Fresh Thinking about Federal Education Policy, continued
The Federal Role in Education: Past, Present, and Future
JACK JENNINGS: Thank you, Will, for that lengthy introduction.
Since I'm the oldest white man up here, and the one with the longest experience in Washington, I'm going to give you a little bit of history regarding these federal programs. And I was very pleased to hear the reference to how long the federal government has been involved in education.
The federal government has been involved since 1785. It gave away 77 million acres of land for the establishment of public schools. After 1865, it required territories entering the Union to include in their state constitutions provisions for free, non-sectarian public schools. The federal role is not new but rather very old.
The reason the federal involvement involved itself in education was to further democracy. We've always believed you have to have an educated citizenry if you're going to have a democracy. There have also been concerns for economic welfare and national defense.
Those had been the three traditional reasons for federal involvement in education. However, beginning in 1965, two additional reasons were added: civil rights and concern about social welfare. The programs we're talking about today were created in a particular milieu, which determined the strengths and the weaknesses of those programs.
In the area of civil rights there were a number of groundbreaking legal decisions. Brown vs. Board of Education dealt with minorities. Lowe vs. Nichols dealt with the education of Chinese children in San Francisco who could not speak English. In that case the Supreme Court said it was unconstitutional to teach them only in English. There were also state and federal court decisions saying that disabled children were excluded from schools unconstitutionally, and that they had to be included.
Regarding social welfare, there was great interest in the effects of poverty on children and on adults, and therefore you had the war on poverty.
On the other hand, Congress had been unable to pass a bill providing federal aid to education for almost 20 years. This was due to three obstacles: 1) Southerners’ concerns over giving up a dual school system; 2) conservatives’ concerns that any role Washington played would only lead to centralized control of education, and; 3) private schools’ fear that they would not be included in any federal programs.
In 1965, Lyndon Johnson, who had passed Civil Rights legislation the year before, had enough Democratic votes in Congress to pass federal education legislation. He secured passage by including a provision that the federal government would not control education, meaning it would not have anything to do with curriculum, with instructional practice, or teacher training. These things were left to local school boards, thus satisfying the worries of Southerners and conservatives.
Dealing with the private school issue proved trickier. Here the Catholics and other private school interests had enough votes to stop any bill. But what also happened in 1965 was that the Garner Commission recommended that federal aid to education be tied to poverty. So if there was a poor child, then he was entitled to federal education aid, regardless of whether that child went to a public or a private school. They also came up with the child benefit theory. If a child was poor, the child got the benefit, but a public trustee controlled the money. And that broke the deadlock. That meant there could be federal aid to education.
One side effect of all this is that we do not have general aid to education. We do not have aid for school construction. We have categorical aid because of the particular times during which federal assistance was first approved.
Subsequent to that we’ve had programs created for migrant children, programs created for disabled children, programs created for neglected and delinquent children, programs created for children who don't speak English. We’ve had programs created for all sorts of children because the times dictated that there be a categorical approach to overcome various political obstacles. That's what we're living with today.
It didn't have to be that way. If those obstacles weren't there we wouldn't have the problems we do, but those were the obstacles that the politicians dealt with at the time.
Now let’s turn to Title I. There were three separate time periods during which Title I was developed. The first was the initial implementation stage, from 1965 to 1980. During that time, there was a fight between traditionalists who still wanted general aid to education and reformers who wanted the money to be set aside for poor children.
They fought and fought, but eventually the reformers won. Federal aid became more and more narrowly focused, so that the money had to be spent just on disadvantaged children, just in certain schools, just on certain services, and everything had to be audited to make sure that money was used only in this way.
There was strict fiscal accountability for Title I money. But there was no educational accountability for Title I money. That meant somebody could be penalized for spending a dollar in a principal's rather than on a poor child. But if poor children in a school district failed to improve their test scores, the district continued to receive the money anyway. And educators began to be upset by this.
The second time period ran from 1980 to 1988, or 1990, depending on how you want to count. It was the period of retrenchment. At that time, conservative politicians, principally Ronald Reagan, led an assault on Title I. He wanted to eliminate federal aid to education. He did not succeed.
But what he did was cut Title I support so much that it took 10 years to return funding to the level it was in 1979. It took 10 years to get back to serving the same number of children in 1989 that were served in 1979. That was the effect of the Reagan cuts.
But he wouldn't have been able to do any of this if the reformers had not succeeded in narrowing the program to the point that the educators were so bogged down in rules and regulations that they no longer supported it. So the reformers won, but they lost.
From 1965 to 1988 there was no educational accountability regarding Title I money. So if you’re critical of how the money was spent, your complaint is with local educators, not with the federal program, because local educators controlled how Title I money was spent for poor children for all those years.
So attack your local educators, not the federal government. Now let me cool down a little bit and get to the last period.
The last period is 1988 to the present. In 1988, for the first time, Title I was amended to say that states had to set educational ability measures for Title I children and had to have intervention strategies to help poorly performing schools. But states were allowed to set any measures they wanted. The federal government could not dictate to them what those measures were, and the states could intervene with poorly performing school districts in any way they wanted.
Then you had the 1989 Summit on National Goals with President Bush and the governors. That was followed by America 2000, which was about moving towards national standards and testing. Then there was Goals 2000, moving towards national standards, national tests, encouraging states to have their own standards.
Then in 1994 Title I was amended to say that it should be aligned with the idea of standards and assessments. So it now says that every state has to have high standards for poor children, the first time ever that this federal law has taken control away from state or local officials.
It also says that states have to test to see whether poor children meet those high standards, and also whether groups, such as poor black children, poor Hispanic children, meet those goals.
However, again there's deference to state and local control. The Secretary of Education cannot ask to see any state standard until the year 2001 if the state asks for additional time to comply. So we won't even know whether this works until we’re into the new century.
But at least for the first time we have educational accountability in Title I. We also have much more flexibility. Title I can now fund what are called “school-wide projects,” which is a euphemism for general aid. In fact, nearly half the schools that receive Title I money get it for school-wide projects.
Remember the traditionalists. In 1965, they didn't win at the state level and they didn't win at the school level. But their successors have won at the school level because now you can use the money in a school any way you want as long as you improve the school.
I think that's a good idea, assuming the aid is tied to accountability. I think there's far too much rigidity in federal laws. But remember that there's great deference to states and localities in determining levels of achievement. The Secretary of Education cannot tell a state what a standard is. The Secretary cannot even read Idaho's standards, or approve Idaho's assessment program. The Secretary cannot approve any standard of student performance in any state. These are state and local decisions. If you have a gripe with how the country is educating poor children, go to the state level. They're responsible for education.
Has Title I been good or bad? Remember, Title I is about $460 per student; it's one small part of a budget. We spend about $7,000 per student now for all children. Title I does not affect teaching. Schools with non-certified teachers can still get Title I money. Districts that spend $4,000 per student and those that spend $14,000 can both get Title I money. It does not control schools. It adds a little bit of extra money to help kids.
Here are four reasons why Title I is good: First, it makes the point that, in this country, we are committed to educating poor children, disabled children, migrant children, indeed, all children.
Second, it provides money to these children. The General Accounting Office found that the federal government provides nearly $5 of extra money, per capita, for poor children, whereas the average state provides 60 cents. It also found that many states favor richer school districts in distributing money for education, while Title I targets poorer school districts. If you want fairness, then you want more federal aid going to poor children and you don't want states controlling where that money goes.
