EdMedia Commons Archive

Five Questions For … Gene Hickok

Interview conducted and edited by Emily Richmond.

Gene Hickok has experience in public education at every level. He’s been a school board member, Pennsylvania’s secretary of education and deputy secretary of education under President George W. Bush. Hickok was a key architect of No Child Left Behind and its subsequent implementation. He is now a senior policy director for Dutko Worldwide, a public affairs and lobbying organization.

1. With the Elementary and Secondary Education Act up for reauthorization, there’s renewed debate over how involved the federal government should be in the business of schools. Were NCLB’s original parameters appropriate, and what changes do you expect to see?

Hickok: The political and legal conundrum we confronted was how to get states to focus on accountability and results, and–at the same time–not overstep federal authority. One of the calculations the [Bush] administration made was to focus on the big picture and for states to be the ones to fill in the blanks. The problem with that was it hindered comparisons among states. It also allowed the states to “cook the books,” and a lot of them have done exactly that by lowering the bar for proficiency.

As for the reauthorization, many Republicans are backing away from No Child Left Behind and embracing more state and local control of schools. The public’s disenchantment is also relatively strong. People like the idea of focusing on results, but they don’t like the idea of schools being labeled.

I think you’re going to see more flexibility and different ways of getting at accountability, such as growth models. There will be more emphasis on incentive funding. I like the idea of competitive grants, but I think the [Obama] administration is getting way too much early credit. The jury is still out on whether Race to the Top is going to make a difference.

2. One of the front-burner issues today is common core national standards. Had those been in place a decade ago, would they have made NCLB more effective?

Hickok: The world has certainly changed since 2001. At that time, the idea of a common set of standards across the country, even if just voluntarily adopted by the states, was beyond the third rail in education policy. It just couldn’t be discussed. To now have the National Governors Association embrace the idea, at least rhetorically, is quite stunning. Had common core standards been in place at the outset of No Child Left Behind, it would have been a huge difference. Having said that, I’m still not sure you’re going to see common core standards become as pervasive as some people think they will be.

3. For all its controversy, NCLB has been a boon for education writers because it requires districts and states to collect and publish detailed student data. Does the law get enough credit for making accountability measures the new normal?

Hickok: The fact that, in the era before No Child Left Behind, a state couldn’t tell you its graduation rate is rather stunning. It sounds like common sense now, but in 2001 the idea of focusing on results was controversial. Those state departments of education had to undergo real change to collect reliable information. We can argue about the methodology of defining and measuring achievement, but the fact remains the conversation is much richer now because we have that data.

4. How effectively have education writers covered NCLB?

Hickok: When I was in Washington, the thing that used to really frustrate me was trying to understand how local education reporters cover local education issues. Up until No Child Left Behind, relatively little of the federal presence was actually part of the conversation. With NCLB, all of a sudden you’re labeling schools, defining proficiency and subgroups; and the problem was [the reporters] were still going to their local sources–school boards, union leaders, the superintendent’s office–that were often misinformed or biased.

I think over time that has changed. The federal law has been around long enough that I think local reporters are probably doing a much better job of understanding the law.

However, the law is still being mischaracterized, as recently as the July 19 Wall Street Journal’s article about how states are turning away from No Child Left Behind because they’re tired of schools being labeled and sanctioned as failures. I remain frustrated by this kind of terminology. I’ve said it from the very first day: These are not sanctions or punishments for schools; they’re opportunities for kids. That’s a distinction that is lost in the press.

5: A key criticism of NCLB is the requirement that 100 percent of schoolchildren demonstrate proficiency in reading, writing and mathematics by the 2013-14 academic year. Was setting the bar at a more realistic level ever discussed?

Hickok: The analogy we used at the time was why we don’t try to get a man to the moon by 70 percent. Or let’s send him to the moon, but let’s not worry about getting him back.  Politically, there’s just no alternative. You can’t say let’s get 90 percent of our kids to be successful and write off 10 percent.

This post originally appeared on EWA’s now-defunct online community, EdMedia Commons. Old content from EMC will appear in the Ed Beat archives.