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What Uncle Sam can (and cannot) do to improve K-12 schooling: Lessons for the next four years

By Frederick M. Hess, Andrew P. Kelly

(From American Enterprise Institute, January 31, 2013)

During his first term, President Barack Obama has, with the help of his Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, pushed many aggressive reforms to improve K-12 education in the United States. Programs such as the $4.35 billion Race to the Top competition have been widely praised even by conservatives who are otherwise critical of the Obama administration. As Obama and Duncan prepare for a second term, it is worth examining what the federal government can and cannot do to reform America’s system of education. Washington has been particularly effective in ensuring constitutional protections are upheld in education, connecting education reforms to national priorities, giving states and districts incentives for implementing policy changes, and collecting and reporting data related to school reforms. However, because decisions directly affecting individual schools are made at the state and local levels, Washington bureaucrats have largely failed at enforcing mandates and fixing poorly performing schools. The new Obama administration would do well to embrace a more measured approach to education reform that reflects lessons learned from past successes and failures.

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