Third, it has helped raise expectations for minorities and other poor people, so their dropout rate has gone down, their SAT scores have gone up, and their ACT scores have gone up.
Fourth, it means that we're finally saying that all kids in this country, including poor ones, should know more. Does this program have problems? Of course it has problems. What in life is perfect? Does it need improvement? Of course it needs improvement. I think it needs more accountability. But, the country is far better because we have Title I and similar efforts and the educational system is far fairer.
E.J. DIONNE: My name is E.J. Dionne and I want you to know that it was not a conspiracy between Mr. Jennings and me that I'd show up late so that he could have extra time on the program. I was assured that I wasn't late, that the speaker who spoke at the beginning of the program talks too fast. Since I talk too fast, I appreciated that.
I was very surprised when the Manhattan Institute asked me to oversee this program, because I suspect people at the Manhattan Institute disagree with a fair percentage of what I write. But I was honored and happy to participate, not only because we're all going to learn a lot from this distinguished panel, but also because I think the question we are discussing is of such central importance in the education debate.
It might be called the paradox of the education debate. Critics of our school systems always cite test results from countries such as Japan and France in arguing that our schools don’t work. But our competitors have far more centralized systems of education than we do.
It is said, perhaps wrongly, that each day in France every child is reading from exactly the same page of his textbook in every schoolroom in the country. Yet, the solution to our problems is said to be even greater decentralization. This panel is very important because we are addressing one of the central paradoxes of the education debate.
Our next speaker is the Acting Deputy Secretary and Under Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education. He's been the Department's Under Secretary since 1993. Please welcome Mike Smith.
MIKE SMITH: Thank you. Jack Jennings did a nice job of pulling together a little bit of the history of ESEA. I want to reinforce a couple of parts of that and pick up on what happened in 1994 and then move to 1998.
I want to reinforce what Jack said about the effects of ESEA and the other federal programs begun in the 1960s and early 1970s. He mentioned the GAO report on fiscal equalization. It is a very powerful report and I recommend it to anybody who wants to see the effect of the federal government on equalizing resources.
There's a general rule in political science that the higher the level of government, the more likely it is to play an equalizing role. That concept is powerfully demonstrated in this particular report. If you look at a comparison of local expenditures, you see wide disparities. If you add in the state dollars, you see the disparities go down. Add in the federal dollars and the disparities go down dramatically. There's no question at all about the equalizing effect of these dollars.
Second, you have to go back and think about what was going on in 1965. The dropout rate was far lower than it is now. There wasn't anywhere near the kind of overall attendance at our schools that there is now. The percentage of kids going on to college was far lower than it is now. And the country was much less diverse that it is now.
Yet, throughout that period of time, without help from federal, state or local government, the schools produced the people who are now running the most powerful economy in the world. There must have been something going on there that was right.
Finally, somebody mentioned the Jencks book. What that book points out is that from 1972, the gap between black and white, between Hispanic-American and white, and between rich and poor, all closed between 30% and 50%.
I believe it didn't close because of local or state actions, by and large. It closed because there was desegregation. It closed because Title I emphasized the plight of the poor, focused attention upon the poor and redistributed money to poor children.
There's still a long way to go, no question. But Title I and other programs clearly focused attention and resources between the years of 1970 or so and 1988.
After 1988, test scores started to go down a little bit. The gap began to open and the scores overall began to go down until 1992 or 1994.
In 1994, we were faced with a somewhat different issue. The scores of minority students were beginning to go down a little bit, and the overall scores were remaining flat. And there was a sense that we needed to address education on a national level.
We had national and international and economic policy. Most countries buttress that with a national policy on using human capital. This country goes at things a little bit differently because of the kinds of issues that Jack eloquently discussed. But the fundamental point here is that the nation has begun to regard education as a national issue.
There is tremendous mobility among our students both within and between states. My children were educated in five different states. I suspect the same is true for many others in this room. It would not surprise me if either you or your children were educated in a number of different states. So there's no question that we need to think about education from a national perspective.
What did the ESEA Amendments of 1994 do? First, they changed the federal government’s focus. No longer does the government target poor children exclusively. It also focuses on education reform across the country and reform at the state level.
The amendments also incorporated the provisions of Goals 2000 into law. In effect, this meant that for the first time, every state had to set challenging academic standards, and that they were being required to spend money in an effort to have students meet these standards. It also said there must be assessments and other mechanisms for measuring accountability.
As Jack said, Title I did two major things: First it set deadlines for these changes to take place. Second, it said that those standards must apply to all children, that they must apply to Title I children as well as to all the rest of the children in the country.
No longer would there be a dual system, with a watered-down curriculum in the inner cities and the poor rural areas, and a strong curriculum in the suburbs. Curricula would be based on the same standards, and the same assessments would be used to evaluate student performance.
Second, there was an effort to introduce a stronger accountability system. As Jack mentioned, it wasn't successful. The deadline for compliance was set at 2001. We weren't able to include the kind of accountability that a lot of us fought for.
Third, we introduced mechanisms of support and innovation, particularly in the area of technology. We moved aggressively to meet what are called the four pillars. It basically means that almost all of the schools in the country are now wired. We’re increasing the number of computer terminals and beginning to get the introduction of good software into classrooms that did not have it before.
Fourth, we introduced public school choice through charter schools. Fifth, we introduced flexibility. Jack referred to the school-wide projects. If schools have over 50% poor they are not allowed to consolidate their money at the school building level and return for a plan. We also reduced the regulations by 75%, put into place waivers and introduced Ed-Flex.
So what’s the situation in 1998?
We had 14 states with standards in 1994. All states now have standards. The states are also now on track to put into place aligned assessments and, eventually, accountability systems. Teachers and others report that standards reform is really a way that they think about reform now.
You only have to read The Washington Post and the stories about the Virginia SOLs to understand the kind of impact that standards and assessments are having at the state level. My wife is a principal in Arlington, VA, and you cannot believe the amount of attention that is being given to those standards now because of the SOLs. And the accountability system doesn't even kick in until the year 2005.
Second, consider charter schools. There was one when Clinton entered office, now there are over 1,000. Some 50% to 70% of those schools have been funded using federal money to cover start-up costs.
Finally, test scores have rebounded. Since 1994, when the act was amended, reading scores are up in substantial ways. The math scores are up since 1992, which is the closest base line year to 1994 that we have.
We have a RAND report on Texas and North Carolina that point out that the standards based, systemic approach that they put into place has resulted in higher scores. Test scores have also risen steadily in other states.
So we have had good results, but we are nowhere near finished. But remember, this reform is only four years old. If any of you have ever tried to turn around an organization or a bureaucracy or anything else, you understand that four years is a very short period of time.
We know where we want to head. There's a general consensus that we need to continue to have standards-based reform throughout this country. I don't know of anybody who's arguing strongly against that.
Regarding the federal government’s role as we head toward amending ESEA this year, we will retain our focus on the needy. There's no ambiguity about that. That's where most of the money will go. The federal government has to be active in order to provide equality in this country.
Second, we'll continue to implement standards programs, taking them from the state house to the schoolhouse. It's relatively easy to create content standards and performance assessments. It is much harder to implement them in classrooms. What do you need? You need really good teachers, no question about that.
