Making The Grade

No longer hiding in the back of the class, the Education Department is taking a more prominent role in improving schools' performance.


h, spring. Birds are chirping. Flowers are blooming. Baseball fans are dreaming that their team will win the World Series. And classic rock radio stations across the country are spinning Alice Cooper's "School's Out" as children and teachers anticipate a much-deserved summer vacation.

But school superintendents and other education administrators in the states are not humming the infamous lines of age-old doggerel-"No more pencils, no more books"-in Cooper's 1972 hit. They are too busy leafing through the biggest rule book they've seen in years, cramming for one of the most important tests of their professional lives-implementing the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act. While educators are studying the 1,200-page law and accompanying draft regulations (final rules are due this summer), Education Department officials are sharpening their pencils as they gear up to monitor states' implementation of the law.

Enacted in January, the law is the most sweeping change in federal education policy in more than a decade. It seeks to ensure that all children meet high academic standards and holds state and local school officials accountable for poor performance. The law affects virtually every public school in the nation. Among other things, it requires statewide reading and mathematics tests each year in the third through eighth grades. It calls for a "highly qualified" teacher in every classroom and requires states to show that students are making progress on a yearly basis.

The emphasis on standards and assessments is nothing new. Education has been moving in that direction since 1994, the last time the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act was reauthorized. But No Child Left Behind constitutes a fundamental shift in the relationship between the Education Department and the states. If the promise of the law is to be fulfilled, the department must alter its role from junior partner to active participant.

This is no small test. There are significant cultural and management challenges to overcome, starting with the Education Department's compliance mentality. It typically issues regulations and makes sure that states are meeting various deadlines. Now, however, the department must provide states with guidance on meeting the requirements of the new law-something it has never been good at, according to state educators and current and former Education Department officials. In addition, despite its emphasis on compliance, the department also lacks a strong enforcement arm. State superintendents generally are skeptical of threats that their funding will be jeopardized if they fail to comply with federal mandates.

"At the state level, I didn't really feel any pressure with regard to accountability from the federal government," says Eugene Hickok, Pennsylvania's former secretary of education. Now undersecretary at the federal department, Hickok is largely responsible for seeing that No Child Left Behind gets implemented. "I think there has always been a compliance mentality on the part of the federal government which said, 'This is what you have to do.' It wasn't very proactive in terms of showing states how to get there," he says.

It won't be easy for Education to balance its new mandate to offer a helping hand while enforcing legislative requirements. During a meeting in mid-March with state school superintendents, Hickok said the department wants to send staff to states to offer guidance and talk about the new law's requirements. "We are eager to help you," he said. But a few minutes later, Hickok reminded the officials that the department will also rap them with the proverbial ruler by withholding federal funds if they don't comply. Members of Congress, he said, have made it clear that they are keeping a close eye on the department and will demand that states meet the letter of the law.


In January 2001, when President Bush sent his education proposal to Capitol Hill, he said too many children suffer from low expectations, illiteracy and self-doubt. The legislative blueprint highlighted some dismal statistics, such as the fact that 70 percent of inner-city fourth graders are unable to read at a basic level on national reading tests.

"Although education is primarily a state and local responsibility, the federal government is partly at fault for tolerating these abysmal results," the blueprint states. "The federal government currently does not do enough to reward success and sanction failure in our education system."

Work on overhauling the federal role in education started long before Bush took office, though. Lawmakers had been studying various options for reauthorizing the elementary and secondary education program since 1999, and much of the groundwork for an enhanced federal role was put in place during the 1994 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. For example, that law required states getting federal funds to develop challenging academic content and performance standards. The states had to create assessment systems to measure how well students measured up to those standards. Compliance deadlines stretched over seven years. Content and performance standards were supposed to be in place by the 1997-1998 school year. Assessments systems should have been up and running by spring 2001. Missing those deadlines meant risking federal funding.

Much of that funding is delivered through Title I of the 1965 law, the largest elementary and secondary education program run by the federal government. Title I provides states with financial assistance to improve teaching and learning for disadvantaged students. It reaches about 12.5 million students in both public and private schools. In fiscal 2001, the program's budget was $8.6 billion. With passage of No Child Left Behind, the administration is seeking $11.4 billion for Title I grants in fiscal 2003. Overall, that's actually a drop in the bucket-about 7 percent of all education spending nationwide. But that 7 percent accounts for nearly 40 percent of most states' costs of running programs to reach out to disadvantaged students. "We can't run our program without that money," says Nancy Grasmick, Maryland's state school superintendent. "Nothing else funds it."


Nevertheless, the prospect of losing such funding is apparently not much of a motivating factor for most states. Data from the Education Department, the General Accounting Office and other sources shows that as of March, only 17 states had fully approved standards and assessments systems, as required by the 1994 reauthorization. The department has granted waivers to 29 states and Puerto Rico, giving them more time to catch up. Alabama, the District of Columbia, Idaho, Montana and West Virginia are so far behind that they must enter into compliance agreements with the federal government or risk losing their Title I funds. In such agreements, states spell out how and when they plan to comply with the law.

Why states have had so much trouble complying with the law is hard to answer. In part, it stems from the diverse, bureaucratic and overly political ways states govern education. "In 14 states, the state school chief is elected. There you have a single officer presiding over the agency," says David Shreve, senior committee director for the National Conference of State Legislatures. "In other states, you have some variation of a political appointee-either by the legislature or the governor or the school board. . . . If you have a governance structure that complex, when a federal mandate comes down, it impacts states differently."

