Lessons for State-Level Reformers in the ESSA Era

Last week, while most of Washington’s attention was elsewhere, I was preoccupied with the release of Bush-Obama School Reform: Lessons Learned (my new book, edited with Mike McShane). It was an excuse for a bit of Bush-Obama edupalooza, what with the essay, the event, and the video. During all of this, one question came up repeatedly: How much of what we’ve learned still applies in the ESSA world?

The answer: a lot.

Before we get to that, let’s clear up a little confusion. It’s been suggested that lessons from the Bush-Obama years might not apply post-ESSA because states are so free that it’s a whole new world. Nope. Under ESSA, states are still required to administer all the same tests as under No Child Left Behind. The data reporting requirements are actually more sweeping than under NCLB. And, while states have lots more flexibility when it comes to accountability, they’re still subject to a web of federal requirements. In other words, while ESSA did shrink the federal footprint, it didn’t abolish it. Post-ESSA, Washington’s role is still remarkably proactive relative to life before NCLB. Indeed, Washington’s role today is a hyper-amped version of what the most ambitious federal officials sought during the Clinton years.

While all that’s relevant, though, it’s really a footnote. What matters more is that the lion’s share of lessons learned during the Bush-Obama years is as relevant to state education reforms as to their federal counterparts.

For instance, Mike and I have observed, “Politically dictated timelines are frequently at odds with educational timelines.” This means that elected officials, their appointees, and their allies move with an eye to political rhythms. Newly elected executives want to make a mark. They push big, ambitious measures when they see a window of opportunity. They want things to happen before the next election, so that voters know their efforts are working. All of this means that educators get bombarded with waves of change, that reforms are often rolled out before the kinks are worked out, and that there’s never enough time to build familiarity among parents and educators. Guess what? All of this applies to state-level reformers too.

Mike and I note, “Incentives are most effective when success is straightforward and much less effective when the goal is to spur complex changes.” The point: inducements work best when those seeking funds have to put their cards on the table. When an action is cut-and-dried, it’s easy to smoke out B.S. and to monitor follow-through. On the other hand, when recipients are promising to undertake complex reforms, things get murkier. Applications wind up featuring piles of jargon-filled promises in order to demonstrate intent. And then, once winners are named, it’s always a crapshoot if they’ll do what they promised. Once again, the same challenges play out in state programs as in federal ones.

Mike and I have written, “Once reforms gain momentum, it can be hard to course-correct.” As a reform picks up steam, its advocates get emotionally invested and put their professional reputations behind it. They get funders on board and promise policymakers big results. They defend their handiwork and berate the critics. The more success they have, the more these dynamics create a team culture—one in which expressing public doubts or second thoughts can seem like betrayal, and damage relationships with allies, funders, and policymakers. The more success a reform enjoys, the trickier it can be to hit pause or make necessary adjustments. This, too, plays out in the states.

Now, all that said, the nice thing about state-level reform is that these problems become more manageable. States involve only a fraction of the nation’s school systems and schools, and have a smaller cast of characters. The smaller size and the confines of geography make it easier for key actors to know and trust one another. This means that state politics tend to be less polarized than in Washington. State officials also have a direct, personal relationship with school systems, making it easier to get feedback and more possible to modify laws and policies.

This allows state-level reformers to proceed more deliberately, to take smaller (and more frequent) bites of the apple, and to forge broad, sustainable coalitions. Of course, there is no guarantee that they will do these things successfully, or that they’ll even try to do them at all. Whether they do so is a choice, one which requires recognizing the challenges and then making a point of utilizing every advantage. Tackling school improvement at the state level can be a boon, but it doesn’t provide free passage or safe harbor. And that’s a lesson well worth remembering.

— Frederick Hess

Frederick Hess is director of education policy studies at AEI and an executive editor at Education Next.

This post originally appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.

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