Surveys of teachers now show that a majority of them believe that teaching involving standards is too difficult for them. They're not trained to do it. They feel uncomfortable about doing it. They feel uncertain about their knowledge. But we have to do it with them. We're not going to replace 2.5 million teachers, folks.
We're going to have a hard enough time getting the 2.2 million new teachers we will need over the next 10 years. They're not just going to come out of the woodwork. They're not going to leave their high-paying jobs in Silicon Valley to come teach. We have to work with the teachers currently in place.
But the teachers we will need in the future have got to be much better trained than they are now. There has to be a major investment in professional development and in teacher training. We've got to invest a lot of resources into it. We've go to build on the knowledge base that we developed over the last five or ten years.
Third, we have to put into place systems that emphasize accountability. The president talked about this in the State of the Union. There has to be greater accountability throughout the entire system. It is a shared responsibility. Schools have to be accountable, teachers have to be accountable, systems have to be accountable and ultimately students have to be accountable.
We've got some examples to build on. Texas has a strong accountability system, focused on low performing schools that don’t improve. These are schools that have got to be changed. We've got some evidence that we can begin to do that. We have to learn from what has already been successful.
The president's budget for this year accelerates putting systems of accountability into place. It says we're going to begin to move on states that do not implement accountability systems this coming year.
There are about 9,000 schools that haven’t shown improvement. A substantial majority of those are already low scoring schools, so we have to move right now.
Accountability applies to other entities besides schools. The public becomes accountable through report cards. The system will become accountable for putting quality teachers and others into place. However, this accountability must have some sticks behind it as well as some carrots. Finally, there needs to be a phase in student accountability.
We will continue to emphasize local flexibility, Ed-Flex, and other strategies. We will continue to work with schools on school wide projects. We will make reforms based on new research and ideas, such as what the new American schools have done in the last few years. And we will build on the comprehensive reform projects and so on.
All of these things will happen in the next reauthorization. But you have to keep remembering that it’s all part of a long-term effort to get reform. It's not working as well as we'd like, but we've only given it four years.
If you we can stay the course, if you can stay focused, we can begin to turn around this giant vessel that we call our educational system. It may be done one state at a time. Each state has its own sets of responsibilities. But the federal government can move in with national leadership, it can move in by setting priorities, it can move in by giving really serious examples of what good standards are. It can work with the private sector. And more and more we're working with the private sector in order to get those examples and make those judgments about the quality of standards and so on.
We can make really important changes throughout the system over the next five years if we stay focused. It's too easy to drift off into some Never-Never land in which you say to yourself "Oh, God, we've got to have a new idea, a new policy, a new panacea." You can sit in institutes like these two institutes and you can write down your ideas. You can say, “Look at this great new idea I’ve developed. You know it's based on this analysis, and here I've got three lines which describe it.” There's nothing there, folks.
You've got to stay the course with the approach we have already begun to implement. If you don't, what you'll have done is throw the country another curve. You'll have those teachers back in their classrooms saying, "To hell with all this, this is ridiculous, I'm going to do whatever I want to do." So it's really up to us. We've got a clear set of choices.
One choice is to go off into Never-Never policy land. The other choice, folks, is to stay with it, to really focus on making this thing happen, to improve those standards that Checker and others have criticized, but to go in and make them happen in the school classrooms. Thank you.
Mr. DIONNE: It is said candidates for public office who are listed with a nickname on the ballot receive 2% to 5% more of the vote, so our next speaker would be listed as Chester E. "Checker" Finn, Jr. as he is known to many of you. It's significant, it tells you something about Checker's approach to education, that in the biography you have before you, he buries the fact that he was once part of the federal education establishment.
It's in the second paragraph in the middle. It says he was Assistant Secretary for Research and Improvement and Counselor to the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education. Currently, he is the John M. Olin Fellow at the Manhattan Institute. He's also President of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, of which he's a trustee. He is a proud member of what has been referred to as policy land, and I don't think there's an education expert in America who hasn't read and enjoyed something by Checker, even when they disagreed with it. Please welcome, Checker Finn.
CHECKER FINN: E.J., only in Washington is working for the federal government considered the most important thing in your life. Everywhere else in America it's something that belongs in the third or fourth or maybe last paragraph of your bio.
You've certainly heard a lot of history here already this morning. Jack Jennings needed to make each of his minutes last 120 seconds, even at a rapid rate of speech, to squeeze it all in. And you're already beginning to hear a pattern repeat itself. It's a pattern that's happened seven times before. I commend to you Paul Hill's chapter in the Manhattan-Fordham volume called New Directions, which I hope you picked up on your way in, and which deals with this.
It’s the pattern of ESEA re-authorizations over these past 34 years. I'd characterize the pattern like this. “It's finally beginning to work, don't change it very much. We have anecdotal suggestive evidence that it really is starting to do what it was supposed to do. Let's not rock the boat, let's just sort of tweak the programs.”
That pattern is always followed a few years later by a formal evaluation showing that, no, indeed, it's not working at all. Then minor amendments are made followed by more claims that now it's finally beginning to work and the cycle repeats itself. This has already happened seven times in 34 years.
Well, 34 years later, it isn't working. You've already heard it suggested that the ESEA caused the latest little up tick in the results. Well, the Hale-Bopp Comet caused it. I mean, it's nice that there's an up tick. We're all delighted and we're especially delighted that disadvantaged kids share in it.
But there is no known causal relationship between the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, even as amended in 1994, and the small up tick in national assessment results between '94 and '98. And if you go back to '92, it turns out there's not much of an up tick at all.
It’s like the resumes. Only in Washington do we assume that anything that happened out there in the vast world of American education must have been caused by something in Washington. Only in Washington do we assume that the federal government causes change. Everywhere else we remark on change, we look into change, but we do not take for granted that it was caused by things that happened here.
What should we be thinking as we embark on this 8th cycle of ESEA reauthorization? I want to talk about five specific points. These are gone into in considerable depth in the book that I’ve already mentioned.
First, the programs really aren't working. They're not just failing to accomplish their own goals, they're not just wasting money and wasting lives and dashing hopes. They are actually actively getting in the way of serious state and local reform efforts.
Read the testimony in our book by senior officials from four states and one city. Read how ESEA ties their hands, distracts their attention and consumes their staff, keeping them from the things they want to do to change their schools and their education systems. It actually gets in the way. It is dysfunctional, not just ineffectual.
Second, because ESEA funds school systems rather than schools or kids, it is seriously out of step with some of the most dynamic and promising reform strategies in America today. It is grossly unjust to charter schools, as is the whole federal regulatory apparatus that is trying today to make them behave just like the regular schools to which they were supposed to be alternatives.
It's also hostile to every form of school choice. Not even neutral, but hostile. Consider how it would interact with such efforts as Jeb Bush's and Tom Ridge's proposals to let kids leave the worst schools in their states and go to better schools. The state money would leave with the kids, the local money would leave with the kids.
Guess what money wouldn't leave with the kids: The federal money. That's right, it would continue to fund the failing schools even after their students depart. Unless, of course, the local district decided to move those dollars, because these dollars fund districts. They don't fund kids, they don't fund schools; they fund districts.
Third, federal rule is mistrustful of states. Jack was talking too fast for me to count but I think about a dozen times in describing the latest wrinkles in ESEA, he used the phrase, “States have to…” And he meant it as a positive.
