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74 Interview: Max Eden, His Book About ESSA With Rick Hess, and the Ed Policy Rorschach Test

March 12, 2017

Talking Points

New book by @MaxEden99 and @rickhess99 covers the origins and meaning of #ESSA

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See previous 74 interviews, including former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, Senate Education Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander, former education secretaries John King and Arne Duncan, and education activist Yolie Flores. Full archive here.

I’ve heard about people who didn’t visit its hospital bed during the long, increasingly lonely death of No Child Left Behind. Most recognized the name by then — given by the Bush administration to its 2002 renewal, endorsed by puffy majorities in Congress, of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. ESEA sends billions to schools with poor students each year; Bush, and later Barack Obama, decided that states weren’t doing a good job identifying the students who needed that money, getting it to them, and helping schools use it to improve.

NCLB ultimately lifted math scores a bit, but it kneecapped itself from the start with its Panglossian view of the perfectibility of schools — aiming, absurdly, to lift every child in the country to grade level by 2014. That rarely happened in a single class. By 2007, when the law came up for reauthorization, dissatisfaction with its test-based performance measures and misincentives left Congress grumpy but unable to agree on how to fix things.

NCLB remained in force through most of the Obama years. Although it was technically expired, there was plenty of life left in the old boy until near the end. Obama’s even more aggressive use of federal authority under NCLB, along with his early handling of the Common Core, left only a small band of reformers to mourn its loss. In December 2015, ESEA was finally reauthorized as the Every Student Succeeds Act, which countenances a far smaller role for the federal government in policymaking.

If you’re reading this — if you know ESEA isn’t a site for beach chairs and ESSA isn’t a self-serve gas chain in South America — you’ll enjoy a new volume of essays, The Every Student Succeeds Act: What It Means for Schools, Systems, and States, edited by Rick Hess and Max Eden. Hess, as much of Edworld knows, runs education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute; Eden is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Their pedigree indicates that both are bullish on ESSA and a return to the idea that the central government exists to empower, not script, states and districts.

We spoke with Eden about the new law.

The interview is lightly edited for clarity and length.

One motif for you and Rick and others in the book is ESSA’s “Rorschach” quality, which is the idea that you can see both 10th Amendment values (states’ rights) and 14th Amendment values (equal protection). You say ESSA can fluctuate between these, so where is it now, under the new administration?

I’m trying to figure out a pithy way to say it that’s not wonky and knowing.

You can be wonky and knowing.

I think the most interesting case study of the Rorschach test and the differences that different administrations can read into it — you saw it on offer in the spending regulation that was never actually officially submitted by John King.

From a conservative 10th Amendment Rorschach perspective, ESSA explicitly forbade Secretary King from offering the kind of micromanaging district-level finance regulation that he put forward.

You’re talking about the supplement-not-supplant piece.

Yes. From a 14th Amendment point of view, the whole point of this law is to make funding more equitable and to make sure that schools that are less funded have the kind of money that otherwise districts and states might not put to it.

So despite the fact that the law pretty much said they couldn’t do it, the 14th Amendment intuition was, “We need to do this, so we’re going to do this.” And that may well have stood under a more 14th Amendment–friendly administration. But John King et al. decided to not even put it out because they knew it would be taken back immediately by the Trump administration in the same way the accountability regulations have been.

Those regulations were significantly less onerous than the spending regulations, significantly less out of step with the meaning of the law, but they still were more prescriptive than the law clearly gave window for. The Trump administration could very well have just said, “We’ll leave it on the books, but we’ll give you more flexibility.” But instead they opted to say, “No, these are not legitimate regulations at all. You have all the flexibility that you want.” And the implication ... is that we probably won’t scrutinize and substantively revise your state accountability plans.

So at this point it swung pretty, I mean ... I can speak more to myself than to Rick in this, but he and I weren’t really sure, after ESSA was passed, once it started being regulated, that we were quite right to think it was a big step for the 10th Amendment. It seemed to us at first, seemed to me certainly, not at first but after a few months, that something that we took in the Rorschach test to be a 10th Amendment move, more liberal-minded folks took to be carte blanche to take a more 14th Amendment view. The meaning of ESSA for the next few years was only really settled in the November 2016 election ...

If and when we see another administration, another Congress with another set of priors, I think that we could probably see another recalibration.

Is there a reason to believe that state and local government are more competent at education policy than the federal government? There are, as you know, state achievement gaps. The performance of Louisiana and the performance of Massachusetts are at totally different levels. How do you address that with ESSA?

