Education reform: States vs federal government — interview with Chad Aldeman | VIEWPOINT


Chad: Government can force state
and local governments to do things, but they can’t force them to do those things well. Andy: Chad Aldeman, thank you so much for
being here with us. Chad: Thank for having me. Andy: Principal at Bellwether Education Partners,
we are former colleagues, I hope we’re longtime friends, you can decide after this interview
if that’s actually true. So, you are the perfect person if you don’t
mind my saying so, to continue this conversation I’ve been having about this ongoing discussion
of what is the right balance of power between the federal government and state governments
when it comes to K12 Education? So, for our viewers, you worked at the US
Department of Education under the Obama administration but you also just recently finished authoring,
editing a big study of state plans under this new federal law, ESSA. So, you can speak both from, like, the perspective
of Washington DC but also what states are doing. And we’re gonna get there in a minute. But to, sort of, begin the level setting here
is we’re actually at AEI today on the same day that there was an event on the Bush-Obama
era of education. So, for folks who don’t follow this very closely,
the idea is that although President Bush and President Obama are very different, there’s
an argument that they both wanted a more muscular role for Uncle Sam in our schools and they
did so for 16 years. So, let’s actually just start there. As you look back on the Bush-Obama era, what
do you think of the federal government’s role? How do we describe it? Chad: There was definitely a concentration
of power, and there is a much more federal government role in education policy writ large
than there had been prior. I think, one of my biggest takeaways from
this morning was the power and effectiveness of some of the competitive grants that we
saw, like the Teacher Incentive Fund was designed under the Bush administration to give essentially
performance pay to teachers and bonuses the way it was originally designed. The Obama administration was, sort of, political
but the Obama administration still took that up and pushed it forward and got some good
results out of it. Similarly, the Charter School Program. I think if those are some of the bigger successes
of this era of Competitive Grants, people who, and organizations that actually wanted
to do something, did good things with it. I think some of the federal requirements that
we might talk about had less positive effects. Andy: Well, it’s actually, like, just a drill
in for a second on this nature of competitive grants, because in the broadest terms the
US Department of Education have what we call Formula Grants, wouldn’t just hand out money
to states and districts based on the number of students you have essentially. Competitive Grants are a little bit different,
and during the Bush-Obama era, there was a view… Okay. The Federal government will put some money
on the table and say we think that this ought to get done, we’re not going to force you
to do it, but if you want some money you can try it out. So, TIF, the Teacher Incentive Fund was one
Charter School Grant program but also Race to the Tops. Some people would argue, some people would
say it pushed too hard or it was a push instead of just a nudge but also it was money on the
table. So, what do you think of Race to the Top,
now in hindsight? Chad: In hindsight, so I wrote this piece
looking back at the teacher eval[SP], focused on the teacher evaluation context. And in that sense, like teacher evaluation
was one big part of Race to the Top. They got a lot of the outsize attention on
it. I, sort of, feel like Race to the Top was
a little too muddy like it tried to do too many things, there were 19 different priorities
ranging from everything from standards to teacher evaluation to school turnarounds to
data. And I think, like, I think it was a good opportunity. I think the money was a good idea at the time. It was during the recession. It was a chance to leverage what was a good
amount of money from the federal government but not a lot from the states and districts
to get them to do new things they hadn’t been doing. I just think it was probably too muddy, too
comprehensive. I think it would’ve been better if it had
been split up and say here’s a pot for teachers, here’s a pot for standards, and think about
those things differently. Andy: Okay, well, let’s come at the teacher
eval in just one second, but just your interpretation of the positives, so competitive grant programs,
the federal government setting a goal providing money to incentivize states to do things. Do you think that that probably worked out
well? One thing we heard today, and that I think
a lot of people on the left and the right would say one of the benefits of NCLB, the
No Child Left Behind Act, the Bush administration 0102 was that it forced states and then forced
districts to test in grades three through eight in reading and math, and then not only
