NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Education Ahead: Learning from Successes and Failures

February 6, 2013

President Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have received praise from across the political spectrum for their leadership in promoting aggressive education reforms during the last four years. However, Obama and Duncan would be wise to take a more calculated approach that acknowledges the limits of federal involvement in education, say Frederick Hess and Andrew Kelly of the American Enterprise Institute.

  • Obama's previous initiatives include the $4.35 billion Race to the Top competition, the $650 million Investing in Innovation Fund, the $3.5 billion School Improvement Grant program and its waiver process that allows states to opt out of the No Child Left Behind mandate if they adopted administration priorities and the Common Core Standards.
  • In the coming four years, Duncan intends to create a larger role for the federal government in state accountability systems, school turnarounds, teacher evaluation policy and school leadership.
  • Hess and Kelly note that Duncan was previously successful primarily because of stimulus dollars that boosted the Department of Education's budget; they caution that the reforms Duncan is eyeing will meet political resistance.

In the past, Washington has been effective at ensuring constitutional protections are upheld, connecting education reforms to national priorities, incentivizing school reform at the state- or district-level, and collecting data related to school reforms. In contrast, history suggests that the federal government does not have a strong enough constitutional authority to force states to cooperate, suffers from its bureaucratic structure in delivering meaningful innovations, and struggles to maintain political will sufficient to achieve significant breakthrough legislation.

Hess and Kelly say that the federal government is best suited to push goals but not methods, differentiate between national solutions and federal policy, provide transparency by disclosing accurate school measurements, and support state education agencies in every manner possible.

In the coming four years, Obama and Duncan should leverage the federal government's education investment to incentivize state education agencies to make well-defined reforms in the absence of vague federal criteria. Additionally, the federal government should focus on developing school leadership, administration and principle preparation programs with federal funds. By aiming for these goals and not unattainable standards, the Obama administration may exact progress despite a smaller budget.

Source: Frederick Hess and Andrew Kelly, "What Uncle Sam Can (and Cannot) Do to Improve K-12 Schooling: Lessons for the Next Four Years," American Enterprise Institute, January 31, 2013.


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