I would first make sense of that by trying to flip the burden of proof. I think that wherever you start, the burden of proof will probably end up dictating where you come out on it. A lot of folks look at state differentials and think to themselves, “Wow, some states are with it, some states aren’t. The states that aren’t obviously need something more, some push, to get better.” And that’s a reasonable conclusion if that’s where you start.

But if where you start is, education is something that occurs in a classroom between a teacher and students, in a community, in a state, how the heck do we think that some people in the Department of Education are writing a regulation that will then get passed down from them to the SEA [state education authority], the SEA to the district administrator, district administrator to the principal, principal to the teacher. How can you think that’s going to help kids? So that’s where you start, and that’s also where you come out.

Do you think there’s a significant enough trigger mechanism in the law to push improvement in worse states? That’s one thing Mike Casserly [executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools] talked about in the book when he was discussing cities.

In a way it’s kind of like staring at a blank Rorschach test. The flip side to that is that we also ended the Obama administration with a $7 billion SIG program that did apparently absolutely nothing. On the one hand, I’m totally sympathetic to how folks ... could look at this and say, “We don’t really see clear triggers for substantive interventions that are based on evidence that we think will work,” but the flip side to that is, I don’t think we’ve seen any evidence as to what works, but we have seen evidence that federally prescribed remedies of the kind you’re wishing were more prevalent in this law don’t work.

It’s an almost faith-based question as to whether or not you think that things can be wound up, give a little prod, and let schools and districts sort it out amongst themselves, versus give them something to do and help them run that script. Which do you think will be better? I don’t know that there’s an honest data-driven case either way to wait on that. Which is why I think it’s almost more of a question of a case of fundamental political priors than it is a case of looking through the data and trying to sort through to the optimization point.

Congress is moving to revoke Obama accountability guidelines in ESSA. [This has since occurred.] Where does that leave states filing their ESSA plans, and what’s your take on the readiness of USDOE to implement ESSA?

It’s really not clear to me exactly where the accountability regulations being revoked leaves us, insofar as it’s not clear to me that it’s a substantive rather than symbolic measure. Which is to say that everything that the Obama administration had written won’t blink out of existence for having been revoked. It will still be available to states to inform their process and already has informed their process. They have the flexibility to go buy it or not go buy it at their discretion.

…[So] I’m not sure it’s not substantive rather than symbolic [in] that it still exists for states that want to use them.

And then the second reason why I’m not sure it’s substantive and not symbolic is that if the Trump administration implements ESSA the way that I think they’re broadly expected to, it’s not clear that they would have needed to have had those accountability guidelines revoked before processing state applications, because it’s not clear they will take a heavy hand in state applications anyway.

The theory behind ESSA as I think they see it, certainly out of the 10th Amendment mind that people see it, is that we’re going to give some very basic guidelines and then, just so long as you don’t run directly afoul of them, you’ll do your thing and we’ll approve it. That implementation could have occurred regardless of whether the accountability regulations were revoked, and now that they have been revoked, I don’t know that if particularly affects the Trump administration’s implementation of ESSA in general.

How would you articulate to an average parent why this whole debate matters to them?

I want to be careful because I don’t want to sound like the caricature version of this argument, but probably the simplest way to put it is that it kind of comes down to what I think the Common Core debate was all about. Which was, to my reading of it, smart people got together in a room, said we have this idea, it should be everywhere, we should encourage schools to implement it because it’ll be good, it’s a good idea. We will make sure that schools do good things.

When the rubber hit the road, a lot of teachers turned around, a lot of parents turned around, and the parents said, “Wait a second, we don’t know this math.” And the teachers said, ‘“We don’t remember agreeing to change our instruction in this way, and wait, wait, why? This doesn’t makes sense to us, maybe it’s a good idea and maybe it’s not, but we didn’t agree to it.” And in a way I think ESSA is a victory against the impulse behind the Common Core. It’s telling parents that in general when it comes to the less nuanced things, the operations in schools and systems that you might not have a direct window into, that there might not necessarily be news stories or blogs about, generally the theory of action is shifting further from “There are smart people who are trying to encourage schools to adopt good ideas” and more toward “We trust schools, teachers, district administrators, states to figure out themselves.” Whatever ideas they come with, they’ll buy into it more readily and more fully. Even if they’re not necessarily “the better ideas,” they’ll probably be net better for your kids.