provide the data but disaggregate the data. So, it was definitely a heavy hand here, but
a lot of people now are saying thank goodness for that because 15, 16, 17 years later we
have lots of data on how all of our kids are doing, so would you agree with that? Chad: Yeah, I think that’s one of the clear
wins for me from No Child Left Behind, and that sort of era is the data that we have,
and both the availability of the data, the data linkages to other, sorts of, systems
not just assessments but now linking it to teachers, linking it to long-term outcomes
piqué are higher at all those types of things, and then being able to disaggregate looking
at different populations of students. Andy: Okay. So, if I’m constructing a narrative here,
we could say all right generally a benefit is of this era is the federal government incentivize
states, states could do some things if they wanted to do it and get some money for it,
they were nudged to provide more data, so the public knew more so they would be incentivized
to reform all good stuff. Then we get to some things like teacher evaluation,
where it wasn’t so much encouragement anymore. It felt like the federal government was saying
here’s how you need to evaluate your teachers using data in this way, and here’s how your
laws and regulations need to change. So, how do you start to draw the line between
some of these things that are good and when this starts to get too heavy-handed? Chad: I guess, so we’re in a… and the person
that has changed my thinking on this and both before and after my term in government service
was Rick Haas who talks about how government can force state and local governments to do
things but they can’t force them to do those things well. And I attribute that to Rick Haas and repetition
and all the stuff that he’s written over time. And also, my time in government services showing
this. Andy: There’s wisdom in that or… Chad: There is wisdom in that. And so, I take it the same, like NCLB there
are some things that were worth doing just to do to like raise the floor of some things,
and so that there are some places where that’s still necessary but to try to leverage systemwide
improvements like that just can’t happen from the federal government. And so, I think it’s about finding ways to
incentivize people who wanna do good things to do those things. And that’s where I’m headed at this point. Andy: So, where then do you put something
like Common Core on that? Is it on the boundary, is it more the forcing? Chad: Yeah, it’s a good question. I think even more is in investment as an incentive
to encourage it, and so there are some national benefits if more places use common standards
because then curriculum makers can have a better market than just going after 50 states. So there’s some national incentives, but I
don’t think it should be forced or mandated, I think, sort of, in the Every Student Succeeds
Act requires that states have high-quality standards and leaves it up to the states to
determine what that means, working with their own higher education institutions. Andy: Okay. So, whether we like all of, part of, none
of the Bush-Obama era, I think all of us have to recognize that it caused maybe or at least
nudged us towards the Every Student Succeeds Act which was Congress in 2015, at the very
end 2015 passing a reauthorization of the Elementary Secondary Education Act which is
a reauthorization of No Child Left Behind, essentially saying, Uncle Sam, thanks for
your work, but back up a little bit, we’re gonna give states a whole lot more authority
in the years ahead. And that was a reaction to states being frustrated,
being told what to do across all of these domains, so let’s just pause there for a second. You had some misgivings about ESSA when it
was passed. So, if we can think about the 2015-2016 child,
what were your concerns about it then? Chad: So, my concerns were that it gave probably
too much flexibility to the states. It didn’t leave much federal role to ensure
that states were putting forth high-quality plans. Andy: Okay. Pause there, because someone might say wait
if we know that the Bush-Obama era was too much federal pushing, why would we not trust
states? Aren’t they gonna do the right thing? Chad: So, even under No Child Left Behind
there was a wide variance in how states got outcomes, and so some states did pretty well,
some states did not do very well, and that was even under No Child Left Behind which
was more of a rules-based national system. There are still lots of choices within that,
and states did other things that produce different results. So, my hunch was that we would see that under
ESSA as well only magnified even more. So, some states would take that flexibility
and do good things with it. Some states would take that flexibility and
not do much with it. So, the question for me was always, it’s still
federal dollars, the federal government still thinks there’s some value in sending that
money out to states particularly for low-income kids. And so, I still think the federal government
has some oversight role in making sure that those plans are high-quality. And you and I have written a paper, we have
grappled on this. Andy: I was about to make a joke about this! What the right lever is, I think no one… Well, I shouldn’t say this. Lots of people agree that we can’t have a
rules-based system like No Child Left Behind, like, setting the rules for everybody. But is there a way to say there’s some discretion
at the federal government level to set some parameters for quality whether that’s through
an informal peer review process some, sort of, secretarial authority. I think the secretary authority under ESSA
is very limited, and I worry that it’s not giving the current administration enough,
the tool to say no you need some more thinking on this plan, you need to keep working on
this if you want to get federal dollars. Andy: So, if anyone is interested, I think
it is 2014 or 2015, we wrote this pretty long paper, “Pax Americana.” I think that, let’s just say, it wasn’t a
widely read or it wasn’t widely adopted yet. Chad: Our timing was terrible. Andy: Our timing was bad, but what we were
doing was in real time trying to wrestle with this fundamental question, if we know that
the No Child Left Behind era happened for a reason. But we also know that we were pushing towards
ESSA for a reason that means that we have to somehow find this area between nudging
states given the billions of dollars the federal government sends them, nudging them to make
sure that we’re getting the results we want but without being too heavy-handed. So, that leads to this next question which
is, okay, so you conceptually had some questions about ESSA back in 2015-2016, but now we don’t
have to speculate as much anymore. We’re two years into it and states have produced
these plans, which states had to create accountability plan systems underneath the new federal law
meeting some criteria but free largely to go their own ways in a couple of different
areas. And so, you and some colleagues took a look
at all of these plans and you assessed them, and so like I said it’s not speculation anymore
you can actually render some let’s just say initial judgment. So, what did you guys find? Chad: So, looking across all the plans, we
said they were uncreative, largely unfinished, unambitious. We felt like a lot of things were recycled
from prior efforts, prior plans, or a lot of it was incomplete. So, either on the indicator level states haven’t
fully defined how they’re gonna measure something. They haven’t defined how they’re gonna take
the indicators and roll them up to a system for identification purposes, and then they
haven’t always explicitly said what they’re gonna do for low performing schools both like
the interventions that those schools might have to pursue as well as any funding or resources
that might be directed to them. There’s a big pot of money in ESSA that says,
“Every state sets aside 7% of their Title 1 funds.” Which nationally is about $1 billion. We looked and said, “Oh, and states have lots
of discretion about how they spend that money, whether it’s a formula or a competition, whether
they wanna embed some initiatives or other, sorts of, priorities within that. We counted in this last round there were 34
state plans, only 12 states mentioned that money and most of them were in a very small
paragraph to say, you know, it’s gonna be a formula. It’s gonna be competition. But not much depth or detail about what that’s
going to look like.” Andy: So, I don’t wanna put words in your
mouth but do you feel, like, some of your concerns from 2015 are being realized, that
we might be seeing some regression that Uncle Sam backed up and now states might not be
taking some of these things as seriously? Chad: I think that’s fair at this point. I mean, it’s still early. It’s been two years, and you could say that’s
a long time, you can say it’s a short time in federal bureau… or state bureaucracy
plan, it’s probably not that much time but I think it was concerning for us. We had a panel of peers to look at the plans. I think they came away generally concerned
that the states, the plans were not that specific about what they were gonna do. Andy: Okay. So, as you know, I’ve been moonlighting on
AEI, and I hope no one watches us, so people don’t know that I’ve been moonlighting, working
on the side on the Maryland State Board of Education, I’m still in full disclosure, I’ve
been actually worked on these issues at the state level. And so, what I’ve seen over the past two years
is just how difficult it is for states to work through these plans. So when Uncle Sam backs up, that means all
of the things that he had been dictating the states on are now up for grabs again. So, from the seat where I have been sitting
for the past couple of years, what I realize is when a state is given power again to debate
what it means to be a great school, how you measure it, how you intervene, do you value
college going, or career and technical education? Or how much weight do you put on whether English
language learners are gaining or whether gifted kids are gaining? These are fundamental philosophical questions
