AEI Education offers check-up on Education Department

AEIFrederick M. Hess and Andrew P. Kelly urge a more “measured approach to education reform” from the federal level in their report, What Uncle Sam Can (and cannot) do to Improve K-12 Schooling: Lessons for the next Four Years.

The introduction to the report offers a mixed review of the last four years of federal education policy because reforms have often failed to be applied effectively on the state and local levels:

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 of the report include:

  • 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.

Looking ahead to federal policy in the next four years, Hess and Kelly see three salient points.

First, while Race to the Top did manage to bring some concrete positive changes such as increasing numbers of charter schools and encouraging states to use student-achievement data to evaluate teachers, many of their reforms were too vague or grandiose to be effectively carried out within the states.

Second, the Education Department will need to follow up with the Race to the Top and School Improvement Grant winners in order to ensure better results than have been achieved thus far. This process will mean that the Department has less time for new initiatives and instead is working on improving what they have already done.

Third, while the Education Department, in the follow up to President Obama winning a second term of office, did speak of a new initiative concerning school leadership and principal preparation, it is difficult to see how this effort will actually be implemented. Furthermore, it is difficult to see how there will be time or effort for such an initiative because of how difficult it will be to continue the implementation of programs begun in the last four years.

In conclusion, Hess and Kelly add:

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.

For more details as well as a link to a pdf version of the report, please visit: