Blog: The Educated Reporter

`Carrots, Sticks, And The Bully Pulpit:’ Should the Federal Government Be Fixing Schools?

What lessons can be learned from looking at the federal government’s involvement in public education? How effective have attempts been at the national level to promote equity, improve achievement, and develop effective policies? Does that track record support more or less involvement by Washington?

Those are just some of the tough questions tackled in the new book “Carrots, Sticks, and the Bully Pulpit: Lessons From a Half-Century of Federal Efforts To Improve America’s Schools.” Edited by Rick Hess, resident scholar and director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, and Andrew P. Kelly, a research fellow at AEI, the collection features 12 essays by experts chosen for their diverse points of view.

A few years ago, Hess and Kelly invited researchers and policy experts who had worked for recent presidential administrations (both Republican and Democrat) along with advocates from the state and national level, to take part in a day-long discussion on the federal government’s involvement in education.

As a result of that gathering, “It became clear to us that hardly anybody who actually understands federal policy has the time or energy to sit down and think about what we have learned — What do we know today that we didn’t know yesterday,” Hess told an audience Thursday at the U.S. Department of Education, where Peter Cunningham, assistant secretary for communications and outreach, hosted a conversation with the authors.

Certainly this is the time to be talking about the federal government’s role in public education. No Child Left Behind took effect in 2002, and was supposed to be put up for review every five years after that date. Instead, Congress has put off having the tough conversation and has approved school funds on an annual basis. In recent months there’s been plenty of wrangling, but not much progress, over the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

While it’s often lamented that education policy is more partisan today than it was 10 years ago, that’s actually a double-edged sword, Hess said. The fighting is fiercer because education “matters a lot more now,” Hess said. When the federal government “is not just running a conveyor belt with cash out to states and localities, people have a lot more to argue about,” Hess said.

The book’s 12 chapters are divided into key areas, including the federal role in research, and the sometimes rocky relationship between the federal government and local school districts. A particularly timely chapter covers the challenges of policy implementation in a public education system that’s as fractured and decentralized as the one in the United States. As Cunningham noted Thursday, that’s something you don’t find in many other countries where public schools are doing comparatively well, and it illustrates how difficult it can be for the federal government to try and reshape what’s expected of schools.

At the same time, “No one thinks we should move to centralization,” Cunningham said. “No thinks that the federal role should be to run all schools and we (the Education Department) don’t either.”

Thursday’s discussion also touched on the Race To The Top program, in which states compete for federal funding after meeting certain conditions for implementing new programs and accountability measures. That’s considered a “carrot,” particularly when compared to the “stick” of No Child Left Behind, which focuses heavily on sanctions for schools that fall short of meeting hard-target benchmarks for student achievement.  But I was particularly interested in the discussion of the Investing In Innovation (i3) grant program, which requires public-private partnerships for schools to qualify for funding.

Despite its name, the grant program isn’t necessarily about spurring innovation in schools, Hess said. Rather, it’s about helping communities replicate programs that have already shown to work, and encouraging the broader community to take a bigger role in supporting public education.

A key message from the book might be that the federal government helps schools when it’s “creating space for entrepreneurs and innovative programs, rolling back things that might be in the way of local decision makers,” said Kelly, who co-wrote the introduction with Hess.

There’s also a continued need for accountability, Kelly said, and “exposing places where states and districts are not doing what they’re supposed to be doing — these are the things that the federal government has been wildly successful at.”


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