Thursday, September 24, 2009

Promising noises from the Secretary of Education

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was interviewed by the Christian Science Monitor and made some very promising remarks regarding NCLB in my opinion. There was nothing even approximating specifics, but I think that he hit on a key insight:

[Duncan] hopes to essentially turn the law on its head. The Bush administration’s legislation, he says, kept the goals loose but the steps tight. He hopes instead to see a law that keeps the goals tight but the steps loose.

Here Duncan is referring to the fact that NCLB very tightly monitors how each state meets its own (loose) standards. These can lead to what I and others have called a race to the bottom between states, particularly when states work to avoid comparison of their education standards.

Exactly how an overhaul of NCLB will tighten or provide some uniformity of the goals is not something I know. I can imagine a range of mechanisms each with their own advantages and problems.

Set a national curriculum
The problems with this are legion. I won't dwell on them other than to say there is little reason to believe that the federal government would do a better job at this than even the worst of our fifty states.
Provide interstate comparisons to parents
When parents get accountability information about their child's school and their child's test scores, simply have these compared to national norms. If state officials can no longer hide their state's performance from parents, that might be enough to get states to start racing to the top. A difficulty with this is that it may require even more testing of students using a nationally normed test. There may be technical ways to get comparable data that won't involve more testing, but it will take some thinking about. Another difficulty with this approach is that it the parental pressure it generates will be insufficient to do the job. Finally, we know that it is parents in the upper middle class who exert the most political pressure, but even in lagging states their children will probably be performing above the national norm.

Some combination of those and other things may be part of what gets proposed. I eagerly await the plan. As for loosening the controls on exactly how states meet the (tighter) goals I can't even begin to speculate. From the philosophical point of view, Duncan's remarks seem very promising and sensible. Although I have no idea of how to achieve this, I am looking forward to more specific announcement.

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