington is uniquely suited to play a scorekeeping or “truth-in-advertising” role to make sure stakeholders know where their schools stand.

Fourth, the weakness of state education agencies poses a dilemma. On the one hand, their lack of capacity both foils would-be reformers in Washington and makes it harder for states to promote education improvement. One common suggestion is for the federal government, which already funds 50 percent or more of many state education agencies, to up its investment. Critics, however, dismiss the notion that building up state education agencies should be Washington’s job. Both concerns are valid, leaving a situation where both the federal government and the states are operating with little ability to drive or implement reform, even when they seek to. In the current fiscal climate, sizable federal investments to build state capacity are unlikely, meaning federal policymakers should be wary of policies that overly rely on diligent state-level implementation to succeed.

Fifth, proponents of a muscular federal role see an invaluable opportunity to pollinate ideas and provide the political cover so that reforms can spread, as in the case of magnet schools in the 1970s or charter schooling in the 1990s. As McGuinn, Berger, and Stevenson argue, “While foundations, entrepreneurs, and districts all have a vital role to play in advancing educational innovation, only the federal government has the resources to provide sufficient political and financial capital to fuel systemic policy experimentation.”[11]

But the phenomenon can be more complex, and perhaps more of a double-edged sword, than its champions acknowledge. For instance, although NCLB prompted states to embrace the regular testing that they failed to adopt after the 1994 Improving America’s Schools Act, it is an open question whether these benefits outweighed concerns that NCLB was so rigid and overly ambitious that it alienated parents and educators, distorted school culture, and emphasized compliance rather than performance. States likes Florida and Massachusetts, whose accountability systems predated NCLB, worried that federal requirements compromised their carefully designed systems.

If federal activity vacuums up energy, attention, and resources, it can distort or short-circuit other promising activity—even though it can be hard to see what did not happen as the result of federal activity. This consideration generally eludes those evaluating federal policies, but its import grows as the federal role grows in ambition.

Finally, even federal successes can create their own thorny politics. For instance, IDEA is widely regarded as a sterling example of a successful federal effort. It created a framework of rights for previously underserved children and has led to obvious improvements in the status of disabled students in American public schools. At the same time, IDEA created new political dynamics by creating a potent constituency of special education parents, attorneys, and educators who have aggressively used the law to demand substantial resources for their children. This is a happy story from their perspective, but it has put schools with finite resources in a bind, raised concerns that other students are getting shortchanged, and potentially distorted the incentives to identify children as having “special needs.” Members of Congress and federal officials now find themselves in the unenviable position of having to search for ways to rein in education spending while defending special education investments.

Even the most well-intended federal initiatives can give rise to unforeseen and counterproductive political dynamics. Federal policymakers should not be surprised to learn that protecting certain groups can lead those groups to make aggressive attempts to expand their claims.

Federal Policy in the Next Four Years

It is important to recognize both that the federal government has a role to play when it comes to K–12 schooling and that its role has limits. Looking back on the past 50 years of federal involvement in K–12 education can provide some useful lessons to guide us in moving toward a more focused, productive federal role.

We believe that federal policymakers are uniquely well-suited to put particular education issues on the national agenda, tackle discriminatory practices that violate constitutional protections, push states to adopt cut-and-dried policies like annual assessment or data disaggregation, and promote transparency by collecting data and requiring states to report on student achievement. At the same time, Washington is ill-suited to change what happens in schools or classrooms and to compel state and local officials to conscientiously do things they are not inclined to do. Attempts to mandate school improvement models, teacher evaluation frameworks, professional development, or other interventions that depend on the skill and commitment with which they are implemented are likely to disappoint for the same reasons that have hampered even the best-laid federal plans for “fixing” schools.

This question is not just empirical but also philosophical. At the very least, we believe observers of different political stripes will agree there is value in asking what the federal government can do well and not merely what would be nice to do. The key challenge for would-be reformers in Washington is to ask not, “What kinds of changes would improve American schooling?” but “What role can Washington play, competently and responsibly, when it comes to school improvement?” This more modest charge would bring a healthy discipline to conversations that often turn more on the excited visions of congressional staffers and Department of Education appointees than on hard-won notions of what Uncle Sam can do, and do well.

What, then, are we to make of the Obama administration’s approach to K–12 as it enters its second term? We see three lessons. First, Race to the Top embodied both the strengths and limits of the federal role. On the one hand, to qualify for the $4.5 billion carrot, states had to make concrete policy changes—raising the caps on the number of charter schools or eliminating the statutory data “firewalls” that prohibited states from using student-achievement data to evaluate teachers. Tying eligibility to these bright-line criteria led to positive policy changes in the states. But the program also relies on others to implement elaborate reform plans driven by the administration’s vision of how best to “fix” schools. In picking the winners, most of the scoring relied on how well states complied with hopelessly vague criteria: securing local buy-in, effectively supporting educators, and so forth. State plans offered hundreds of pages of indecipherable jargon and unenforceable, poorly articulated (but nevertheless expensive) reform schemes. In sum, Race to the Top successfully leveraged federal money to promote state policy change, but its grandiose ambitions and predictable implementation challenges fit an all-too-familiar pattern of early promise and disappointing results.

