Does Political “Cover” Produce Effective Policy?

Arne Duncan's policies face a challenge in the current debates around ESEA reauthorization.

Arne Duncan’s policies face a challenge in the current debates around ESEA reauthorization.

With debate heating up regarding the potential reauthorization of Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), more recently branded “No Child Left Behind” or NCLB, there are opinions flying regarding the federal role in education policy. At EdWeek, Rick Hess just posted an interesting piece regarding political “cover” in education policy, and whether or not we need strong federal rules and incentives in order to do improve education. I think his insights there are pretty sharp overall. Here’s a sample to give you the main ideas, but I hope you’ll go read the whole post.

[NCLB] waivers led to the rushed adoption of not-ready-for-prime-time teacher evaluation systems and NCLB led to a hurried reliance on poorly designed accountability systems and problematic school improvement strategies. Federal “cover” can push states to do things, but hurried adoption on a politically driven timeline means they’ll be done poorly in lots of places, undermining public confidence and support.

…[The] very act of providing federal “cover” can also serve to undermine local backing, or cause it to atrophy, by making it seem less necessary or urgent.

Taking the contrary view, Peter Cunningham left a comment on Hess’s post. Cunningham is the former Assistant Secretary for Communications and Outreach in the U.S. Department of Education, and current executive director of Education Post. His response read in part, ”

“Cover” is just another word for “pressure to get better” — and without it you won’t have systemic change. What union leader will sign on to eval without some pressure, even though most of them agreed that the system of eval was broken?

Without pressure, what state would have disaggregated testing data?

Without cover, what district would take bold steps to turn around underperforming schools?

Without pressure, many states will continue to underfund education and will never invest in early learning, etc.

And what follows is my response to Cunningham:

Peter, your argument regarding the role and importance of pressure has some merit, especially regarding disaggregated data and investment in education. There are some basic steps like that where federal policies and pressure can help. But on policies that get more prescriptive, I don’t think you’ve really addressed Rick’s arguments that “cover” is likely to produce compliance more than effective, lasting reform. You may have been looking at this from the governmental level too long. At the local level, where we actually do the work, most people actually do have motivation to improve. If you’ve read up on motivation, you know that people working on complex tasks that matter to them are driven by three motivators: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. When policies at any level pave the way for people to work with more autonomy, more mastery, and greater sense of purpose, they are more likely to succeed.

The fundamental disconnect of “accountability” in the past 15 years has been creating policies that undermine all three. Even in your comment, there’s an assumption that people aren’t motivated unless there’s a punishment for non-compliance. But as you know, some progressive unions have been ahead of that curve for decades, using good labor-management relations and a sense of mutual accountability to improve evaluation and remediation. Or, take my least favorite example of federal failure: promoting the use of test scores in teacher evaluation. Imposing it undermines state and local autonomy. It also undermines teaching mastery because, as ample research has demonstrated, test scores are slippery measures and there’s not always a clear connection between teacher practice and test score results for a given student, class, or grade level. Instead, teachers are stressed and frustrated.

And worst of all, by privileging test scores in evaluation, we push teachers away from the sense of purpose that motivates us in the first place. We don’t go into teaching to raise test scores; we go into teaching to promote a much wider variety of skills that are poorly measured by tests, if they’re measured at all. We go into teaching to raise children’s potential, their sense of the possible, their hopes and dreams. Federal policies can’t really operate on those terms or at that level, but they should at least help rather than hinder the effort.


12 thoughts on “Does Political “Cover” Produce Effective Policy?

  1. Thanks for the comment David. Rick didn’t really make an argument against “political cover.” He made an argument against “rushed adoption.” Those are two different things and federal pressure does not necessarily mean rushed adoption. Lots of states and districts are driving reforms thoughtfully, including your least favorite reform — evaluation, based in part on test scores. Chicago, DC and Denver and Hillsborough County, Florida are doing it right. Massachusetts, Delaware and Maryland seem to be doing it right — not perfect but not “rushed” either. I don’t see how teachers can really complain about New York and Tennessee when their evaluation systems found just one or two percent of teachers ineffective. Just because some people do things wrong does not mean it was wrong to ask them to do it. If we really want to strengthen and lift up the teaching profession — which I think is the most important thing we can do — and then use it as a lever to increase funding and public support, we have to take some of these difficult steps and if federal pressure can provide “cover” for local leaders to do those things, then we should welcome it. Federal pressure — through maintenance of effort — can also be used to force states to better funding public education — and it should be. It’s a scandal that 30 states are below pre-recession education funding levels. So Rick an argue that the reforms were rushed and you can argue that they are wrong. We can have that debate. But I still believe that federal pressure is needed and many local and state leaders agree — if not publicly. Either way, good conversation to have.

    1. Thanks for stopping by to comment, Peter! I hope my post didn’t come off as a rejection of any federal role in education policy. But I do think it that the further you get from the actual school operations and teaching practice, the more the policy should stick to the very broadest social priorities: funding, equity, access, infrastructure, etc. Leave the HR details to local levels. Now, if I can push back on one comment in particular, you wrote:

      I don’t see how teachers can really complain about New York and Tennessee when their evaluation systems found just one or two percent of teachers ineffective.

      Here again, I think there’s a disconnect between looking at a policy from the federal level and understanding its impact at the local level. Teachers are complaining about the evaluation system because it undermines motivation for all the reasons I outlined above. That’s what I think you miss when you’re not working in schools or talking to teachers regularly. The fact that the evaluation system only found 1-2% ineffective doesn’t mean that people should like it. In order to get CA teachers to raise test scores, our state briefly used a cash incentive for teachers. Some of the “winners” tore up their checks. That’s what I would beg you, and more importantly, our lawmakers and ED, to understand. The reward/punishment model itself can be demotivating when based on the wrong indicators – even if the “punishments” aren’t as common as feared, and even for those who land the reward. Not just my opinion: if you haven’t read Dan Pink’s Drive, get it! Fantastic overview of motivation research.

  2. I neglected to respond to your other points about motivation. I agree that most people are well-motivated but you can’t build systems based on goodwill. Many people in finance are well-motivated but we still have the SEC. Many people in the justice system are well-motivated but we still have checks and balances to counter prosecutorial abuse or judicial corruption or incompetent defense lawyers because they don’t always get it right. We have an appeals process because sometimes justice isn’t always served. So, I fully acknowledge the desire for “autonomy, mastery, and purpose” among many people in the field of education but we still need a system of assurances that protects every single child from the few who may not be so highly-motivated or self-reflective or who may just be overwhelmed. I believe most teachers want to go better. I believe most principals want the best for their kids. But we have a long history of neglecting kids at risk — of segregating – of pushing out problem students — of hiding low-performers — of over-disciplining kids of color. Accountability didn’t just fall out of a tree. We arrived at accountability after decades of stagnation in some — not all — schools. What we have today is far from perfect but its better than its absence.

    1. I was writing my response to your first comment when this one came up, so thanks again for taking up the issue of motivation. I don’t disagree with anything you wrote above. Regarding federal trade, the basic rule of law, or fundamental issues of adequacy, child protection, justice, segregation, etc. – those are all appropriate for oversight and regulation. There is a useful role for the federal government in finance, law, and education. We disagree about where to draw the line, or how specific the policies should be as they get closer to practical/procedural matters. It’s particularly frustrating that where Secretary Duncan has been most specific about practices – using test scores in evaluation – he also been most at odds with teachers, disregarding the track record of performance pay, ignoring the research findings and positions of multiple professional organizations dedicated to education assessment and measurement.

      1. Ok. Let me ask this. If performance pay in one form or another (and there are many forms – from whole school models to money for the “class”) is not a good motivator — (and I agree that the studies are not especially encouraging) — and if pressure from evaluation systems is not a good motivator — (and I agree that implementation is difficult) — then tell me what is. Imagine you are a new principal in a low-performing school — been struggling for years. What would you use to motivate people to somehow do something different? I’m sincerely asking. This is our situation all over America. I’m assuming you provide PD, mentoring, coaching, change the curriculum etc. — but that’s pretty much what we do in transformation schools (about 70% of the SIG schools) — and we don’t get great results.

        Anything else? No threat? No “light a fire?” No tough love? I keep referencing how Carmen Farina turned around PS6 in New York. She replaced 80% of the teachers. I’m pretty sure they all got the message — and yet when reformers talk about doing the same thing it’s heresy. Having said that, I fully appreciate that this kind of intervention doesn’t always work and it’s a last resort, not a first resort. Still — don’t you need this option on the table?

        1. Tough questions, Peter. In order to motivate change, I’d try to get the resources and authority to do whatever I can to support the people who are going to implement any changes, and lead them into a process of designing that change together. Engaging with parents and community would be a key part of it. Being able to have hard conversations is important, as is building trust and creating a safe environment for innovation and risk taking. I suppose having some power to “lower the boom” is going to come into play in some situations – as a last resort, like you said. A better approach might be to create incentives and policy conditions that help teachers find a better fit if needed. Such an approach is going to be more or less viable depending on district size, state and district policies, urban/suburban/rural settings, etc. But the challenges of turnarounds in economically stressed communities and schools systems are so massive that I think underwhelming results are more symptomatic of social decay than educator failure.

  3. Just chiming in here as a former teacher and school board member and current Mom of 3 and EduPost blogger :).

    In my experience, the belief that “all educators are motivated and want to get better” simply isn’t true; I’m sure the same can be said in any profession. However, by not being able to terminate them (or even mandate improved performance in any meaningful ways), many families and students find themselves in a crisis. In my suburban, though quite economically diverse, community, 2 schools became ones families could opt out of and the HS would have too had there been an alternative option. For years, nothing was happening with large cohorts of kids and it seemed that a) no one knew or b)no one cared. Without NCLB, the covers would never have been lifted up on these underperforming subgroups; and if that’s the case in my town, imagine what would still be hiding in our urban centers. Many excellent educators often make the naive mistake of assuming that “all” educators must share their same desire for excellence, outcomes , and growth. The sad but very real truth is that many don’t. Even if 85% do, that’s about 550,000 adults working with kids every day who aren’t interested in the mission of educating and preparing all kids, for whatever reason. Teaching well is hard. So so hard. By allowing the dead weight to hang around at taxpayer expense, we fail to raise up the incredible feat that true teaching with great results is (both from an academic and social/emotional standpoint.)
    I agree that if everyone was as skilled and dedicated as we wish were the case, the “cover” wouldn’t be needed. But that isn’t the reality on the ground. I’m watching RI schools undergoing ‘transformation’ make great gains, gains that wouldn’t have even been goals without the federal “rules.” High performers like accountability, and feedback, and challenges to improve but instead, we lack the resources to give them what they need/deserve need because we’re paying some hack down the hall twice as much to essentially stunt kids’ growth and be the overseer of their regression. The federal govt has to be a watchdog or else I fear we will slide backwards to a place that actually violates the civil rights of far too many American families. (I say this as someone who was granted tenure at 26 and thinks that policy, which “helped me”, is very dangerous and wrong for kids.) thx for letting me contribute — I enjoyed reading the back and forth.

    1. Thanks for sharing your perspective, Erika. I agree with you on two points: disaggregating data to include all sub-groups is useful, and the federal government does have a role to play as a civil rights “watchdog”.