Back in 1965 it was assumed that states were incompetent, discriminatory, ignorant and stingy. The federal role, as it was designed then and remains today, was to circumvent states, to rein them in and make them change their ways. The last thing it does is respond positively to dynamic changes emanating from the state level.
Never mind that states have always had constitutional responsibility for K-12 education in America. Never mind that, today and for the past decade or so, governors and a handful of mayors have been the principal engines of educational change in America. No, the federal role continues to treat states like naughty children.
Fourth, federal rule mistrusts parents. It mistrusts marketplaces. It doesn't even use them as mechanisms for gaining accountability. It's oblivious to growing evidence that competition triggers at least as much change in schools and school systems as anything imposed from the top down.
Fifth and finally, in what way might things be different? You will hear cogent explanations of two of the more exciting ideas for fundamental reform of the federal role in education from members of the next panel. These are the kind of obscure, wonkish ideas that emanate from research institutes, while the nation's public servants continue to run very successful programs. Actually, these ideas are akin to those that were responsible for reforming the welfare system a few years ago. It was broken too. It got overhauled.
One idea goes by the dual name of “Straight A's” or “Super Ed-Flex,” depending on who you're talking to about it. Think of it as a block grant with teeth, or alternatively as a relationship between Washington and states and cities that resembles the relationship between a state and a charter school. The school gets freedom in return for results.
The other big idea is to turn Title I into a program that funds kids rather than school systems. Under this program, the money would be strapped to the kids’ backs and follow them to the school they're actually in, with the rules and levels being set by state policy. It would be the same kind of system we have had for higher education since 1972, in which the government’s client is the student rather than the institution.
In 1972, after a huge debate, federal higher education policy became student-centered instead of institution-centered. The question is: Do we have the guts, in 1999, to think about K-12 policy the same way? Can we pass child-centered federal policy, instead of system-centered federal policy?
I hope you like those two big ideas. You may not, but my message this morning is, please let this be a time for big ideas, not tweaking, not celebrating, not more of the same. Thank you very much.
Mr. DIONNE: Checker just gave you his typically unprovocative, wishy-washy, neutral and gray presentation. I can't wait for the crossfire back.
The next speaker is someone I have always known as Will Marshall and for the first time today have learned that his real name is William Marshall, III. You can't be a populist, as Will would be, and be called William Marshall, III. Will is the President and Founder of the Progressive Policy Institute. He's the editor of two very interesting books: Building the Bridge: Ten Ideas to Transform America and Mandate for Change, which appeared right after President Clinton's election. He is the author of many articles.
He is, in my experience, one of the most eloquent speakers on the subject of citizenship in the United States, and has been working on the education issue for a very long time. And I give you Will Marshall. I'll still think of him as Will Marshall.
WILL MARSHALL: Thanks, E.J. One of these days I'll find out what E.J. actually stands for.
I bring you more news from policy land. What I want to do is discuss building on the reform that has taken place as Mike and Jack have defined it. We released a report today at PPI called Toward Performance-Based Federal Education Funding. I want to take very seriously Mike's admonition to stay the course, but I also think it's really necessary to press the pace.
It's not only from policy land, but I think from an aroused and concerned public, that the pressure has arisen. There is a really a strong message being sent to government at all levels that it isn't acting quickly enough on this problem.
In that spirit, let me say that we recognize Title I and ESEA's fundamental accomplishment in making the education of poor and disadvantaged kids a national priority. We want to honor that achievement and build on it. But it's also true that this array of programs has spawned a vast administrative bureaucracy that not only absorbs dollars, but, even more importantly, interferes with the ability of schools do the kind of job they need to do. Paul Hill made the case eloquently in the book Checker has talked about.
And, most importantly, although the achievement gap has narrowed, it remains disconcertingly wide. This, of course, has tremendous implications for racial and ethnic inequality in America. We just can't be satisfied with how quickly the gap is being closed.
The premise of the new deal that we would like to see struck between the federal government and the states and localities is this: The definition of educational equity has changed dramatically since the 1960s when these programs were put on the books. Back then, equity was defined in terms of access to resources. In the next century, we need to define equity in terms of much higher expectations and higher performance for all students.
So we would maintain the federal role in aiding poor districts specifically. But we would also try to make Washington the catalyst for innovation and success rather than what it is all too often, an enabler of failure.
This entails a more dramatic shift than has been proposed today. It means moving from running programs mandated from the top down to paying for the performance that we want. This sounds simple, although I know it's terribly hard to enact. But I don't think we can be satisfied yet with how far we've gone down this road.
The essence of this new deal or bargain that we're proposing is that states and localities are going to really get much greater flexibility in using federal resources. But they're going to have to take much greater responsibility for results and that Washington has to play a much more tough minded role in defining and enforcing the results it wants its money to produce.
This new deal entails four key changes in the way Washington operates, and builds on the direction of reform embodied in the '94 re-authorization. It involves: First, demanding results. Second, concentrating the dollars where they're needed the most. Third, ensuring that failure has real consequences. And fourth, granting maximum flexibility to school authorities in how they do their jobs.
I think it's abundantly clear that there's no way that we can micro-manage 14,000 school districts from this center. Nor can the federal government be expected to come up with a solution to every problem that comes along.
The best way to help low-income families, the best way to fulfill the original purposes of the federal government's involvement in Title I and the other ESEA programs, is to focus relentlessly on raising student achievement. Ultimately, this is the only performance measure that counts. We have to make that the overriding concern of federal education policy. Washington has to set fewer unattainable goals, and has to stop preempting local decision-making.
At the same time, Washington can play a more active role in a strategic sense. That involves equipping citizens with the kind information about school and student performance that they need to make intelligent choices in an educational world where school choice is an increasing reality.
Perhaps the most important thing Washington can do is set broad standards rather than try to micro-manage. Then it can measure and compare and publish results. It should also do the research to determine what strategies are really working, and then help replicate successful experiments.
For now, we have to base accountability on state standards and assessments. But, although I’m not an expert on this, after sifting through the literature I have concluded that there are questions about whether this is the best approach. There are legitimate questions as to whether these standards are concrete and exacting enough. Ultimately, national performance benchmarks will probably be essential to provide a basis of comparison across state borders, and also across international borders.
If we get really good national benchmarks in place, I think that will have reduced the need for adding 50 separate sets of tests. We may actually reduce the assessment burden on teachers and schools if we can get some credible national performance benchmarks. So we very strongly support the President's call for national assessment. It’s really a very modest step toward clarifying the national purpose in educational policy, and clarifying what all kids should be learning and what all teachers ought to be teaching.
Secondly, we've got to concentrate the money on the very worst districts. The Education Department reports that 58% of U.S. school districts get some Title I money. Secretary Riley has said that under the anti-drug programs, three-fifths of the districts get grants of less than $10,000 each, which works out to about five bucks per student. This is not good enough.
Now, I'd be the last one to underestimate the political challenge of overcoming the log-rolling logic that predominates in Congress. But what's at stake here is the credibility of federal policy in this arena. If Congress fails to link federal spending to results, I think that public support for the federal programs is going to continue to evaporate.
The third issue is consequences. As I understand it, Washington has never sanctioned any state or school district for failing to use Title I dollars to lift student performance. In my judgment, nothing would do more to restore the credibility of Washington's programs, nothing would do more to dramatize Washington's commitment to equal educational opportunity, than a cut in funding for districts that fail to use the money as they should.
