News is made when a President’s vision makes its way through Congress and becomes the law of the land. Yet it is only at that moment that the real work begins, the work of translating the words into action in a complex, multi-layered and often under financed real world.
Addressing concerns about the weakness of public education has been a priority issue for our last two Presidents. From “No Child Left Behind” to “Race to The Top” there has been a consistent effort to improve student performance for all students and hold states, school districts and individual schools accountable for their efforts. Last year, in a rare bipartisan moment, President Obama and Congress agreed on how to extend federal education funding and fix problems observed under the prior law. Congressional agreement on what we need to do, a Presidential signature on what became known as the “Every Child Succeeds Act” seems to bring us to happy ending. But the real work has just begun.
A major objective of the ECSA was to limit the role of the Federal government in public education and return power to the States. The Federal funding will still be tied to each state’s demonstrating they are successfully educating their students, but States will have ability to define how they will go about producing and measuring desired outcomes. The Federal government’s role will be less directive and more one of monitoring and advising.
A recent Government Accountability Office report focused on how well the Department of Education’s efforts to give states greater independence as it implemented NCLB. For years the DoE had used its ability to grant waivers to States who felt they needed additional flexibility in their effort to meet federal funding requirements. What GAO found in these efforts has significant implications for the how well the new law will work. Education Week underscored the implications of the GAO report, “The Every Student Succeeds Act cedes a lot of control over accountability systems to states. But under No Child Left Behind waivers, some states didn’t do such a hot job of monitoring districts’ progress on things like school improvement and implementation of college- and career-ready standards.”
The GAO found that granting waivers was the easy part. 43 states were granted the right to modify some portion of the DoE policies for implementing federal law. At least 12 of these states were found to have significant difficulty implementing the modifications they requested. And the Department of Education has not had the ability to carefully study these difficulties and develop solutions for identified problems. With a new law giving every state the right to create new systems, not knowing while earlier efforts at granting flexibility had failed and translating those learnings into new practice is of great concern.
The GAO report underscores the challenge of complexity. A large federal organization works with 50 State Education organizations who are then responsible for working with 13,500 school districts with almost 100,000 schools. But the GAO found that “Overseeing local districts and schools was particularly challenging for states, according to GAO’s analysis of Education documents. Meanwhile, Education has not yet evaluated its process to review, approve, and monitor the Flexibility waivers given to states or incorporated any relevant lessons learned into its plans for implementing the December 2015 reauthorization of the ESEA.”
For some this may seem another example of the inability of government, any government, to solve problems and operate effectively. For me, this a clear illustration of the challenge any large, complex system has when it needs to make change happen. One made more difficult when there is an expectation that change can happen quickly, without the time and resources needed to engage widely in understanding and supporting the new direction. Learning from experience and using that new knowledge to modify a strategy maybe text book change management but seems not be good politics or be headline news. If we want real solutions and real improvement, we may have to choose to do the work and ignore the politics.