Reviewed by Kevin R. Kosar
This website is devoted to the history of federal education policy. Manna’s study of the No Child Left Behind Act is not a history of the law. Those wanting a sense of the political wrangling that produced NCLB ought to look here. So why bother to mention this book on this website?
Simple—Manna’s book instead focuses on the administration of education policy—a critical and often over-looked part of federal education policy.
Put generally, policy-making and policy analysis are highly regarded in the U.S. Plenty of universities have well-funded, high profile policy schools that funnel wonks into government. Politicians, meanwhile, may seize the mantle of statesman or law-maker (Solon!) by crafting sweeping legislation.
Public administration, meanwhile, gets far less attention. Which is a pity, because this is where governance meets reality. Public administration is the study of making government and policy work. A great problem with policy analysts and policymakers is their distance—their daily lives are not spent in close contact with the problems and the the public servants who must contend with them. As a result, the policies they advocate and enact often lack nuance and have to be triaged during the rulemaking and implementation process. (Would that more wonks and policymakers read Michael Lipsky’s classic public administration study, Street-Level Bureaucracy, before trying to work their magic.)
In Collision Course, Manna, a professor at William & Mary, has judiciously considered the evidence to date on NCLB and its implications. The reader of this book will come away with a greater appreciation of the challenge of education reform.
Fixing schools and improving learning is an inherently difficult task, and trying to do it in a federal system is fantastically complex. There are basic principal-agent issues, and as Manna shows, the diversity of local realities has made the implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act extremely challenging. To take a simple example—NCLB including provisions requiring districts to offer public school choice to students in schools that failed to make test score benchmarks. How was this policy supposed to work in urban areas with dense pockets of under-performing schools, or in remote rural areas where there were no other schools nearby? More broadly, NCLB, like so many other policies, took little account of either the federal or the state and local agencies competencies to implement the law’s requirements. Indeed, Secretary Arne Duncan’s recent move to issue waivers from NCLB’s requirements are indicative of the difficulties states and localities have of implementing the law.
Manna’s big take-away is that:
NCLB created positive momentum and inspiring results in some states and local communities … [but] overall its theories of action were fundamentally in conflict with the institutional landscape on which American schooling operates. That conflict prevented NCLB from realizing the grandest ambitions of its authors and from avoiding problems that plagued prior ESEA reauthorizations.
To further help policymakers move forward, Manna also identifies five big things that the feds tend to do well in education policy. Washington is good at:
- Focusing public attention on school problems;
- Providing money to needy schools;
- Creating incentives to change school-level behavior;
- Gathering and publishing useful data and information on education; and
- Creating conditions that help state and local education reformers succeed.
These lessons are broad, but they would provide a sensible basis for discussing how to improve NCLB’s centerpiece, Title I, and maybe the entire federal role in schooling.
Understanding what went wrong with the NCLB can help us both better understand what went wrong with previous federal education policies and how to avoid repeating these mistakes in the future. And this makes Collision Course essential reading for federal education policy wonks, policymakers, and historians.