States' Rights and States' Wrongs on School Reform

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States are the toast of Washington again. Tea Partiers and the incoming Republican majority in the House of Representatives idealize them. When Congress read the U.S. Constitution last week, the 10th Amendment — the one reserving power to the states — was an applause line. Of course, celebrating states and localism is nothing new. More than 150 years ago, Alexis de Tocqueville declared that it is "the political effects of decentralization that I most admire in America." More recently, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis hailed states as "laboratories of democracy." But when it comes to education, we shouldn't lionize states when they're too often failing to fix our schools.

Consider two recent examples.

In 2008 then-Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings asked states for creative ways to improve failing schools and offered regulatory waivers to support the best ideas. The response? Underwhelming. "States were not bold enough in seeking meaningful and disruptive change to confront school failure," Spellings told me the other day.

In 2009, when the current Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, invited states to compete for more than $4 billion in funding for education reform through his "Race to the Top" initiative, a similar situation unfolded. While the competition led to an unprecedented amount of state-level policy changes — such as lifting caps on charter schools, improving teacher evaluations and addressing low-performing schools — most of the plans states submitted were uninspiring. Only 11 states and the District of Columbia ultimately won Race to the Top grants, and the general consensus is that even some of the winning plans aren't terribly revolutionary.

These are not abstract problems — they affect students directly. While the federal No Child Left Behind law has been characterized as a Washington power grab, in fact most of today's education policy initiatives are driving authority to the states (and often pulling it away from local school districts). Since the Clinton Administration, federal law has required states to do things like establish performance targets and hold schools accountable, but has largely left it to the states to figure out how to do these things. It's a sensible approach, but states lack the ability to accomplish a lot of what is now expected of them. This was one of the clearest lessons I learned while serving on the Virginia Board of Education — and in many ways, Virginia is ahead of the pack.

Today's state departments of education are good at compliance, but with few exceptions, they are not good at strategy or leading systemic change. That's why competition is so fierce for talented individuals who are willing to work in state education agencies and why states used so many outside consultants (including me and my colleagues) to help with their Race to the Top applications. For many state officials, the magnitude of the competition — along with Secretary Duncan's aggressive demands for change — had them reacting like a deer in headlights.

An even more fundamental but less discussed problem is that despite all the rhetoric about how kids come first, in practice decisions about everything from academic standards to teacher credentialing to consequences for low-performing schools are made based on what's easiest or least disruptive for teachers and school districts. (Political scientists refer to this as "regulatory capture," a fancy term for when the inmates run the asylum.) And if it sounds reasonable to you, imagine if the Consumer Product Safety Commission worried about as much about what industry wanted as it did about what was safe for the public.

So what to do?

States need better bureaucrats. In some places, this means hiring new people. In others, it means making sure the right people aren't focusing on the wrong activities. To borrow a military metaphor, too many state departments of education are fighting the last war. They're too busy preparing to meet yesterday's challenges, and it will take money to help get them get ready for the ones coming up.

States also need more aggressive reporting from the media and more aggressive advocacy to ensure that education officials are effectively regulating rather than quietly enabling school systems. It's worth noting that in almost every instance of substantial educational change within a state, there has been a state-based advocacy group or coalition of groups leading the charge. Federal policy can help a lot, too, by keeping the pressure on for improved performance and accountability.

Finally, perhaps the best thing states can do is to stop thinking exclusively in terms of states. On a host of other issues including renewable energy, cleaner water and higher education, regional cooperation has helped drive progress. When it comes to training and licensing teachers, developing curricula, tests and other classroom tools, or even building and renovating schools, regional cooperation makes more sense than doing everything 50 times over.

Brandeis was right — states are amazing laboratories of democracy. But when it comes to schools, Washington's new power brokers shouldn't just talk about how great states are. They need to help make the reality match the rhetoric.

Andrew J. Rotherham, who writes the blog Eduwonk, is a co-founder and partner at Bellwether Education, a nonprofit working to improve educational outcomes for low-income students. School of Thought, his education column for, appears every Thursday.