blueprint for reform

One of the rallying cries of those of us who oppose common core standards has been the fact that the federal government involvement in them has violated three separate federal laws (GEPA, ESEA, NCLB). If we are to be a nation of laws, not of men, then we should do everything possible to ensure that those laws are followed. However, if the law prohibits you from doing what you really want to do, then the proper course of action is to get the law changed, making what you want to do legal. The current administration may be slowly coming around to that realization. The President’s latest budget proposal seeks to attaching funding to its illegal goals of having national standards and assessments.

According to Niel McClusky of the CATO Institute, “President Obama proposes changing Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act – of which NCLB is just the most recent re-authorization – to a program called “College- and Career-Ready Students,” with an annual appropriation of over $14 billion.”

The Administration,  in their 2010 proposal for the revision of NCLB “A Blueprint For Reform”, outlined all the areas where regulation through the USDoEd will need to change to allow the federal government more say in the things the law currently forbids them to act upon: national standards, personnel (teachers), national testing.

Our congressmen and women need to be hyper aware of the administration’s aspirations. To the administration’s credit, they have been fairly transparent. Secretary Duncan announced at a UNESCO conference in 2010 “Traditionally, the federal government in the U.S. has had a limited role in educational  policy. The Obama Administration has sought to  fundamentally shift the federal role…”

The role they would like to play includes:

“Raising standards for all students.We will set a clear goal: Every student should graduate from high school ready for college and a career, regardless of their income, race, ethnic or language background, or disability status…

Better assessments…

A complete education. Students need a well-rounded education to contribute as citizens in our democracy [they still can’t wrap their head around the fact that we are a republic and the difference is important] and to thrive in a global economy…

and most importantly

Effective teachers and principals… In addition, a new program will support ambitious efforts to recruit, place, reward, retain, and promote effective teachers and principals and enhance the profession of teaching….We will call on states and districts to track equitable access to effective teachers and principals, and where needed, take steps to improve access to effective educators for students in high-poverty, high-minority schools.

Rigorous and fair accountability for all levels…To ensure that responsibility for improving student outcomes no longer falls solely at the door of schools, we will also promote accountability for states and districts that are not providing their schools, principals, and teachers with the support they need to succeed. [For a second there I thought they were going to acknowledge that much of a student’s chance for success is tied to factors outside the school’s control like poverty and low parental education, but then I see they are still going to lay the blame for poor outcomes squarely on the teaching professionals, again.]

Meeting the needs of diverse learners.

Greater equity.

Supporting effective public school choice.

Promoting a culture of college readiness and success.…We will increase access to college-level, dual credit, and other accelerated courses in high-need schools and support college-going strategies and models that will help students succeed. [Guess how they are going to increase access. That’s right, higher education is about to become a right that we all pay for.]

The report specifically calls out attendance at 4 year colleges. In fairness, in 2010 when the report was written Jason Zimba had not yet confessed that Common Core would only prepare students for 2 year community colleges.

If this administration, through the USDoEd, is successful in getting their concepts and wording into the next iteration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), they will achieve this fundamental shift. Through a shift in the definition of “accountability” they could transform Title I into a program that is a competition for funds based on student test scores, rather than its original intent which was a needs based program to distribute federal aid to schools in statistically poor neighborhoods. The end result is the same.

We know that standardized tests are a better measure of family income than student performance so schools in low income areas will still receive the vast bulk of Title I funds. But what will be the impact on districts on the edge? Improving scores will actually diminish their access to federal funds. I’m not implying that any district would purposely tank their scores. I don’t think that lowly of most education professionals. But might there not be an incentive to try a myriad of untested new interventions because they are readily available and don’t have the track record of previous interventions that didn’t work, making districts less choosy about which programs they pursue so long as they can demonstrate that they are being proactive in trying to improve scores? Studies have shown we tend to be more picky when spending our own money than when spending someone else’s. Struggling districts will grasp at anything that promises them money, especially when there is little threat of losing money if what they try doesn’t work.

The other problem with such accountability programs is the fallacy of the if-then argument. Daniel Pink’s book “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us” examines the typical business incentives that follow the if-then model: If you reach that goal, you’ll get a reward. If you come in late, we’ll dock your pay. Pink’s review of the studies done on this model argues that this model only works for a very narrow band of activity, typically boring repetitive tasks more closely associated with assembly line type work. If you want people to be more creative, think critically and be more productive, you need a different model. Which is the definition of education that reformers are pushing for?

In 2010 interview with NPR, Pink said, “And in fact, goals should come with a warning label. A lot of times when you have very short-term goals with a high payoff, nasty things can happen. In particular, a lot of people will take the low road there.” He was referring to cheating. “They’ll become myopic. They’ll crowd out the longer-term interests of the organization or even of themselves.”

Government incentive programs should take this kind of information into account when trying to incentive a certain behaviors or outcomes. A shift in federal accountability towards specific student outcomes could incentivise behaviors and choices we really don’t want or that work against our children in the long run. For instance,  the only system that can guarantee an outcome for a particular student is one that chooses the path for the child on which they are least likely to fail. That is anathema to the American Dream.

Most importantly, Congress should recognize that having states and districts be 100% accountable to the federal government, who supplies less than 10% of their education dollars, is not in the best interest of the child. We should all be watching the impact of the President’s budget proposal on the debate on the re-authorization of ESEA very closely. As McCLusky says, “It is that the end game is almost certainly complete federal control by connecting national standards and tests to annual federal funding.”



Anne Gassel

Anne has been writing on MEW since 2012 and has been a citizen lobbyist on Common Core since 2013. Some day she would like to see a national Hippocratic oath for educators “I will remember that there is an art to teaching as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy and understanding are sometimes more important than policy or what the data say. My first priority is to do no harm to the children entrusted to my temporary care.”

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