February 14, 2009

Stimulating thoughts

Now that the stimulus package has passed, a few thoughts:

  1. The speed of the conference-committee work was breathtaking. Years from now, apart from what happens with the economy and the rest of his presidency,  political historians will remember the fact that President Obama achieved an unprecedented legislative victory less than 25 days after becoming president. FDR's First Hundred Days, ha! Obama's just set a new standard. Well, not quite: FDR's start was more astounding in terms of the change in federal power. But this week was still remarkable, and my jaw was on the floor when I read of the conference-committee agreement at the end of Wednesday.
  2. This bill will save thousands of teachers' jobs. Thousands of teachers will still lose their jobs, but it would have been much, much worse without this bill. That fact will change the conversation in Washington. 
  3. We still do not know the consequences of the millions in the Secretary of Education's discretionary spending authority, what Mike Petrilli is calling a slush fund, or the larger incentive fund, what Charles Barone hopes is the authority of Arne Duncan to mandate that states move on existing mandates. Let's keep things in perspective: $600 million is a lot of money, and $5 billion is more, but the first is about 0.1% of the discretionary authority handed to the Treasury Secretary in the bailout funds, and the second is also a small amount of money compared with all education spending each year. Big?  Yes. Consequences? Not quite known yet.

Is it the fulcrum Andy Rotherham wants? No. As the Bush education officials found out (and what Petrilli explained on the last Gadfly podcast), regulations still circumscribe what would otherwise appear to be discretionary. And as I've implied above, it's the saving of teachers' jobs that is more likely to change policy conversations. It's better to ask, "what can you do with $600 million/$5 billion?"

But I'm going to ask something different: what are the standards that we should expect for any "innovative" project? Here are some down-to-earth ideas that could easily be the standard:

  • Development of software for formative assessment should prioritize the fast, frequent, flexible, and simple: see my February 6 entry on periodic assessment for why.
  • Local infrastructure standards that minimize the time wasted by teachers and others waiting for software and servers to respond. Right now in one Florida school district, the software/hardware for scheduling students is so horrible that counselors are waiting 30 minutes for the server to process all the tasks for a single student for one semester. The IEP-drafting software for a Florida school district is likewise a good time-waster for special-education teachers, being so modular that almost every operation requires a click and then waiting for the next page. If it wastes teacher time, it should be cut out.
  • Evaluation does not mean a single organization collecting and analyzing data. Evaluation with federal dollars should mean collecting data with some quality and then letting a variety of people have access to it.
  • Development of longitudinal databases need to be accompanied by auditing mechanisms, not just consistency and sense editing. Hire a data-entry clerk for each school, as Florida does, and you still have a massive editing task by school districts. And even after that, researchers occasionally find data quirks such as 26-year-old first-graders (i.e., birthdate entered wrong). And that doesn't address issues such as marking dropouts as transfers.
Listen to this article
Tags: Barack Obama, stimulus
Posted in Education policy on February 14, 2009 11:45 AM |