Fourth, there must be maximum leeway for local decision making. I think the question of means is really critical. We're going to get into it in the next panel. But when I travel around the country, school officials, local legislators, and state legislators all express the well-founded fear that accountability means nothing more than a new set of mandates from Washington.
The toughest part of the challenge we're talking about today is to devise new policy mechanisms that get the right balance of real accountability and real flexibility. I'm very dubious about whether vouchers and block grants fit the bill. Both obviously give you lots of flexibility, but they don't do as well on the accountability side.
Block grants are particularly curious to me. I think the challenge is to break down bureaucratic barriers to innovation, not simply to shift decisions to 50 different state education bureaucracies. The alternative is performance-based grants that eliminate categorical programs. They don't just waive requirements set for states and localities, they get rid of them. They consolidate the spending from these more than 50 programs into many fewer streams. They reduce the compliance hassles substantially and build trust among local school administrators and state officials.
For example, the TANF block grant is not perfect, and I think the performance measure there is actually not the right one, but the principle is right.
In order to make this kind of bargain work, obviously we're going to have to get both parties to get beyond their political fixations. We’re going to have to get Democrats to stop saying we're just not spending enough, and Republicans to try to back off from what I regard is a fetish for local control and a kind of ritualistic impulse to bash Washington.
Most crucially, a new deal along these lines is essential if we’re going to restore confidence in public education in general and Washington's efforts to aid the education of disadvantaged kids in particular. A new arrangement is also a precondition for unlocking the latent generosity of middle class taxpayers and getting more investment in public education.
Finally, when I look around the country I see mayors leading a populist revolt against urban school districts that are failing and too often have degenerated into jobs programs and patronage machines. Dennis Archer is now going to be following Richard Daley in taking over schools in his city. Mayor Riordan recently lashed out at the Los Angeles school district, the second largest in the country. He said it was a total failure. And in Milwaukee Mayor Norquist put together a slate that swept the recent school board elections against a union-backed slate. All of that suggests there is mounting political support at the local level for bringing about real change in schools.
What's critical is that Congress not be an apologist for the very forces that these mayors are struggling against as they try to improve their schools. It ought to be a partner and enabler of this kind of reform. It can start by making sure that Title I and the other ESEA programs really do reinforce rather than impede the tide of reform that's sweeping through our cities. Thank you.
MR. DIONNE: Stuart Butler, as all of you know, is the Vice President of Domestic and Economic Studies at the Heritage Foundation. He plans and oversees Heritage's research and publications. He is, and has been for a very long time, one of the most provocative conservative thinkers. He always surprises people with his ideas, which sometimes get attacked by his allies and supported by his enemies, a fact which confuses everyone and shows what a creative thinker he is. It's an honor to introduce Stuart Butler.
STUART BUTLER: I just want you to know, I’m the only person on this panel that actually uses the name they were given at birth. So it just shows you what a traditionalist I am as well as a conservative.
There's a rising tide of frustration about the education system in this country across the political spectrum. It has led many thoughtful people to consider significantly changing the role of the federal government. I think you see that reality reflected in this panel.
I was also pleased to hear the forceful statements from our friends in the administration. I hope that they will take that passion and commitment and pass it along to some of their colleagues in the administration, and certainly to their allies on Capitol Hill. And, yes, even to the leaders of the teachers unions in this country, because certainly that kind of dramatic commitment to change needs to be heard much more widely around this country.
I want to make the point that this is a serious discussion about improving the public school system in this country, not destroying it. I happen to have two children in the District of Columbia public schools. I have a complete commitment to public education, and that is true of many or most conservatives who also want to see changes in the way that current federal programs work.
Some years ago, people on the political left and right came together in a similar fashion with regard to the welfare system, and the system was changed. We see a similar phenomenon today in the realm of education policy. After the so-called reform of welfare in 1988, some people said that we should simply stay the course, let the results come in and so on. Yet, many other people from both left and right, including people like Bill Clinton, Will Marshall from PPI and others, said, "No. We can see the writing on the wall already. We must now push for serious change in the welfare system.”
I believe that we see the same thing happening today in education policy. There is also a consensus that we must reevaluate the role of the federal government to trigger a real blossoming of federalism, to energize the public school system and to get results.
If you look at the federal law reforming welfare, you see two basic elements. The first involved giving states flexibility to innovate. The second involved measuring outcomes, rewarding success and penalizing failure. We're talking about the same kind of approaches today in education.
I would recommend four very specific strategies intended to modify the role of the federal government:
First, give states maximum flexibility. Allow them to combine programs and allow states and localities to break down the walls of separation between different programs and consolidate them. Call it block grants, call it whatever you want, but allow states and localities to experiment simultaneously.
This strategy should be pursued not only in the broad programs, but by assuring maximum flexibility through waivers, and through the process that's been referred to as “Super Ed-Flex” or “Straight A's.” Give states right now the opportunity to move the envelope forward, to try serious experiments with real measurements of success or failure. This is crucial right now, as we contemplate major change across the whole country. It was exactly the same as we began to institute changes in welfare in the 1980s. We had to allow states like Wisconsin and others to begin to move the process, which then led to country-wide reforms later on.
Secondly, we shouldn't just trust the states to do the right thing. As Ronald Reagan learned in negotiating arms control with the Russians, trust but verify. Testing, measuring, and assuring accountability are crucial parts of decentralization. It's the other side of the same coin. We have to make sure we’re achieving the results we want.
That means forming contracts with states that entail very specific goals and agreed methods of measurement. It may involve using a national test, or possibly a test that is more in line with the particular state's requirements and ideas. But it's got to be negotiated and agreed on in a formal contract with real rewards and real penalties for success or failure. Only then will we achieve actual improvements in the education of children.
That's the kind of accountability I’m talking about. It’s not what I would call an accountant's view of accountability. Accountants ask questions like: Is the money spent according to the rules? Is the right number of teachers being hired? Are the classes of the right size?
I’m talking about a stockholders' or parents' view of accountability. Am I getting results and am I getting value for money in education? That's the kind of accountability which was certainly stressed by our speakers from the administration. But the legislation has to be given real teeth to work.
Third, I believe we should introduce a Parents' Bill of Rights. Or maybe, more appropriately, it should be a Students' Bill of Rights. It would guarantee that children are not condemned to failing schools. It would say that parents have the right to take their children out of those schools and take them somewhere else if the school cannot meet the stated goals and objectives of that particular school. In effect, we do it already for children with learning disabilities. We should do it for all children in the public education system.
States can certainly do it right now. But they're held back by the current design of Title I, which places a break on the ability of states to put such a guarantee into place.
Finally, we should measure the success of all federal programs, and I don’t just mean ESEA programs. A few years ago, the General Accounting Office noted that the Head Start program, despite spending $30 billion over 30 years, had never really been subjected to a serious evaluation based on proper evaluation techniques. It called for that to be done, a recommendation that Congress followed last year. All federal programs should be subjected to the same scrutiny.
The process of welfare reform showed that a proper understanding of federalism can be used to energize a system. With the federal government, states and localities working together in a system that allows flexibility, provides incentives and measures results, we can achieve dramatic changes. Nobody expected the kind of results that we've seen in welfare over the last several years. If we’re willing to learn from that experience we could see the same dramatic success in education. Thank you.
