Politics & Policy

Failing to Learn Bush’s Lessons

Obama should be more careful about federal involvement in education.

It appears increasingly likely that President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan are at risk of doing to charter schooling, merit pay, and school “turnarounds” what the Bush administration did to educational accountability. That’s not meant as a compliment.

The Bush team took the sensible and broadly supported notion of holding schools accountable, built up a bipartisan commitment to it, and then pursued a vision so prescriptive, so overwrought, and so divorced from a coherent rendering of what the feds can actually do that they largely unraveled that commitment. As a result, most of the country would now like to see No Child Left Behind overhauled or dumped outright.

What’s easy to forget, of course, is that NCLB was once enormously popular. In Bush’s first couple of years, the law was touted as a triumph of bipartisanship and a signal accomplishment. Similarly, Obama and Duncan are today basking in laurels for their “Race to the Top” efforts. (This $4 billion program, part of the stimulus package, will reward reform-minded states with big grants.) But what hurt Bush was not his support for accountability, which continues to enjoy broad support in principle, but an effort to force a particular vision of accountability on the states without paying sufficient heed to incentives, organizational dynamics, or the predictable perils of implementation.

#ad#The Bush administration learned the hard way that while Uncle Sam can force states and school districts to do things they don’t want to do, he can’t force them to do those things well. Every state now has standards and tests for reading and math in grades three through eight, a definition of “Adequate Yearly Progress” that is in sync with the federal law, and a system of free tutoring for poor students in schools that don’t make the grade. But most of those standards and tests are set at laughably low levels, the definitions of “AYP” are riddled with holes and twisted by game-playing, and the free tutoring isn’t reaching anywhere near a majority of its intended beneficiaries. States followed the letter, but not the spirit, of the law.

Some Bush officials and their Washington allies reacted by bemoaning the intransigence of states and local districts. They had a point. But these frustrations are the price of democracy, federalism, and living in a nation of laws — those same American legacies that school reformers celebrate when they don’t find them inconvenient. Moreover, turnarounds or charter schooling will not work as intended if pursued only because of pressure coming from Washington. This is a battle for hearts and minds, not a war of brute force.

Which brings us back to the Race to the Top. The Obama administration has a big carrot to offer the states. It could have said to them, “Show us your best ideas for raising standards, improving teacher quality, and turning around low-performing schools, and we’ll fund the most compelling and thoughtful ones.” Instead, it said, “Here are our best ideas for reforming the schools; the more you agree to implement, the better your chances of getting the dough.”

Particularly worrisome is President Obama’s claim that the Race to the Top criteria are “evidence-based.” Measures like alternative licensure, charter schooling, and efforts to promote aggressive school restructuring are terrific ideas (and we think the administration deserves kudos for pushing them), but even we would shy from claiming that they are “evidence-based” in any meaningful sense. And the evidence on school turnarounds barely exists yet, though research from other sectors ought to give the secretary of education some pause as he discusses the thousands of schools he intends to turn around. This kind of overreach and over-claiming is dishearteningly similar to the Bush-Spellings penchant for overhyping the ability of NCLB to boost test scores or transform troubled schools. Over time, when the results fail to match the hype, the credibility of the reforms suffers and frustrated voters and policymakers find themselves inclined to toss out the baby with the bathwater.


It’s easy to predict what will happen now. States will check as many boxes as they can, make many promises they can’t live up to, get the money, and then go through the motions. We have seen all this before. If these measures are implemented ham-handedly or with insufficient care, as seems likely in many instances, the consequences can be severe. First, good ideas will be executed poorly, undermining support and engendering skepticism. Second, such an approach will fuel backlash. One need only recall the past decade’s experience with NCLB or Reading First to know how this story goes.


In many respects, it’s not surprising that Obama and company are following in Bush’s steps. In this era, any president worth his salt wants to announce bold educational reforms, promise “transformational” change, and take credit for progress made on his watch. But unless and until Washington takes direct control of the nation’s 100,000 schools, these Potomac-based power plays will disappoint.

There’s another way, but it takes patience and perseverance. That’s to nurture the development of reform-minded political leaders and educators at the state and local levels and to encourage the efforts of entrepreneurs who are solving problems related to teacher quality, assessment, and charter schooling. This entails getting reformers elected to the school board and the state legislature, appointed as advisers, and elected as governors and state school chiefs. It requires pushing for the flexibility that will enable dynamic providers to emerge and grow, without pinning the lapels of any handful with Uncle Sam’s personal corsage.

#ad#Smart federal policy can provide “air cover” to these troops on the ground. But patience is not a virtue in Washington, and is certainly not the way of high-minded ed reformers who claim their policy prescriptions will “save a generation of kids” or “eliminate the achievement gap,” so instead we try to short-circuit this organic process via carrots that start to feel a lot like sticks.

Obama has enormous credibility on education, has used it to push the envelope on important issues like charter schooling and merit pay, and is striking promising chords. It would be a waste for those efforts to be undermined. More important, we’d hate to see the potential for ideas like merit pay and charter schools compromised by the familiar cycle of overselling, over-prescription, disappointment, and backlash.

What has eluded the would-be reformers of both the Bush and Obama teams is the insight that not every good idea makes for a good federal policy, and that fanning a flickering flame can extinguish it rather than fuel it. A touch of humility would have been helpful during the Bush years, and that’s one lesson it would be good for the Obama team to learn sooner rather than later.


Frederick M. Hess is director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Michael J. Petrilli is vice president for national programs and policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and research fellow at the Hoover Institution. Together they host the weekly Education Gadfly Show Podcast.

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