Back to the Question: Is a FEDERAL Department of Education Necessary—notes from academia

On Hess and Darling-Hammond
About two months ago, Rick Hess and Linda Darling-Hammond joined forces to tell New York Times subscribers what the federal government is good at doing as it relates to education.[1]  Four things were on their list—and “[b]eyond this list, the federal government is simply not well situated to make schools and teachers improve.” Of the four, I’d probably be in 75% agreement, but as my previous posts would suggest, I’d also add other things to the list that I continue to be comfortable that the federal government has a role (like incentivizing and supporting state education agencies to make their own administrative and structural changes that might unlock best practices for reducing bureaucracy and supporting local education agencies).  Here’s my quick and dirty thoughts:
1.      Hess + Darling-Hammond: The federal government is good at encouraging transparency for school performance and spending.  à Transparency is a great-sounding sound bite for whatever comes after it.  Who wants systems to operate from behind the curtain anyway?  The scary part is that transparency is usually only talk about the ends, outputs, and outcomes rather than about the resources available, constraints, or inputs.  It is though, a good place to start.  Hess + Darling-Hammond think reports of school and district-level spending would square with the public.  My concern is that raw spending is less important and can easily be manipulated out-of-context.  I would like to see contextualized spending that incorporated best budgeting practices and cost accounting.  How much overhead is needed?  Why? Is money being spent EFFICIENTLY?  Who cares whether $5,000 more was spent in one school than another if that $5,000 was spent on floor cleaner for the cafeteria?  I’m more concerned with which programs or activities use the most resources and of those, which groups they are servicing, for how long, and what those investments are allowing the groups to do and community to enjoy.  I’d rather pay more for a program that fully services its clients’ needs.  Isn’t that what the money’s supposed to be for in the first place?
2.      Hess + Darling-Hammond: The federal government is good at enforcing civil rights laws and ensuring that low-income and SpEd dollars are spent appropriately.  à Full agreement here.
3.      Hess + Darling-Hammond: The federal government is good at financing reliable research for fundamental questions.  à Agreed
4.      Hess + Darling-Hammond: The federal government is good at voluntary, competitive federal grants that support innovation. à  Hess + Darling-Hammond give a backhanded compliment to Race to the Top by acknowledging its effect of “providing political cover for school boards, union leaders and others to throw off anachronistic routines” but then basically degrade the policy of using consultants to implement because they don’t see the implementation as true innovation.  I understand the critique that the federal education agenda might be too engrained with what is needed to win the Race to the Top monies in the first place, but we should remember from whence we have come.  Fewer than fifteen years ago, we didn’t even have comparable data on our children, few believed (and many, many still don’t) that all children are capable of learning and mastering material, and, if we are being honest, we didn’t know how severe the performance and achievement gaps were in our systems (though to a small subset this has always been evident). In my idealism, what I hope that Race to the Top is doing is more like giving states and LEAs the opportunity to rid themselves of the low-hanging fruit so that they can begin to paint on the fresh canvas.

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