August 9, 2016; Education Week Blogs

News is made when a president’s vision makes its way through Congress and becomes the law of the land. Yet it is at that moment that the real work begins, the labor of translating words into action in a complex, multilayered, and often underfinanced real world.

Addressing concerns about the weaknesses of public education has been a priority for our last two presidents. From “No Child Left Behind” to “Race to The Top,” there have been consistent efforts to improve performance for all students and hold states, school districts, and individual schools accountable for their efforts. Last year, in a rare bipartisan moment, President Obama and Congress came to an agreement on how to extend federal education funding and fix problems observed under earlier laws. A presidential signature on what became known as the “Every Student Succeeds Act” seemed to bring about a happy ending. But, again, the real work has just begun.

A major objective of the ESSA was to limit the role of the federal government in public education and return power to the states. Federal funding will still be tied to each state’s ability to demonstrate they are successfully educating students, but the states will be able to define how they go about producing and measuring desired outcomes. The federal government’s capacity will be less directive and more one of monitoring and advising.

A recent Government Accountability Office report focused on the Department of Education’s efforts to give states greater independence during the implementation of NCLB. For years, the DoEd used its ability to grant waivers to states that felt they needed additional flexibility to meet federal funding requirements. What GAO found in these efforts has significant implications for how well the new law will work. Education Week underscored the implications of the GAO report:

The Every Student Succeeds Act cedes a lot of control over accountability systems to states. But under No Child Left Behind waivers, some states didn’t do such a hot job of monitoring districts’ progress on things like school improvement and implementation of college- and career-ready standards.

The GAO found that granting waivers was the easy part. Forty-three states were granted the right to modify some portion of Education’s policies for implementing federal law. At least 12 of those states were found to have significant difficulty implementing the modifications they requested, and the U.S. Department of Education hasn’t shown the ability to study these difficulties or develop solutions for the problems identified. With a new law giving every state the right to create new systems, not knowing why earlier efforts at granting flexibility failed is of great concern, as is the problem of translating those lessons into new practice.

The report underscores the challenge of complexity. A large federal bureaucracy works with fifty state education departments, which are then responsible for working with 13,500 school districts with almost 100,000 schools. The GAO found that “overseeing local districts and schools was particularly challenging for states. […] Meanwhile, Education has not yet evaluated its process to review, approve, and monitor the Flexibility waivers given to states or incorporated any relevant lessons learned into its plans for implementing the December 2015 reauthorization of the [ESSA].”

For some, this may seem another example of the inability of government, any government, to solve problems and operate effectively. In truth, it’s a clear illustration of the challenge any large, complex system faces when it needs to make change happen—one made more difficult with the expectation that this change must happen quickly, without the time and resources to understand and support the new direction. Learning from experience and using that new knowledge to modify a strategy may be textbook change management, but seems not to be good politics or make headlines. If we want real solutions and real improvement, we may have to choose to do the work and ignore the politics.—Martin Levine