Second, the continued implementation of the president’s agenda will be hampered by the degree to which the administration’s ambitious first-term agenda failed to reflect the limits of federal power. The winners of the Race to the Top seemed destined to disappoint, given how lofty their promised reforms were. Sure enough, every one of the dozen winning states has failed to follow through on key provisions of its plans—and yet all continue to collect their federal awards. And the early results of the School Improvement Grant program, which provides money for schools to implement federally defined turnaround models at failing schools, have been uneven at best and predictably discouraging at worst. The vagaries of implementation will soak up a lot of the administration’s attention in the second term, leaving less room for the kind of ambitious moves that marked the first four years.

Third, it looks like school leadership will be a new focus of the administration in 2013. In a November 2012 speech to the Council of Chief State School Officers, Secretary Duncan suggested that the feds could use Title II funds, SIG dollars, and other spending to help revamp principal preparation programs, an area he felt was neglected in his first term.[12] Although school leadership training is sorely in need of reform (indeed, we have long championed this very need[13]), it is hard to see at this juncture how any federal effort will amount to much more than new rules, categorical requirements, and cheerfully imitated talking points.
The Obama administration will have its hands full in the next four years just trying to ensure states that claimed Race to the Top funds and NCLB waivers follow through on their promises. It is likely to find that as difficult as the Bush administration’s effort to get states to abide by the spirit, and not just the letter, of NCLB. As the administration enters into a second term with fewer resources and a hefty dose of implementation concerns, it would do well to embrace a more measured appraisal of what the feds can and cannot do well when it comes to schooling. In a sector long marked by grand promises and overreach, that kind of discipline may be just what the doctor ordered.

You can read more about  Frederick M. Hess, Andrew P. Kelly At the American Enterprise Institute

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1. David Brooks, “The Quiet Revolution,” New York Times, October 22, 2009, www.nytimes.com/2009/10/23/opinion/23brooks.html.
2. Thomas Friedman, “My Secretary of State,” New York Times, November 27, 2012, www.nytimes.com/2012/11/28/opinion/friedman-my-secretary-of-state.html
3. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations are drawn from Frederick M. Hess and Andrew P. Kelly, ed., Carrots, Sticks, and the Bully Pulpit: Lessons from a Half-Century of Federal Efforts to Improve America’s Schools (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2012).
4. Michael Casserly, “Uncle Sam and the Nation’s Great City Schools: Reflections on a Rocky Relationship,” in Carrots, Sticks, and the Bully Pulpit, ed. Hess and Kelly, 175.
5. Paul Manna and Jennifer Wallner, “Stepping-Stones to Success or a Bridge Too Far? The Federal Role in Educational Accountability,” in Carrots, Sticks, and the Bully Pulpit, ed. Hess and Kelly, 155–74.
6. Mark Schneider and Jane Hannaway, “The Federal Role in Research: Lessons from the Field,” in Carrots, Sticks, and the Bully Pulpit, ed. Hess and Kelly, 105–24.
7. Andrew Rudalevige, “‘Government in a Box:’ Challenges of Policy Implementation in the American System,” in Carrots, Sticks, and the Bully Pulpit, ed. Hess and Kelly, 56.
8. Patrick McGuinn, Larry Berger, and David Stevenson, “Incentives, Information, and Infrastructure: The Federal Role in Educational Innovation,” in Carrots, Sticks, and the Bully Pulpit, 149.
9. Andrew Rudalevige, comments at author’s workshop for American Enterprise Institute conference “Carrots, Sticks, and the Bully Pulpit: Sobering Lessons from a Half Century of Federal Efforts to Improve America’s Schools,” May 24, 2011, Washington, DC.
10. Charles Barone and Elizabeth DeBray, “Education Policy in Congress: Perspectives from Inside and Out,” in Carrots, Sticks, and the Bully Pulpit, ed. Hess and Kelly, 61–82.
11. McGuinn, Berger, and Stevenson, “Incentives, Information, and Infrastructure, 149–50.
12. Michele McNeil, “Duncan Sketches Out Second-Term Agenda,” Politics K–12 blog (Education Week), November 16, 2012, http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/campaign-k-12/2012/11/Duncan_CCSSO_speech.html.
13. Frederick M. Hess and Andrew P. Kelly, “Learning to Lead,” Teachers College Record, 109, no. 1 (2007), www.aei.org/article/education/learning-to-lead/.

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