Mr. DIONNE: In the name of decentralization, we’re now going to turn the proceedings over to the audience. Also, if I could say in defense of my own name, I've been known as E.J. since birth. So it represents the embrace of tradition rather than a revolt against it.
JACK JENNINGS: May I make a point of personal privilege? I do not work for the administration.
MALE VOICE: Honorary member.
JACK JENNINGS: I have never worked for the administration. I am a lawyer who has worked for Congress for 27 years. For the last four years I have worked for a foundation-funded public policy center. We have no constituency base, and we don't consult. We get 99 percent of our money from charitable foundations. The reason I go that hard route is so I can say what I think
And this is what I think. The Clinton Administration has some good ideas, and they have some bad ideas. I was very impressed with what Stuart said that the Heritage Foundation thought too. So, Stuart, I am not an administration speaker. I'm an independent speaker. Thank you.
Mr. DIONNE: That sounded like testimony before the House Committee on Un-Administration Activities.
What I'd like to do is suggest three or four questions that I don't want members of the panel to answer now, because I'd like to go directly to the audience. Indeed, in the spirit of the conference, I won't even insist that anyone answer any of these questions. But if you'd like to address one or more in the course of your discussion, please do.
I was struck by a couple of things. One, if you want to cut federal funding from districts that aren't performing, as Will suggests, aren't you in fact describing what could be a substantially more intrusive federal role? It may be a good idea, but when you're talking whether it means more or less government, aren’t you really calling for more?
Similarly, implicit in some of Checker’s remarks was the idea of dealing directly with schools rather than with various levels of government. Again that raises interesting questions about whether the federal government, even if just as a catalyst, would end up playing a larger role in certain respects than it plays now.
And to Mr. Jennings and Mr. Smith, I'd like to ask the opposite question: If the central problem is inequality among school districts, leading to an inequality of education to children, why isn't the federal government's role simply be to redress those inequalities? In other words, shouldn’t it be less intrusive in terms of its rules and much more aggressive in trying to reduce inequality among school districts?
Those are the questions I had hoped we might keep in mind. But I'd like first to go to the audience, the gentleman in the back.
QUESTION: Can someone talk about the history of performance contracting? And second, someone talked about the difficulty of cutting money for failing schools. Could he elaborate on that?
Mr. SMITH: Why don't I take a shot at both of them. There has actually been performance contracting any number of times in American history in American schools. The most recent, major effort was carried out by OEO in '67, '68, '69 or so. And there were some evaluations of the experiments, which were critical, by and large. There were a variety of problems, including, misuse of funds.
But I don't think it provided a definitive answer to whether or not performance contracting in general would be beneficial. I actually think that for certain kinds of activities it can be beneficial. For instructional activities I suspect it isn't. I think you begin to mix up profit making and the necessity of attending to the needs of all the students. But that gets into a much longer discussion.
On the other issue, I’m the one who mentioned that in the President's budget for the year 2000, $200 million is allocated to accelerate the attention being paid to schools that are seen as failing in the context of Title I. That money would go to states. About 75 percent of it would get to the districts. The money would be allocated on the basis of schools that are in need of a great deal of attention.
These are schools that have been failing over a period of at least three years, perhaps even five years. The kids in them are getting a fair shake, an opportunity to succeed. Something needs to be done about those schools.
What we're proposing is several options, whether it’s providing kids with the opportunity to move to another school, reconstituting those schools, changing the administration, or a total restructuring of the curriculum. There are options like that, but they would be options that must be carried out.
Now, what happens if they're not carried out? Well, there's a whole process that you go through. I'm not attempting to obscure the issue, but whether or not you take money away from places that have lots of poor kids is a difficult moral decision. It's possible to take away administrative funds from states or from districts, or require districts not to spend money on administrative funds and so on.
But actually taking program money away from poor school districts is difficult. And just imagine what might happen if you tried to take away money in a school district like Chicago or some other place represented by powerful politicians.
Would the President, or would the Secretary of Education, actually take money away? In 1967, I believe, the Commissioner tried to take money away from Chicago. But when he did, the original Mayor Daley telephoned President Johnson and the money was back in place in 24 hours.
These are hard political decisions. I think this administration is willing to take a tough line. But they're always difficult and there are all these stages you go through in order to get there.
Mr. DIONNE: Anyone else want to jump in? Checker.
Mr. FINN: If I could oversimplify what I think Mike just said, it sounds to me like the policy is to send money to failing schools instead of taking it away.
Mr. SMITH: No, you put pressure in all sorts of different ways, Checker. You can be subtle about this instead of just walking in and taking big hunks of money away from school districts. You have to be politically smart. Go in with a bludgeon and you're never going to get anywhere. Local issues are ticklish.
Getting back to E.J.’s questions, I guess a commitment to step up and do this means really notching up of the level of federal intervention. I think E.J. asked wouldn't that be more intrusive than what would have gone on before? I think that is the intent. About 50 percent of state administrative funds come from the federal government. To begin to withdraw those funds is a major, major step from the perspective of the state. It is a major step from the perspective of the districts -- the big districts in particular, which get a large percentage of administrative funds from the federal government.
So these are issues. I'm being completely candid. It would be easy for me to say that we're going to take the money away tomorrow. But politically that is not going to happen. But you can still be committed to the practice of accountability and you can move on it with deliberate steps and make it absolutely public and have a heck of a lot of effect.
Mr. DIONNE: It's good to be at a meeting where people care enough about the schools to bang on the table. Is there another question?
QUESTION: Dick Elmore at Harvard talks about the need for “reciprocity of accountability and capacity.” It’s the idea that demanding things of people who don’t have the ability to achieve those things is a little unfair. Using legislation is a difficult tool to try to build capacity. It's an easy tool to demand accountability. I'd be interested in the thoughts of the panel on how Title I or legislation broadly, but Title I generally, can be used to balance the equation between accountability and capacity.
Mr. DIONNE: Could everyone be quick on that question, if that's possible? Let's start with Stuart, work up this way.
Mr. BUTLER: That presumes that you can't expect any school or any teacher or any principal to do better unless you have given them more money. I think that flies in the face of everything we know about education in this country and other countries. The issues are how the money should be used and what else should be put into place in order to improve education? So I don't accept that premise at all.
I also would just reflect that we've got to address the issue of penalties for failure. If we say, “We really want you to succeed, we really do, but if you don't, there's going to be nothing other than a subtle impact on you,” you know what's going to happen. It’s exactly what's been happening for years in this country. So we've got to think about that and stand firm on the issue of penalties as well as rewards.
Mr. Marshall: As I understand it, Title I is already very flexible. It's been moving in that direction and will continue to do so. You know the money is there. It may not be enough but the challenge now is to link it to some really concrete performance outcomes, based on tests and assessments. And then, as Stuart says, enforce real accountability. My guess is if you do that, school districts will be back the next year, chastened, and with new plans in hand for meeting the performance targets.
Mr. Finn: The capacity issue would be relevant if these were mandatory programs. These are voluntary programs. No school or school system has to take this money. The federal government cannot build capacity in local schools. It can provide resources, it can require results. What happens in between is something it can't be in charge of.
Mr. Jennings: I think you're on target. I saw a little chart the other day in one of the newsletters for the colleges of education. It showed that American teachers are in front of the classroom more than teachers in any other industrialized country. That means they can think less about their lesson plans than teachers in other countries. So we've structured our schools incorrectly.