      You put in quotation marks the claim that “all educators are motivated and want to get better” – but I didn’t see that anywhere in the thread of blog posts and comments. I did generalize about motivation, based on both research and my decades of experience dealing with teachers around the country, but if anyone said “all” that’s putting it too strongly. (If I said “all” and haven’t spotted where that was, please let me know).
      Regarding teacher dismissals, I don’t think lack of motivation is an offense that triggers a firing. If lack of motivation leads to unsatisfactory performance, teachers can be dismissed, and sometimes they are dismissed. When people talk about how impossible it is to fire teachers, they often overlook the number who just decide to leave, the overburdened administrators who don’t have the time to follow procedures, and the number who, yes, are fired. The most difficult cases produce lots of costs and headaches, and we could likely improve those procedures – but the majority of teachers leaving the profession don’t get anywhere near those steps.
      When you write “even…85%” I infer that you think the actual number of motivated might be lower and you think you’re being generous in that estimation. Sorry, but suggesting that roughly 1 out of 6 teachers is “dead weight” seems more inflammatory than productive. I think it’s even more problematic to suggest that “paying some hack down the hall twice as much” is the reason we can’t afford to provide schools with more resources; that implies that the more experienced teachers are the hacks and that they’re holding back the younger, more dedicated teachers. I’m not saying that never happens, but I think it’s likely a symptom of our problems, not the cause. I think it would be more productive to focus on how school systems induct teachers with a given amount of skill and potential, and then fail to support and develop so many of them. In other words, there may be some “hacks” – but no one would admit to hiring one and then giving them “tenure” (due process, permanent status). So, what happened? The school/district gradually created a “hack” – and the smart thing to do would be to figure out how and prevent it from happening. Let’s have some accountability for administrators, school boards, and legislators who have the real control over the systems.
      And if “tenure” is “very dangerous and wrong for kids” I await your explanation for why kids and schools in non-union states aren’t doing better, while the highest performing states and nations more often have strong unions and workplace protections. I don’t see any evidence that “tenure” hurts students – and I know that for many teachers, tenure is precisely what emboldens them to challenge the system when it neglects our students’ needs.

      1. Thanks David.

        I didn’t use the quotes to imply it was said on this thread but rather that it is an argument that comes up time and time again as people often speak in generalizations about teachers as if they are a monolith within which there lies minimal differences in talent, care, motivation etc.

        I would cite the Vergara and NY vs Wright cases as quick and easy examples of how tenure hurts kids; the rubber room would be another very public and well known example. Anecdotally, I had my own dept head in CA say to me, “you’re the best one I have in the department and we have to let you go because you are the most recent hire.” It was high school Spanish and I don’t for a minute pretend that my leaving likely changed the trajectory of any kid’s life; however, that was the same policy being used for all depts, all subjects, and all ages and yes, that most definitely could have dire consequences for students. Most of us can’t imagine the daily scenarios in which the plaintiff families found themselves trapped but to pretend that what they describe isn’t real would be a level of tone deafness that would also “shock the conscience.”

        I did say 85% though to be honest, I don’t know what that number is since I think it varies greatly district to district. I’d venture to say that in some districts, the “hack” quotient is very low but certainly not zero — in fact, just last week I spent hours listening to a curriculum director discuss how she could not get one of her science teachers to turn in anything she had asked for despite deadlines given with months of notice; it turned out that he had not given or graded any assessments this entire year. He went to his union rep to complain that he was being asked to show student work (as the whole dept was) and this was in a very highly regarded and high performing district in MA. Add to the mix my experience in high poverty schools where more than a few freshmen arrived to us unable to read, write, or compute, and that number of motivated, high achievers likely gets lower. I agree that ‘hack’ or ‘dead weight’ may be too perjorative though part of me wonders why we would ever consider weakening our language while, at the same time, trying to protect kids. In some cases, the word incompetent fits and in others, abusive does. Strong terms, yes but certainly with evidence to back them up, both in the public record and in my own experience as a student and a teacher.

        I don’t mean to imply that age determines efficacy; some of my best teachers were long time veterans, others were newer. Same holds true for my experiences as a mother of elementary students. However, it’s true that anveteran teacher is more expensive and deservedly so, unless they are not teaching well, kids aren’t learning as they should. Then, the taxpayer is getting fleeced, aren’t they?

        I can’t abide any implication that ‘firing’ is a common practice — just today I listened to Reshma Singh say on a podcast that the average case in NY takes over 800 days and costs over $300,000 – all dollars and time that could be funneled into schools to help teachers, principals, and kids but instead is wasted fighting to get rid of someone that everyone concedes is in the wrong line of work. I am not talking about the close calls or the ‘on the fence’ cases.

        Since I’ve witnessed current tenure policies hurt kids and staff in real ways and since the idea of keeping an abusive teacher in the classroom for one second is beyond the pale for me, I’m not willing to back down on the position. You raise excellent questions about the performance of heavily unionized states being higher performing but my state, RI, is not one of them. I don’t have a quick answer for that but will absolutely dig into it more deeply since what you say does seem to be counter-intuitive.

