Steinhardt Policy Experts Discuss Obama Administration’s Approach to Education Reform

We recently sat down with three education policy experts to discuss the Obama administration’s plans for education reform. Already having sharply influenced education policy via the 2009 stimulus bill, which apportioned $4.4 billion in “Race to the Top” money (a competitive grant program for states), the administration and education secretary, Arne Duncan, have signaled their intent to reform No Child Left Behind, the signature education policy of the Bush administration.

Earlier this year, Obama and Duncan laid out some broad plans, including raising teacher effectiveness, creating common standards, increasing the number of charter schools, and tying student achievement data to teacher assessment.

Participating in the conversation were (pictured left to right): James Kemple, executive director of NYU Steinhardt’s Research Alliance for New York City Schools; Leanna Stiefel, professor of economics and education policy at NYU Wagner and NYU Steinhardt and associate director of NYU’s Institute of Education and Social Policy; and Joseph McDonald, professor of teaching and learning at NYU Steinhardt.

One consequence of “Race to the Top” funding is that states are lifting their caps on charter schools, in order to qualify for grant money. What’s the evidence on charter school effectiveness?

LS: The evidence to date on charters has been mixed. You have recent studies, such as one by Stanford economist Caroline Hoxby and co-researchers, on New York City charter schools which suggest that charters raise student achievement, while other research suggests more minimal, if any, effects. At the very least, charters don’t seem to hurt student performance. And if charters raise performance among the most difficult to teach students, that might be an advantage.

JM: The role that charters play in diversifying schooling makes them valuable. In pressing the states to be more “charter-friendly” the administration is signaling that such diversification is appreciated. In the bigger picture, the Obama administration is sending a signal that it likes the fact that the “constitution” of schooling is changing – making room not just for charters themselves but for charter management organizations functioning as quasi-districts, and for districts contracting with school designers and other intermediaries to do things that districts used to do themselves. These things were hardly imaginable twenty years ago.

JK: In order to be eligible for the “Race to the Top” money, states are being asked to lift their caps on the number of new charters in the state. While I am all for innovation, I think the mixed evidence on charters underscores the need for the DOE to include money for rigorous evaluation of all the programs it will begin funding. And I’m just not sure whether this is happening to any serious degree. States might have only anecdotal evidence that programs are working.

The 2009 stimulus bill helped states avoid mass layoffs of teachers. But with many states still facing budget deficits, what will happen next?

LS: I’d say we’re in a “race to recover.” When the stimulus bill passed, there was the assumption that states would have recovered more by now from the effects of the recession. As the stimulus money was scheduled to run out, state tax revenue would make up for the “lost” stimulus money. But the evidence suggests that the recovery will take even longer, so there is the potential for huge problems for states when stimulus money ends. Congress may have to consider passing another bill to help prevent future teacher layoffs if states can’t fund teacher salaries.

JK: The vast majority of the stimulus money (almost $100 billion for education) was meant to make up for shortfalls in state revenue. However, two important programs, Race to the Top and Inventing in Innovation Fund (or I3), are being dedicated specifically to supporting innovation and educational improvement. An important question is what will happen when the money disappears. This is where states and the U.S. DOE have a unique opportunity to build solid evidence about what worked, for whom, and under what circumstances, and be in a better position to decide what to keep and what to drop. As of now, only $650 million of the I3 fund is set aside for rigorous evaluation.

JM: You have to put the stimulus in context. Even if the economy doesn’t improve as quickly as we all hope, it seems a very good thing that thousands of teachers have not already lost their jobs – mostly young teachers – because this stuff tends to hit younger generations: teachers who have grown up with digital technology, teachers who were drawn to teach even though they thought they had other options.

Some have criticized the federal government’s increasing role in setting education policy. How do you respond to such criticism?

JK: The traditional arguments in favor of a federal role in education are twofold. First, the federal government is seen as the guardian of equity. Title I funding, for instance, is federal funding that goes to schools with significant proportions of poor students. We really can’t leave it up to the states themselves or to localities to confront equity issues, relative to the rest of the country. Next, the federal government can help promote innovation. It is in the best interest of the nation as a whole for the federal DOE to fund and to evaluate innovations that work and that might be scaled up by states and localities.

LS: While it’s true the federal government is concerned with equity, states also factor equity concerns into their funding formulas, so that low-wealth districts will find their education spending supplemented by aid from the state. In addition, there is a good argument for having considerable local contribution to education spending, an argument that is based on the “efficiency” of having local governments respond to and represent local preferences and costs. And the political arguments in favor of shared power are strong. All of this says to me that a federal role in promoting equity and even addressing some efficiency concerns that arise if a mobile population is not adequately educated in its home districts are strong, but there is also good reason to continue having robust state and local roles as well and to resist too much dominance by the federal government.

JM: First, there is a waxing anti-federal, state’s rights, libertarian sentiment in the country. You see it in the healthcare debate and elsewhere. Various dimensions of the Obama education policies are likely to annoy people in this camp. In general, I would say that states and districts want and need a federal funding role, but they are wary of intrusions. NCLB was a big intrusion. And some of Obama’s ideas about what should replace NCLB are already perceived in some circles as intrusive. Meanwhile, the ambition on the part of the administration to create a more competitive and rational framework for education policy – one without set-asides for things like Teacher Quality grants, Teach for America, and the National Writing Project – will bother other people. These are long established programs with strong constituency appeal.

One of the most controversial proposals concerns shutting down low-performing schools, specifically firing the teachers and staff. What about such proposals concern you?

JM: There are reasons – aside from academics—why people like their local school and would not want to see it re-organized. In many communities, schools function as cultural and social glue. At the same time there are lots of reasons why students may be doing poorly in school – poverty issues, violence in the community, poor nutrition. There is some sense that Obama wants to address these broader issues. However, the administration is willing to say that we can’t any longer tolerate drop-out factories – what the civil rights leader and school reformer Robert Moses calls “sharecropper schools,” even if it’s politically complicated and costly to close them down (and in most cases it will be).

LS: My concerns tend to have to do with the consequences of shutting down these schools. The districts want to replace the fired teachers with highly trained, effective new teachers, but where will these new teachers come from? Also, my own research with IESP has suggested that transferring students to a better school changes some unique dimensions about the school, and so might affect student achievement. For instance, the receiving school might grow in size in such a way that hurts academic achievement of kids at the lower end of the distribution.

JK: The administration’s approach seems to be to focus on turning around the lowest-performing schools, rewarding those that make significant improvements, and leaving those in the middle alone. Most of what is now being called “turnaround strategies” involve some form of personnel change in the lowest performing schools, but they are also supposed to be accompanied by serious and thoughtful changes in that way teaching and learning occurs and the wide range of school supports. These can and should include community-wide supports for young people like the Harlem Children’s Zone, extended learning time that can make constructive use of time outside the traditional school hours and school year, and new modes of content delivery and assessment through technology. Turning around the lowest performing schools with some of these tools will probably require changes in school leadership and human resources that are better aligned with the new demands of these kinds of innovations.