The Ordeal of Equality

OrdealEqualIf Secretary Duncan is serious about “listening” to ideas for the next ESEA reauthorization (aka “fixing what’s wrong with NCLB”), he would do well to start with the important and depressing book by David K. Cohen & Susan L. Moffitt, The Ordeal of Equality: Did Federal Regulation Fix the Schools? Veteran education-policy chronicler/analyst David Cohen and Brown University’s Susan Moffitt have delivered the definitive history of the federal Title I program, its evolution and, for the most part, its failure. Their singular contribution amounts to a map of the limits of federal education policy when it comes to transforming U.S. schools and educational achievement. Though they attribute modest achievement gains to Title I dollars, focus, and encouragement over the 44 years since LBJ persuaded Congress to authorize this funding stream, they mainly demonstrate the failure–nay, the futility–of efforts to turn this flow of dollars into an engine of school transformation and educational renewal. What’s more, their explanation of the systemic shortcomings of American public education and the various agencies that operate it, and of the inability of federal dollars and regulations to alter that situation, should sound a loud, cautionary note to Duncan and his team, as well as to Congressional lawmakers. Though Cohen and Moffitt strive to conclude with constructive suggestions (e.g. better school leadership, mayoral control), their heart isn’t in it. For their brains have told them that, within the limits of public education as it exists in the USA in 2009, Uncle Sam cannot pull this off.

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