We have to find some way to allow teachers to absorb research, to absorb different ways of doing things, to prepare better. We can demand all this stuff through legislation, through mandates, which I'm in favor of. But if we don't provide the other things, we're being damn hypocrites, because we're not helping the people in the classroom really do the job. All we're doing is setting expectations without helping them meet them. People really want to make schools better. Teachers almost cry because they want their schools to be better.
But we're not structuring schools in a way that allows them to be better. And if we don't concentrate on capacity, if we don’t concentrate on helping them to do better, we're not doing our job as policy makers. And that's at the federal, state and local levels.
QUESTION: I would like to suggest something and hear members of the panel respond to it. I suggest that the problem in education today is not so much the lack of flexibility with regard to federal programs. I've done national surveys and talked to people at the state level. I spent most of last week in Philadelphia asking people at the school level, “If you could spend federal money in whatever way you wanted, how would you spend it?”
And they said, "We'd spend it just the way we're spending it. We can spend it on teachers, we can spend it on aides, we can spend it on technology, we can spend it on before-school programs, after-school programs, teacher training, whatever." It doesn't appear to be constraining.
I suggest that the problem at the school level and at the district level is that schools and districts don't know what to do. They want to perform better, they have the flexibility to do what they think is best, but they have very little guidance on how to perform better, regardless of what sort of performance incentives we set up.
What I would like to see is more systematic experimentation on ways in which to reform schools, and on ways in which to reform school districts. I would like to hear your comments on that.
Mr. DIONNE: Anyone want to take that up?
SPEAKER: You're exactly right.
Mr. SMITH: I agree also. If we could all agree on that, maybe we could agree spending on a half a billion dollars for research one of these days, which would carry out experimentation and serious work. We've got some terrific examples of good research now that are not being put into place in the schools. It's not because the research is not disseminated either. By and large, I believe, it's because the schools don't actually don't have the incentives to put them in place. But we also need more work.
QUESTION: I have a similar question. If you think about reform having three legs, and you increase local accountability, and you increase flexibility, then you're going to have to increase the supply of research. We know about the ups and downs of what OERI has gone through the last 25 years. They are more about disseminating of small-scale research, and that doesn't really tell local decision-makers much about what is effective.
So when we think about all these reform ideas, such as flexibility and greater accountability, we must also look at the third leg, which involves basic and applied research and large-scale replication. I'd like to hear more specific thoughts on that from our panel. It's nice to say, “Yes, we need more of that.” But I haven't heard any specific ideas of how to make that happen. Check?
Mr. FINN: There's no great dearth of knowledge about things that work in schools. Regarding school models, school designs, instructional methods, and curricula, there's quite a lot we know about things that work well. However, those things are not widely put into practice. Partly, it’s because, as Mike says, there are very few consequences for success or failure. It’s also partly because educators don't read very much and partly because they don't think they have the freedom to innovate and do things differently than they've already done them.
I think that federal dissemination efforts will not turn out to be the main engines of change at the building level. Rather, I think it's going to be the combination of the Internet, on the one hand, and consequences for schools, because suddenly it's going to be necessary to make your school succeed. Once that happens, you'll find a way. There is no dearth of ways out there, it's just that, until now, you haven't needed to find them.
Mr. MARSHALL: I'll give you one thought. I think OERI is in such disrepute that you almost have to say, "Let's agree on one idea. Namely, we're going to concentrate everything we have on teaching kids to read. Everything. We're going to do this for five years. It's going to go from basic research all the way to the classroom. This is going to be a concentrated national effort to teach everybody to read by third grade, and we're going to involve everybody, right, left, up and down.”
I think one solid effort like that could restore respectability to educational research. But what we're doing now is piddling the money away in so many different pockets that it doesn't amount to anything. So I think we have to be arbitrary and ignore some things and concentrate on one thing that is absolutely basic. Let's do well at that and then build from there.
Mr. DIONNE: We're running out of time. What I'd like to do is ask each of the gentlemen in line waiting to ask questions over here to ask their questions briefly and then give the panel a chance to respond to their questions by way of conclusion. So, sir, go ahead.
QUESTION: My comment relates not just to the rising tide of frustration in the United States about children's performance. It's a worldwide phenomenon. In country after country there are debates similar to this. I believe the general public is getting depressed and frustrated with us thinking about it as an administrative issue, not a learning issue.
Let me give you one very simple analogy. If education is as important as our politicians tell us, why is it that if you go into a bookstore and look for the education section, you will find it in the dimmest, dullest corner of the bookstore? And, with the exception of the occasional book by Checker Finn, you won’t find the sort of books you want to curl up with late in the evening.
By contrast, go back to the computer at the front of the store and type in the word "learning," and suddenly the screen leaps to life. Within the last three to four years there have been outstanding pieces of work on human learning in neurobiology, cognitive signs, information technology, evolutionary biology, psychology and the lot.
My question is this: Are the schools being sidelined by these advances? Are we getting left behind because we're not actually keeping up with what we know about human learning, and the children understand that? And they are even more frustrated with us than the parents.
Mr. DIONNE: Thank you very much. Sir, why don't we keep going on. I know a lot of people will want to comment on that.
QUESTION: Any effort to increase accountability requires something to hold the schools accountable to. Yet, the most recent attempts to develop a national test and national standards started a political firestorm. How can we hold the schools accountable and limit their money depending on how well they do, if we can't agree on what they should do?
QUESTION: I can't help being a policy guy. But I have to look at all of this from the standpoint of being a parent first. I'm very glad to see that the Clinton Administration wants to really address accountability, finally. But I'm not as concerned about federal accountability as I am with empowering parents to hold their local schools accountable.
I really believe that's the crux of the problem that we face. And as a parent, I really feel that my wife and I, and my child's teachers, know better what my children need than somebody removed from the situation. I'm a part of the public school system myself. It's a great system and it can be wonderful again. I'm fortunate enough to live in an area where my child can go to a public school that's good. But for me it's more important that we deal with these issues locally.
I have a direct question for Mr. Smith. How much longer do we wait? For me, four years is a generation. High school lasts four years. At that point we've lost a number of children to a system that hasn't proven itself. And I'll just cite for you as an example, Goals 2000. Are we now going to propose we change the name to Goals 2002?
And finally, Gov. Davis of California made a very interesting comment on "Meet the Press" several weeks ago. He said he wanted the President just to send him the money for 100,000 teachers and let him work on the problem locally. He said they don't need the 100,000 teachers as proposed but need the money for use in a different way. If a Democratic governor there isn't an example of the trend that locals know best, what is the best example? Thank you.
Mr. DIONNE: Why don't we actually start with you, Mr. Jennings? Since you started, Stuart should be able to finish.
Mr. JENNINGS: OK.
Mr. DIONNE: In the tradition of Presidential debates.
Mr. JENNINGS: Regarding the learning issue, I think you're right. What's happening is knowledge is outpacing structure. Therefore, we had better find some way to get the schools better acclimated to how to really provide information.
With parental power, I'm in favor of parental power. But let's remember this. Competition is a wonderful thing, but sometimes we all get lost in our ideologies. If competition is the answer, that means we should have the best public schools in the inner cities, because the public schools there have been competing with the Catholic schools for better than 100 years. And we should have the worst public schools in the suburbs, because that's where you had the fewest private schools and the least competition. But is that the case? Of course not.
