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ObamaFlex: Too Much Tight, Too Light on Loose

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Follower's of Fordham's work know that for the better part of three years, we've been pushing an approach to federal education policy that we call "Reform Realism" -- a pro-school reform orientation leavened with a realistic view of what the federal government can get right in education. Its central tenets are tight-loose (tighter on results, looser on how to achieve them); incentives over mandates, and transparency over accountability.

Two weeks ago, Senator Lamar Alexander and a handful of colleagues introduced a legislative proposal that embodies Reform Realism. As I wrote then, it demonstrates a combination of thoughtfulness and humility that is rare in federal policymaking.

Obama Administration officials, for their part, haven't been slouches when it comes to Reform Realism. Secretary Arne Duncan has appropriated the "tight-loose" terminology, and the Race to the Top symbolized the triumph of incentives over mandates (even if it was a carrot that felt more like a stick).

So what about the new plan for conditional waivers under ESEA? Is Team Obama right when it insists that its approach provides much-needed flexibility while pushing the reform agenda forward? That this is "tight-loose" in action?

Unfortunately, no. In short, ObamaFlex is much too heavy on the tight, and much too light on the loose.

Let's talk tight. Duncan et al want states to either adopt the Common Core or demonstrate that their own reading and math standards indicate college readiness, as judged by institutions of higher education. (Those institutions would have to certify that students achieving the state's own standards would be eligible for credit-bearing courses.)

On its face, this is perfectly reasonable, and is close to where Checker Finn and I landed when we released our ESEA Briefing Book in April. One of the greatest failings of No Child Left Behind was its agnosticism about the content and rigor of state standards; asking states to peg their expectations to real-world demands makes eminent sense.

But. It's one thing if Congress goes along with such an approach--and if states are given a reasonable amount of time to demonstrate that their own standards are in fact set at a college-ready level. That's not what we're getting through the waiver package. Instead, Arne Duncan is further federalizing the Common Core by making it the only practical route for states wanting immediate regulatory relief. I believe that Texas and Virginia (two states that did not adopt the common standards) could easily make the case that their own standards indicate college readiness. But it will take time. And they will want flexibility now.

A state like Alaska--whose own standards are terrible and which hasn't adopted the Common Core--is completely out of luck. It would take years for it to develop college ready standards. So Arne has forced Alaska's hand--has it "over a barrel" in Lamar Alexander's words--and opens up the Common Core to the label of "federally mandated" national standards.

Even more disturbing is the way in which the Administration's quid-pro-quo will lock all states into the Common Core indefinitely. What happens if a state decides to back out--either for ideological reasons or pragmatic ones--say, because the tests linked to the standards start to go off the rails? Will such a state have to instantly adopt its own college-ready standards, or else risk losing the right to regulatory relief? Or federal education funding? Or both?

Meanwhile, as ObamaFlex fails to get "tight" right, it also goes too light on "loose." Just look at the details yourself. A state can propose its own approach to accountability, for example--as long as it includes "annual measurable objectives," "priority schools," "focus schools," "reward schools," and on and on and on. This is kind of like Henry Ford's approach to car colors.

Or consider the new mandates on teacher evaluations. States and school districts will be required to:

develop, adopt, pilot, and implement, with the involvement of teachers and principals, teacher and principal evaluation and support systems that: (1) will be used for continual improvement of instruction; (2) meaningfully differentiate performance using at least three performance levels; (3) use multiple valid measures in determining performance levels, including as a significant factor data on student growth for all students (including English Learners and students with disabilities), and other measures of professional practice (which may be gathered through multiple formats and sources, such as observations based on rigorous teacher performance standards, teacher portfolios, and student and parent surveys); (4) evaluate teachers and principals on a regular basis; (5) provide clear, timely, and useful feedback, including feedback that identifies needs and guides professional development; and (6) will be used to inform personnel decisions.

These principles for teacher and principal evaluation are fine as they go--but not as mandates from Uncle Sam. If we've learned anything from No Child Left Behind, it's that to mandate a good idea is to kill it. Consider what Senator Alexander recently told Education Daily:

We have had several good experiments around the country that are identifying good teaching, rewarding performance, relating it to student achievement, relating it to better pay. But it has been very hard to do. No one is absolutely sure how to do it. The worst thing we could do at this time with teacher and principal evaluations related to student achievement, even though I think it is the Holy Grail of school reform, is to impose any version from Washington.

Precisely.

To be sure, Team Obama got some things right. States and districts will be allowed to ignore NCLB's "highly qualified teachers" provisions, for example. States can focus turnaround efforts on schools with particularly low subgroup achievement -- rather than schools with large achievement gaps. (That's important if you don't want to penalize racially and economically diverse schools, whose gaps are often gargantuan even though they are doing right by all of their subgroups.) And enabling states and districts to move their formula funds -- like those for teacher quality -- into Title I will make a real-world difference in terms of spending flexibility.

Still, all in all, ObamaFlex is in need of improvement. Some additional vetting -- via the Congressional process perhaps? -- might make it ready for primetime. Too bad the Administration took that option off the table.

Originally published on the Fordham Insitute's Flypaper blog.