What many groups are proposing, however — external to this raucous and distracting “national curriculum” debate — is to get the federal government intimately involved in other crucial aspects of our schools. That’s where McCluskey and his colleagues ought to be directing their ire.
The influential liberal organization The Education Trust, for example, wants to require that school districts redistribute their most effective teachers in order to give poor kids an equitable shot at good instructors. That sounds laudable on its face but would embroil the feds in virtually every school board’s decisions regarding teacher pay, placement, and transfers.
Or take a look at what former secretary of education Margaret Spellings is proposing in her role as education adviser to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. She wants to cement in place all of the No Child Left Behind Act’s onerous one-size-fits-all regulations for another decade, and then some, with greater intrusion into high schools and federal mandates around teacher evaluations.
There’s a better way. We at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute call it “reform realism
,” and it’s an approach to federal policymaking based on a few commonsense principles. First, the federal government should be much tighter about what states expect students to know and be able to do, and much looser about how states (and districts and schools) get there. If states don’t want to participate in the common standards, that’s fine, but they do need to demonstrate that they are aiming high enough. (Most states to date have aimed way too low.) Second, federal policy should focus on transparency instead of “accountability.” Empower states and local communities by releasing mounds of information about how schools are performing and how much they are spending. And then step away. And third, if the feds can’t help but promote a particular reform idea, they should do it through carrots (via competitive grant programs, like Race to the Top) rather than sticks (via new mandates).
In other words, we want a much smaller federal role in education — albeit one that ensures that the benchmarks we use to measure our schools are rigorous and trustworthy.
We might never see eye to eye with all conservatives about national standards and tests. But we should be able to agree about reining in Washington’s involvement in other aspects of education. How about we drop the infighting and spend some of our energy working together on that?
— Michael J. Petrilli is executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which recently released an ESEA Briefing Book.