Jay Greene and Kevin Carey: The Anti-Tight Right vs. The Anti-Loose Left

Recent pieces by Jay Greene and Kevin Carey serve as effective bookends on the current ESEA debate picking up steam in Congress. They both appear to dislike the “tight-loose” formulation to federal policymaking that was first championed by Fordham and is now heralded by Secretary Duncan and others—though of course for opposite reasons.

Let’s start with Jay. In a witty and amusing blog post yesterday, he proposed a drinking game for readers of Fordham’s new ESEA proposal, due out next week. (Clearly Jay has seen it—or at least heard about it—or else simply knows us very well.)

Tight-Loose — The Fordham folks will say that they favor being tight on the ends of education, but loose on the means.  Never mind that dictating the ends with a national set of standards, curriculum, and assessments will necessarily dictate much of the means.  My instruction for the drinking game is that every time you see the phrase “tight-loose” you can take a shot of your choice.  We are loose about the means but tight on the requirement that you numb yourself to this edu-babble.

Let me give you a little hint: if you play this game, you will get very, very drunk indeed.

But I’m at a loss for why the concept of “tight-loose” strikes Jay as so preposterous. Try this: Start by looking at the list of potential mandates that Congress could attach to federal Title I funding in the next ESEA:

1.  States must adopt rigorous academic standards (and cut scores) in English and math that imply readiness for college and career.

2.  States must test students annually in English and math.

3.  States must build assessments and data systems to allow for individual student growth to be tracked over time.

4.  States must develop standards and assessments in science and history, too.

5.  States must rate schools according to a prescriptive formula (i.e., AYP)

6.  States must intervene in schools that fail to make AYP for several years in a row, or in schools that are among the lowest-performing in the state.

7.  States must develop rigorous teacher evaluation systems and ensure a more equitable distribution of effective teachers.

8.  States must ensure that Title I schools receive comparable resources—including good teachers and real per-pupil dollars—as non-Title I schools.

The way Jay argues it, Congress has to either choose “none of the above” or “all of the above.” But of course it doesn’t. We at Fordham would select items 1-4 off this a la carte menu, and leave the rest alone. That, to us, would be “tight-loose” in action. Does Jay not want to require any of these? And if so, isn’t he arguing for federal taxpayers to just leave the money on the stump? Why not make the principled conservative case and say that Title I and other federal funding streams should simply be eliminated?

And then there’s Kevin Carey’s much more earnest—yet equally problematic–essay in the much more earnest New Republic. He takes the opposite view, and seems to argue that if Republicans don’t opt for “all of the above” they are showing themselves to be “radicalized” and in fear of awesome powers of the Tea Party.

The about-face among key Hill Republicans on education has been striking. Consider Senator Lamar Alexander, who pioneered the use of annual school testing when he was governor of Tennessee in the 1980s and continued pushing the standards-based reform agenda as President George H. W. Bush’s Secretary of Education from 1991 to 1993. Today, he is working with Wyoming Senator Mike Enzi to lead Republican negotiations on the new version of NCLB. Yet all indications now are that Alexander has largely abandoned his lifetime of education reform work in the face of the new anti-federal mood.

Never mind that this brief account of Senator Alexander’s career is incredibly misleading; Alexander joined other Republicans in calling for the elimination of the Department of Education in the mid-1990s, and has long pushed for a smaller federal footprint in education. Now he’s “abandoning” his lifetime of work because he wants to let states take the lead on the next phase of reform? All that’s happening is that the GOP is returning to its federalist roots after a wayward journey with No Child Left Behind.

Note, in particular, Kevin’s concerns that “states might no longer be required to test students annually or intervene when schools persistently fail to help students learn. Progress on using federal dollars to change the way teachers are evaluated, hired, and paid would grind to halt.”

Say what? First, nobody is seriously talking about moving away from the annual testing requirement. Second, what evidence can Carey point to that federally-mandated interventions in persistently failing schools have amounted to anything? And third, as Kevin knows, Republicans remain the biggest supporters of the Teacher Incentive Fund, which is the program that attempts to “change the way teachers are evaluated, hired, and paid.”

So let’s quit with all the over-the-top rhetoric. Give the list of eight mandates above a good look. My best guess is that Congress will move ahead with the first few, will definitely reject the last few, and that the real debate is about the ones in the middle. In other words, we’ll be arguing over the precise definition of “tight-loose,” regardless of what the anti-tight Right or the anti-loose Left have to say about it.

-Mike Petrilli

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