Dane Linn, director of education policy studies at the National Governors Association, argues that money has always been the core issue. With the Education Department supplying only 7 percent of overall funding for elementary and secondary schools, "No one took the department seriously" when it came to enforcement, he says.

Education tried to beef up its enforcement toward the end of the Clinton administration. In late 1999, Michael Cohen, then-assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, asked states to show how they were complying with the 1994 legislation. After reviewing the documents they submitted, he sent out a series of letters telling states what they needed to do to improve performance. Cohen, now a senior fellow at the Aspen Institute, a Washington think tank, says he wanted states to know exactly what the department expected. But few of the letters mentioned any threat of losing federal funding. A review of several letters by Government Executive shows that most of them advised states to apply for timeline waivers since they were likely to miss statutory deadlines. Nonetheless, Linn says, there was an underlying message that Education was starting to pay close attention to compliance.

Despite the effort, no state ever lost funding for failing to comply with federal mandates.

With that as the backdrop, members of Congress and the administration went to work last year on No Child Left Behind. They were tired of hearing excuses from state educators, says one staff member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. This time around, they were going to take a much more active role. The law they produced extends standards and assessment requirements to all schools, not just those receiving funding under Title I. It also forces states to collect data on individual students, rather than aggregating them at the school level. Part of the intent behind No Child Left Behind is to hold states accountable for poor- performing students. Along with putting in more prescriptive language on such issues as testing standards and how to assess students' progress, Congress gave the Education Department a much bigger stick.

"The law says that we can no longer wait for states to develop high standards and a system for measuring and monitoring adequate yearly progress in meeting the standards, as required in the 1994 legislation," Education Secretary Rod Paige wrote state school superintendents in February. The new law forbids any more deadline waivers. And, it directs the department to withhold 25 percent of Title I administrative funds from states that fail to comply with its requirements.

Rodney Watson, assistant superintendent for accountability at the Louisiana Department of Education, says most school chiefs are taking the administration at its word. "They've sent a very strong message," he says. Still, it's important for the department to do more than just crack the whip. If 1994 serves as any example, states will be put to the test trying to meet rigid and fast-approaching deadlines under No Child Left Behind. Both Watson and Grasmick say the department must help states find ways to comply with the law.

It's a dilemma that has plagued the department for years, says Cohen. "My dealing with the states was based on an assessment of whether they were generally in compliance and whether they could be counted on to take the next steps," he says. "The judgment I had to make was if they are not in compliance, what can I do to help them?"

Hickok is trying to find the same balance with a much more rigid law. But he's hampered by a staff that lacks the expertise to make such a transition, says a former department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "We would go down and see what states had done," the former official says. "We wouldn't look at their compliance efforts in the context of larger state reforms. We'd look to see if they had the right papers on file. What difference does that make, though? It doesn't tell you how they were doing. States are trying to be very systemic in their approaches.

[Education] Department staff is light years behind that. To top it off, not all the people at the department are the most motivated or take to new ways readily."

The cultural problem is not lost on the Bush administration. Deputy Education Secretary William Hansen says the department is working hard to focus attention on the performance of its own employees. Job appraisals and the department's strategic plan are being rewritten to inject a results-oriented approach, he says. Performance appraisals for staff in the elementary and secondary education program are being tied to implementation of No Child Left Behind. Education officials were still figuring out exactly how to do this in the spring. Integral to this effort is improving the data Education collects from states. Right now, most of the data reflects compliance with various rules and regulations. The department recently initiated a project to collect performance-based data to enable staff to look at outcomes and put more emphasis on accountability.

Implementing such initiatives will be a challenge for political appointees new to their posts. The department's chief financial officer and assistant secretary for management positions were filled just in March. The jobs had been vacant for three years and six years respectively.


As it strives to establish a role as both partner and enforcer in improving schools' performance, the Education Department also must improve its capability to provide technical assistance. The challenges there run deeper than culture change. By their own admission, Education officials are unable to provide effective support in the areas of research and development, policy analysis and implementation of best practices. That's troubling, says Grover Whitehurst, assistant Education secretary for research and improvement, especially since the phrase "scientifically based research" appears, by his count, 110 times in the new legislation.

Although the law calls for a highly qualified teacher in every classroom by 2005, Whitehurst says there is a dearth of knowledge about what that means-or how to train teachers so they meet this requirement. The same can be said of academic standards. There is little data on the best ways to teach math, for example.

"The quality of the data has always been suspect," says Hickok, adding that the problem reaches beyond the department and into the entire education field. "Rather than having good quality research and development and evidenced-based data, people tend to do their own thing. The first step is for us to be bold enough and say, 'This has to stop.' We have to get good data in place that over time will provide us with best practices."

Hoping to close the knowledge gap, Congress is debating plans to reorganize Whitehurst's office. Legislation introduced by Rep. Michael Castle, R-Del., would move the Office of Educational Research and Improvement out of the department and into a semi-autonomous Academy of Education Science, divided into three centers: education research, evaluation, and data collection and analysis. The administration has not taken a position on the bill, but Whitehurst says it supports efforts to improve research.

Whether Whitehurst's office is or isn't reorganized, Education has to improve the way it sets research priorities and disseminates guidelines, he says. To that end, Hickok has set up a "war room" at the department. There, Education will track state compliance with the law and provide a clearinghouse of information for educators, parents and other interested parties.

"There has to be a broader understanding of these issues," Hickok says. "The bigger challenge is after we push the conversation with staff here and at the states, how do we raise the public's understanding of how we are trying to change things? What we need is a national conversation about where we want to go."

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