and they don’t always lend themselves to being answered simply in a document. So, an argument that I’ve been making is,
maybe the process that states have gone through it’s been valuable, maybe not neat and tidy
but it’s effectively states taking ownership of their K12 Education System again. Am I off base? You can say yes. Chad: I mean, I don’t wanna say yes or no
at this point. I would say based on what we’ve said, like,
we felt, like, the plans were important enough to review, the states never have to go back
in and get new approval, these approvals are permanent and they are for a fairly large
chunk of money, maybe not from a state budget perspective but from the federal government,
it’s the federal government’s investment in low-income kids. Andy: So, we got billions of dollars, and
to your point, it’s the one time the feds will review this until presumably the law
gets reauthorized which could be 7 years, 8 years, 10 years, 12 years. Chad: Yeah. And so, there could be some of what you’re
saying that states are still either figuring out or they didn’t wanna put it in their formal
plans for whatever reason, maybe they have political realities in their states, maybe
they just didn’t want to be held accountable, they wanted some flexibility in the back end. All those are legit. I would say that like the opposite interpretation
is that like as scrutiny goes down if the federal government’s no longer looking, if
groups like ours aren’t looking anymore, are they gonna have the ability to make tough
decisions going forward. And I am concerned that some states won’t
have that capacity or willingness to make, like, hard decisions. Andy: Okay. We’ll try to wrap things up with like a two-part
question, one is simply looking back and one looking forward. So, as you now take stock, we’re sitting at
the beginning of 2018, over the past, almost two decades of increasingly forward leaning
Uncle Sam’s behavior. What kind of lessons should people take away
from that as we start to think about the ESSA era? What were the good things and what were the
bad things in some? Chad: Yeah, I think, I would go back to this
conversation about how to use the federal government’s tools for good, and what are
the potential ramifications for different policies. I hope we don’t go back to it like a formal
rules-based system like No Child Left Behind but I’m worried about what states don’t do
with their flexibility, and so, like what happens next? I think it’s useful for the states. I think it’s useful for all of us to think
about how that can work. I hope people would go back and reread our
old paper, and maybe we didn’t have the right balance but… Andy: Maybe not. Chad: …that sort of idea. I think we weren’t wrong. I think we were early if you will. Andy: We should do like a vinyl reissue of
this maybe it like become hot later on. So, just looking forward, last question, if
you and you should be a state chief someday if you get to be in charge of a… If you were in charge of a state right now
with this new ESSA opportunity where we have these lessons from the past decade, decade
and a half or more, and this new opportunity for states to do even more, based on what
you’ve seen over the past two years what states are doing so far, how would you nudge, encourage,
incentivize the state to do more? And what are those things that you would encourage
them to do? Chad: The biggest thing for me is not using
the data-driven accountability as the end all be all. So, I think it should be, sort of, like a
flag and investigation for a further look at those schools say this school has low performing
outcomes, let’s go take a look at it, let’s go review it. Have some external parties go look at it as
opposed to this is, like, below our set threshold and automatically something happens. I’d rather have more of a fuzzy process to
say here’s a rough identification of, here are some schools we think need some help,
and then what happens to them afterward. Andy: That’s great. Well, thank you for your work for the federal
government. Now, on the nonprofit sector in this herculean
effort of reviewing these 50, 51 state plans. I can only imagine how many hours are those. Chad: It was long. I’m glad to be done with it, I think, yeah. Andy: Well, you did a public service which
had all of it. Thank you so much. Chad: Thanks for having me. Andy: Hey, everyone. That’s the end of our discussion with Chad
Aldeman. Thanks so much for watching. As always, let us know what other topics you’d
like EAS to cover on “Viewpoint.” And to learn more about the balance between
federal and state power in schools, check the links in the description below.

1 thought on “Education reform: States vs federal government — interview with Chad Aldeman | VIEWPOINT”

  1. Where’s the other side of the argument with what would happen if the government had no hand in education? Why is it just from the past 15ish years? Why doesn’t the conversation go more in depth? Disappointing and not really nonpartisan.

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