        To provide a contrast between MA and RI, for example, in 1988 MA was already doing performance based layoffs while RI was solely seniority based until about two years ago. MA is arguably the state with the best schools in the nation — yes, they are high spending but they are also high performing. RI, by contrast, is high spending and low performing and my experience, especially watching things play out during exec sessions as a schl board member is that the union model, in its current form, also hurts kids. I watched so much time, money, and energy spent on just trying to get a teacher out that everyone — parents, teachers, principals, supt, and school board agreed was “damaging” kids…that is just wrong.

        I am always struck by how the same people (and I’m not saying this is you), who eschew the use of data for evals and school ‘grades’, want me to show data around our current form of tenure being bad for kids. In a great school with great teachers and great leaders, it’s a nonfactor and in my educational experience, that was essentially the case. However, in low performing schools where larger numbers of teachers are often weaker, culture is one of low expectations, leaders aren’t strong enough, and parents often feel voiceless, tenure can wreak havoc on generations of kids. To deny this is to turn a blind eye to what is happening to some of our most vulnerable children. If these teachers I describe are teaching in grades K-3, we are talking about changing the trajectory of countless kids’ lives!

        Anecdotes are powerful. Experience is powerful. I spent a few hours the other night listening to mothers, mostly low income, speak of their experiences with schools including their heartbreak after failing to get their children in to charter schools after 4 and 5 tries. I also listened to them as they revealed how, after finally getting in, their experience was night and day from their prior school. These mothers deserve to be heard. They had horrendous stories to tell about what did and did not happen in their neighborhood schools — all the number crunching pundits in the world can never change or take away what these parents have had to endure.

        Lack of motivation not fireable? Isn’t that debatable? I’d imagine that a boss who sees chronic lack of motivation of an employee with regard to work may disagree, especially if it continues long term with no improvement. If you’re a parent and that ‘unmotivated’ worker is your kid’s teacher, you want your child to stay in there? I don’t. (And my son’s k teacher was out 27 days, including annual trip to Disney which she told her 6 year olds all about!) What if your child gets in the unmotivated teachers’ classes every year? If that teacher should be kept around, whose kids should be in those classes year after year?

        I agree that none of this is easy but if we are looking at it through the lens of what’s best for kids and what will bring about the best results for those kids, the big picture becomes crystal clear.

        Thanks for forum — I’ve got a lot of loud boys to put to bed but I look forward to reading more from you. I’m at and also All the best!

        1. Erika, I’d say the Vergara case is notable for its lack of evidence on these matter, and have blogged about the case extensively. None of the plaintiffs really demonstrated that the inadequacies of their education came from state-level policy rather than administrative failure (and I don’t mean that as a dig at administrators; those failures are often a result of unreasonable workloads). The judge’s ruling shows he gave the most credence to large district superintendents and economists, basically ignoring administrators who testified for the defense, and all of the non-economist education experts who also testified for the defense. We can certainly do better in many of these policies, but the flaws do not rise to the level of constitutional rights violations in my opinion. When resources are adequate and people do their jobs, the problems are surmountable. I’m not aware of any law, any policy, or any person who would support keeping an abusive teacher in the classroom. In the cases when it has happened, I believe the problems have been, again, administrative failures rather than union protections. Unions don’t want abusers in classrooms, and to my knowledge have no means of protecting known abusers even if they wanted to – which they don’t.
          As for anecdotes, or your experience on the school board, I wouldn’t discount their power or importance, but I wouldn’t necessarily jump to conclusions about what they illustrate. Regarding the firing challenges, I’m not prepared to jump to “no tenure” as a solution. Regarding problems at schools, there are also anecdotes from former charter parents whose kids were pushed out of schools, or wondering where their school’s money went, or why it closed mid-year. Getting back to the original topic of the blog post, I’d simply argue that local problems deserve local discussion and local solutions. Thanks for your contributions to the dialogue. I’m glad to have some pushback on my writing and thinking, and to have a civil discussion with someone even when we disagree.

  4. Regarding the conversations with these commenters:

    It is difficult to get a man (or woman, in this case) to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.

    Upton Sinclair (1878-1968)

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