Congress is pushing forward on the long-overdue reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (widely known as No Child Left Behind [NCLB]). The major fault line is between Capitol Hill Republicans, who want to put an end to NCLB's well-intentioned but problematic efforts to tell states how to identify failing schools and what to do about them, and those (including U.S. Secretary of Education Arne DuncanArne Starkey DuncanStripping opportunity from DC's children Catherine Lhamon will make our schools better, fairer, and more just Providing the transparency parents deserve MORE and several civil rights groups) who want to retain more in the way of NCLB-style mandates. The most common argument for retaining an expansive federal role is that it provides reform-minded leaders in the states with "political cover" from Washington. This cover, the argument goes, helps those state officials make tough decisions in their states.
This argument has been made forcefully by current and former Obama appointees. Peter Cunningham, formerly chief of communications at the Obama Department of Education, has argued, "Without cover, what district would take bold steps to turn around underperforming schools? Without pressure, many states will continue to underfund education. ... Cover is important." Under Secretary of Education Ted Mitchell told the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, "I urge you to make a real priority of supporting innovation in education, in part by creating incentives that foster innovation and creating political cover for local reform."
In places like Tennessee and New York, state superintendents have argued that they could only push as far and as fast as they did on teacher evaluation or adopting new Common Core-aligned testing because they could blame federal initiatives like the Obama administration's Race to the Top program. Local superintendents have said the same thing about NCLB's accountability requirements. It's clear that "cover" can help produce short-term wins. And those early wins can build momentum, mobilizing support for their efforts. This is all true enough, as Cunningham and Mitchell argue.
Nonetheless, there are at least three reasons that the political cover strategy is problematic, even when deployed on behalf of good ideas.
First, the wins produced in this fashion can be self-defeating. Some of NCLB's early "wins" have actually eroded support for the kinds of educational accountability the law was intended to promote. Duncan's use of federal waivers from NCLB has caused states to act, but it has done so by leading to the rushed adoption of not-ready-for-prime-time teacher evaluation systems. Similarly, NCLB led to a hurried reliance on problematic school improvement strategies. Federal cover often leads to hurried adoption on a politically motivated timeline, which means that reforms will tend to be done poorly in lots of places — undermining public confidence and support.
Second, school improvement is invariably better served when ambitious reforms have local political backers and meaningful local support. Sometimes, as noted above, a federal push can help spur state-based efforts that become institutionalized and spark political support. But, more often, would-be reformers get out ahead of what their state is willing or able to do and invite backlash or a course correction. In an ironic twist, the very act of providing federal cover can also serve to undermine local backing, or cause it to atrophy, by making it seem less necessary or urgent.
Finally, cover works best when bright lines are involved, when it's clear whether a state or district is doing what Uncle Sam is requiring it to do. If districts have to test annually and one isn't, the state superintendent can issue clear threats in Uncle Sam's name. That can make a big difference. On the other hand, when it comes to school improvement, districts can comply with the letter of the law but do a lousy, half-hearted job of it. At that point, federal cover is of limited value, because all a state official can do is stamp her foot and insist that school districts do it "better." It's not clear that cover can offer much on that score. This is why NCLB-style school improvement has done so little to actually improve schools.
Moreover, cover can prompt reform-minded state leaders to make political miscalculations. They can wind up paying short shrift to what their state is actually willing to do or prepared to do well. In that way, Uncle Sam's well-intended cover can all too often wind up leading enthusiastic state officials to drive the school reform bus off a cliff.
As Congress rethinks the federal role in education, it will do well to set aside pleas for federal cover. "Cover" is one of those Beltway notions which sound good in theory, and which can produce some short-term gains, but which ultimately do more to set back the cause of school improvement than to promote it.
Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the co-editor of Carrots, Sticks, and the Bully Pulpit: Lessons from a Half-Century of Federal Efforts to Improve America’s Schools.