So when people say let's turn everything over to parents, let's put on our little thinking caps and be less simplistic. Really changing education is going to be a long-term goal and it’s going to take a lot of grit. One of the tough things we’re going to have to do is be more honest.
I would have been surprised three years ago if there were a conference like this on the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. It's easier to get together and discuss reforming a program for the poor, than to talk about a program for disabled children who are middle class and rich, and who have activist parents who won't let that law be touched by Democratic or Republican members of Congress. So if you want experiments, Checker, if you want boldness and education, why don't you reform the Individuals with Disabilities Act?
Mr. FINN: Count me in. Are you proposing something today?
Mr. JENNINGS: The Heritage Foundation is talking about super flexibility. I read their paper, and there’s not one word about IDEA. The complaints from local educators about IDEA are double the number of complaints of any other federal program.
Are we courageous or are we picking on people? Are we saying, “You poor people aren't doing well enough?” Let's be honest about some of this stuff. If we want people to do better, let's set realistic expectations and give them real help.
Mr. DIONNE: Mr. Smith.
Mr. SMITH: John Abbot's question just underscores the need for serious research, and picking a lot of interesting ideas and applying them in some way. The theory and the research are just racing on over the last 10 or 15 years, fueled by work in technology, better understanding of the way adaptive organisms work, and other things. So this is something that has to be looked at closely.
On the accountability issue, you're not going to find me against national tests. But I think Will expressed a better idea when he talked about serious benchmarks. We need serious benchmarks, whether they use national tests, assessments equated to international tests or whatever. We have to have some way of understanding where we sit. When a parent reads a report on how their child is doing, they should understand it not just in the context of their school, but also in the context of the country.
Finally, on the parent issue, I agree completely. In the end, accountability comes back to the parents. In this new authorization, we're going to be pushing a lot of public accountability areas. The most prominent one would be school report cards. I have looked at a huge number of report cards that exist out there. Most of them are dense as hell. They’re practically impossible for people to read and understand, so we're trying to get examples of really good ones. They have to include measures of student achievement. They should include measures of teacher qualifications and a variety of other things. They've got to be parsimonious enough so the people can look at them and understand them, and think about what the implications are for their kids and their schools.
Mr. DIONNE: Checker.
Mr. FINN: Reforming the ESEA is not picking on poor people. It might be trying to assist poor people instead of assisting government agencies and bureaucracies. The poor people are the ones being gypped by the ESEA as things stand today.
The sad relevance of the IDEA point, unfortunately, is that Congress wimped out on fundamental reform of IDEA. Wimped out. If that happens again with ESEA, I guess I won't be surprised, but I will be doubly disappointed.
On the question of how long to wait, here’s a cautionary tale. I revere the folks at the National Education Goals Panel. But I have to say I was depressed when they voted the other day to erase the year 2000 deadline and make the national goals permanent goals. How long, indeed, must we wait? Does this become GOALS 3000?
Mr. MARSHALL: Two points. E.J., you posed the provocative question about government's role, and let me just answer it. Yes, I believe in a more intrusive federal role, all around. I would probably call it a more strategic federal role.
Washington has got to get out of the business of trying to proscribe means, but it has to do more research on learning and more research on actual practice. We have to know how these programs we're about to reauthorize really work. The research on them is still ambiguous or lacking, yet we spend and spend and spend every year on them.
But Washington's strategic goal has to be to provide the defining benchmarks, so we have some kind of common understanding of the goal we're trying to achieve. Then we have to monitor the performance to make sure we know who's failing and who's succeeding. Then we have to publish the results. Maybe that goes out on the Internet. But I think Washington has a critical, strategically important role to play as an organizer of accounting information. Citizens need to have confidence that their schools are really improving and that the students are doing better.
Secondly, a political point which goes to the question about spending. Look, there's a real problem here. The public’s confidence in public education is very low right now, so most Americans are not inclined to spend a penny more on the status quo. There has to be a link between what we pay as taxpayers and the performance we get. Until then, there won’t be substantial public support for more spending.
Let me just say that I think we finally found something to agree on in IDEA. We ought to put together a task force, because I think there is unanimity on that one, at least on this panel.
Mr. DIONNE: I want to just give Will a candor award for being the first person at a Washington symposium in ten years to say candidly that he favored a more intrusive federal law. Stuart Butler.
Mr. BUTLER: Is this an off the record meeting? After Jack Jennings’ comments about picking on the poor go virtually without comment, other than just saying, give me a break.
I just want to respond to one of the questions asked earlier, which I think encapsulates a lot of what we have been discussing. The lady said that when she asked people in schools what they would do with greater flexibility, they said, “We would do pretty much the same as we're doing now. And can we have some guidance?”
Say you went around to a group of managers in the computer industry and said, “OK, we want you to be more entrepreneurial. And we'll give you the opportunity to do it. What do you want to do?” If they said, “We would do pretty much what we're doing now, and can somebody give us some guidance?” you would see those companies going out of business very fast.
What we were talking about up here is energizing and stimulating entrepreneurship among precisely the people who have been conditioned to say “What are you giving us to do?” and for whom there is no punishment for failure or reward for success. We've got to introduce consequences, as Checker said. That comes from setting standards, which we've all agreed on.
It also comes from competition, based on those standards. If you have competition where the people don't suffer any consequences, they still get the same money, their pay doesn't change, they don't get fired, then of course they're not going to respond to competition.
That is why consequences are so crucial. Parents must be able to say “You are not doing a good job, so I am going to take my child out of this school and go somewhere else.” Even if you do this just within the public school system, that would have an incredible effect and stimulate entrepreneurship. That's what we've got to do.
As I said, that's exactly what we did in the welfare area. We could have had exactly the same debate. We'd have had exactly the same observations from case managers in the welfare area who would have said, "If I had flexibility I'd do the same in the future as I've done in the past." That attitude was changed once the environment and the penalties and the rewards for success were introduced and the incentives were changed. When competition had an effect and had results, then you got real change. That's what's got to happen in the education system.
Mr. DIONNE: Mike Smith knows you get into trouble if you are presumed part of the consensus through your silence. I want to give him five seconds to get himself out of trouble and then we can close this.
Mr. SMITH: All right. It's just that I don't agree with the "consensus" about IDEA. The reauthorization was a bipartisan effort that produced an act that has some performance accountability in it now. My son's a Special Ed teacher. He is now teaching a group of children in Wisconsin that 20 years ago would not have gone to school. It's an incredible act. It's had impact on thousands and millions of kids, and tens of millions of families.
Mr. DIONNE: OK we've got to stop. I'm sorry, I've been getting stares.
Mr. JENNINGS: Look at the burnout of Special Ed. teachers. I'm all in favor of IDEA, I was there when it was written. It's one of the great accomplishments of American education. Structurally we have to rethink it, because we're burning out the teachers and the administrators. We have to.
Mr. DIONNE: Check, you said at the beginning that Mr. Jennings could fit 120 seconds into one minute. I was reminded that former Gov. Edwin Edwards of Louisiana once described an opponent of his as so dumb that it takes him two hours to watch "60 Minutes." I think it can be said today of this panel that has given us such a rich tour of government land and policy land, that they could watch "60 Minutes" in less than a quarter of an hour.
Thank you all very, very much.