Thursday, March 19, 2009

10 Toughies for Arne

AEI's prolific researcher and research impresario Rick Hess has a provocative guest-editorial in today's (Mar. 19) issue of the Gadfly. Hess poses some challenging questions for U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Hess has good insights into the logic of the situation that Secretary Duincan finds himself in. I have condensed his queries somewhat:

1. ...[You've...indicated a concern about wasteful spending and ensuring that the money is well-spent. Would you regard it as a problem if the money is being spent inefficiently but is creating jobs?...

2. ...[W]e know that much of "what works" today consists of elite charter schools bolstered by talented staff, missionary zeal, and philanthropic support. These commodities are in limited supply, and history shows that early successes fueled by them are tough to replicate at scale. How will you ensure that funding...doesn't slosh dollars into [unscalable] boutique programs...?

3. [Skipping over this one for the moment.]

4. In Chicago, ...most of your successes entailed introducing reforms like merit pay pilot programs and charter schools on top of and around the existing school system....Do you think the "on top of and around" strategy is viable for transforming K-12 schooling across the country?

5. ...Do you think it possible to craft a substantial, game-changing merit pay plan that the AFT and NEA will endorse?...

6. ...[T]here is scant evidence of [early-childhood] programs delivering big, sustained benefits for large numbers of children. How can we be confident that the money will fund difference-making programs and not simply pad enrollment or staffing levels?...

7. ...[T]here are many...restrictions [that are less formal] than caps that also hinder charter schools, including unfriendly state and federal regulations, facilities headaches, and teacher certification policies. Do you intend to use your spotlight those barriers and, when possible, to remove them?

8. ...In light of disputes over the merits of "21st century" skills, which the President has explicitly advocated, and concerns that good standards might be crowded out by bad ones, how confident are you that [the creation of national standards] would end well?...

9. The President has said...that if [state and local] officials don't spend the stimulus funds wisely that he will "call them out and put a stop to it." In your view, how would we know if these funds are misspent?...

10. ...History suggests that universal access tends to encourage a decline in rigor and the relaxation of standards....[H]ow do you intend to police [higher education to prevent such a decline]?

My personal favorite is this one:

3. The President announced his intention to "scrub" the budget for wasteful or inefficient programs. Which programs have been identified in the Education Department?

Throughout, Hess asks what Secretary Duncan is concretely willing to do if money is wasted or if programs don't produce.

Whether Secretary Duncan ever explicitly answers these questions in words, he will have to answer them through his actions.

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