Carrots, Sticks & the Bully Pulpit

Rick Hess and Andrew Kelly, both from AEI, complied and edited Carrots, Sticks & the Bully Pulpit, a book published by Harvard Education Press that attempting to glean lessons from the last half a century of federal involvement in public education.   As with most Hess projects, this one levels more critique than prescription—and federal investment in and regulation of education offers much fodder for critics.
From a strong group of contributors to the volume, one could conclude that there are three things the feds can and should do: promote equity, keep score and promote transparency, and support research.  That said, this AEI volume will bolster your federalist tendencies.
Given the Getting Smart focus on innovations in learning, I’ll focus this review on the federal role in supporting new solutions to ongoing educational challenges.  On the innovation front, the feds have had little success.  Race to the Top was a clever addition to the stimulus bill and resulted in half of the states adopting a package of sensible reform proposals but not much on the innovation front.  The misnamed Invest in Innovation grant program sent $650 million to school districts for proven reforms but few innovations (fault congressional language not USED staff).
On the big recent increase in private investment in learning technology, my friend Larry Berger and his colleges, in Chapter 6, gave feds more credit than I do.  They “suspect that the biggest driver [to increased investment] is indeed federal policy.”  Common Core State Standards is of some benefit to private content developers and its incorporation into federal grant programs certainly widened state adoption.  But beyond that, federal (and state) policy has remained hostile to private investment (as well outlined by John Bailey in this AEI piece).  The explosion of private investment in the last three years is almost entirely a function of the driver we write about ever week:

  • inexpensive access devices and expanding access to broadband
  • application development platforms and app markets
  • global demand for education and global markets for products
  • digital natives raised on cell phones and connected on social networks
  • consumer demand for options and maturation of learning online

Mike Smith suggests, in Chapter 11, a zero-base approach to federal education policy.  That’s obviously a good idea, but it would need to take place in Q1 2013 during the first 100 days of the next presidential term (as Tom Friedman has pointed out, it is the only time anything gets done in DC).
Smith also provides the most compelling and detailed case for federal investment in tech-focused R&D.  “Serious applied research, development, innovation, and evaluation will be needed to ensure that these new opportunities benefit al of our students.”
The volume offers nearly universal praise for the benefits of equity seeking programs like IDEA with insufficient analysis of the legal and financial exposure created for school districts by placing a group of students outside a rational fiscal context.
This review of the federal role is largely discouraging for those of us interested in advancing educational equity and achievement. The was some consensus among the bipartisan authors that “federal policy makers have trouble holding a steady course amid all the interests and politics,” and that the “federal government lacks the authority and tools to effectively play an active role in school improvement.”
On a more positive note, there was also some consensus that the feds had an important and doable role in promoting transparency and that the president and secretary had a valuable bully pulpit role “to highlight national educational and civil rights challenges and then tying them to our shared goals.”  Beyond that, most authors supported equity seeking investments of programs like Title 1 but outlined all of the inherent limitations.
The shift from education as place to learning as a service, and the associated “unbundling” that Hess has written about, makes inevitable a federal or at least national standard setting, delivery coordination, and performance reporting role. The importance of learning in the idea economy should make education a federal or at least national priority.  But one thing is clear, for the balance of this decade, the feds will play a smaller role in public education—a function of politics, economics, and lessons learned.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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