Federal Action Can't Do It Alone

As Jack Jennings reminds us, policy collaboration in a federalist system is not a zero-sum game. An increase in federal activity on school reform may occur at a time of increasing state reform activity. Even the local level may find itself creating more policy rather than less at the time that the role of the federal government and the states increase. Systemic reform, or Common Core, are complicated endeavors and require increased policy activity at all levels. [1]

Not a Straight Evolution

Obviously, given the example of the Reagan reduction of a federal role in education, the evolution is not just linear upward. People may argue about how abrupt and how deep Reagan's attempted reversal was. In this chapter I've emphasized the serious reduction in the budget, the small but symbolically important block grant in ECIA, and the reduction in civil rights enforcement. But Congress, including some Republicans, prevented some of the most severe cuts, saved Title I and other programs from being included in the block grant, and prevented President Reagan from abolishing the new Department of Education.

From Laissez-Faire to Monitoring

Quite apart from the drift toward student achievement scores, the Office of Education had to change its mentality beginning in the 1960s. Far from being avaricious bureaucrats anxious to control state education agencies and their school districts, the Office of Education had, for a century, been a sleepy agency with a strong inclination not to tell anyone what to do. It continually assured people in the field that it had no regulatory ambitions. This caused quite a staff crisis when the new breed came in. Keppel found a staff that was disinclined and untrained to monitor compliance. This applied very much to the desegregation effort, but there was also a general disinclination to keep track of education program grants. Quick pressure to get new people and train old veterans shook up the Washington staff. After 1965, the Office of Education gradually became a policy and compliance agency. The vexing question was how much to trust local districts given a history of segregating schools, falsifying conditions, and misappropriating Title I funds. Finding the right balance between trust and compliance remains an ongoing issue, and it requires bureaucratic genius and diplomatic skills to do so.

The Conundrum of the Federal Role in Common Core

The third era, discussed at some length above, ended in an interesting conundrum. The three presidents of the third era, along with their Secretaries of Education and the U.S. Congress, created a federal policy of standards-based education, although the standards themselves were to be forged by each state. Then, after Clinton's forays into possible national standards and national tests were defeated, a group of former governors, educators, and businesspeople began talking about the possibility of a cooperative effort to develop such national standards and tests. This led eventually to the formation of a proposal sponsored by the governors and the chief state school officers to promote a compact called “Common Core.” It is quite startling how the states acquiesced in the functions of the big, new collaboration of the National Governors' Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, which is providing national standards and, through two national contractors, assessments to match. This will have a strong impact on the development of curriculum; indeed, vendors in the private sector have gone into action to offer curriculum materials that will be aligned to the national standards and assessments. The development of standards had until this time been in the hands of the states. In most of the states, reformers persuaded a majority of the public and the school leaders to consent to this new national system. The conundrum is twofold: How did this happen, and where does it leave the role of the federal government? We turn, then, to a brief presentation about the Common Core to understand the complex juncture at which we have arrived.

  • [1] In my experience, this important declaration belongs to Jack Jennings, in one private chat, and at a couple of meetings. If it comes initially from Montesquieu, please forgive me.
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