When is a Mandate not a Mandate?
Gene Hickok’s July 17th blog got me to thinking: When is a US Department of Education mandate not a mandate? If the provisions of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) are the key to unlocking the doors to a secret education kingdom were all children are above average - by 2014 no less - how come it’s so easy to opt out? Is there an escape clause in NCLB that is written in invisible ink saying, “You are required to conform to the regulations of the Department, unless you don’t want to?”
After President Obama and Secretary Duncan let the education community know there is such an escape clause, the rush to the exits by states has amounted to a stampede - in a few short months, 24 states have opted out and 13 more are in the application process. The reaction at the grassroots level has been overwhelmingly positive; apparently, folks beyond the Beltway are only too happy to figure out their own problems and solutions.
In his blog Gene characterizes the Department as a “toothless tiger,” an apt description and may actually understate the case. The problem for the Department is that it is crashing a party to which it was not invited. The Constitution left the responsibility of education to the states. As the British would say, this is a bit of a sticky wicket.
This being the case, the only real leverage the Department has is money. And I think we all know that relationships based on buying loyalty and compliance lasts just as long as the cash is forthcoming. Of course, the Department wants something in return for its largess. It wants respect and it wants the states to conform to some of its favorite prescriptions for turning around the aging battleship of public education- which the states dutifully endorse (wink, wink).
As parents know, kids will agree to almost anything to get the keys to the car. I’m not sure, but I have a feeling that this not exactly what Jefferson and Madison had in mind when they argued that a free and universal public school system was the foundation of democracy.
What is the alternative to the current game of quid-pro-quo? One alternative is to reframe the mission of the Department from hectoring parent to inspiring thought leader. Instead of passing more regulations tied to money, why not spend the money in joining hands with educators to reinvent public education?
Imagine this: the year is, well, next year- and the Department is on its way to becoming the world’s leading educational R&D center with a single mission - to bring American schools into the 21st century. This means creating new curricula, experimenting with the best ways to integrate technology into learning, discovering assessment strategies that actually help students learn, inventing new approaches to teaching, and disseminating innovative materials and best practices to the states - for free.
Too utopian? Maybe, but then again most genuine innovation begins with a utopian dream that is turned into reality by hard work, teamwork and a sense of purpose. The current way of doing things isn’t working for American students. Let ideas lead and the rest will follow.