November 6, 2008 12:55PM

Nothing Innovative in Federal Education

I’m getting to this paper — a proposal from moderate-liberal, Democratic insiders Andy Rotherham and Sara Mead — kind of late because I was working on other things when it came out, but something in it begs for commentary, especially since folks like Rotherham and Mead will likely have at least part of President-elect Obama’s ear. The report is a call for a new federal role in promoting “21st Century educational innovation,” largely by funding “educational entrepreneurs” and developing “effective educational programs.”

Mike Petrilli over at Fordham has already done a pretty decent job of critiquing the proposal, so read his back-and-forth with Rotherham for a fuller treatment if you’re so inclined. For me, just one thing in the report goes a long way toward demonstrating how foolhardy it is to think that the federal government would ever consistently promote and scale-up truly effective education reforms: It's never done so before. Indeed, Rotherham and Mead offer just two, lonely examples of past success — Brown v. Board of Education and The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act — and they don't really apply.

Don’t get me wrong, Brown v. Board was a critical turning point in American history, and IDEA was important at least for ensuring that public schools don’t ignore disabled kids. Neither of these federal offerings, however, are remotely similar to scaling up, say, KIPP schools, or identifying and nurturing the world’s most inventive reading program. Brown was an achievement of a federal court — specifically, the Supreme Court — not a federal bureaucracy. IDEA was essentially a piece of civil rights legislation for the disabled. Neither had anything remotely to do with picking and expanding the truly most promising educational waves of the future.

Looking at much more analogous precedent demonstrates clearly that the feds are about as capable of promoting effective innovation as John McCain is of appearing calm in the face of economic crisis. I give you Diane Ravitch, speaking in 2003. She headed the Department of Education’s Office of Education Research and Improvement in the early 1990s, an office intended to do just what Rotherham and Mead propose, and she has a very definite assessment of how much true “innovation” the feds have supported:

My impression, based on the last 30 years, is that the federal government is likely to be hoodwinked, to be taken in by fads, [or] to fund the status quo with a new name.

Or look at the once-vaunted New American Schools, a federal initiative launched under President George H.W. Bush to identify and replicate “break-the-mold” school designs. The effort failed because, according to researcher Jefferey Mirel, the schools that got funded weren’t really new, but old models already beloved by the educators authorizing the grants:

NAS asked for revolutionary ideas and for the most part got the “revolutionary” ideas that educators have been trying to implement since the nineteen twenties. Invited to diagnose and reform themselves, schools found the problem to be a misguided public policy emphasis on measurable knowledge and skills, not faulty ideas about teaching. The notion that their pedagogical ideals were at fault was-as E. D. Hirsch puts it-“unthinkable.”

Quite simply, the federal government will rarely if ever be able to promote true innovation in education, especially since in education, unlike defense or health — which Rotherham and Mead point to as areas of successful federal innovation efforts — people can’t even agree on the final goals. Protect troops from incoming missiles? I think all us Generals agree. Find a cure for cancer? OK. Foster critical thinking or content knowledge? Uh-oh…

Ultimately, to think the feds could effectively promote true educational innovation would be to conclude that the Department of Education — and any office within it, such as Rotherham and Mead’s proposed Office of Educational Entrepreneurship and Innovation—would not be staffed with human beings who have preconceptions, opinions, or experiences that bias them toward one thing or another, and that educators don’t have biases that tend to be skewed in particular ways. They do, and that is why having a single entity try to pick innovative winners just results in “the status quo with a new name.” People know what they like, and when you make just one set of them into innovation gate keepers, what you tend to get is what they would have given you anyway.

With that in mind, file this proposal in the already overflowing “history ignored” drawer.