"Buying reform" is the time-honored practice of sugarcoating tough reforms with money. Of course, horse trading is routine practice in politics, and
education policy is not exempt -- New York State legislators once gave themselves a pay raise in order to increase the cap on charters -- but more than
that, "buying reform" means throwing enough money at a problem so that opponents can't credibly argue against the reforms that come with it. Through
his Goals 2000 program, Clinton (in whose administration I served) tied a big infusion of federal dollars to his medicine on standards. Bush lashed his
tough accountability requirements to a record spending increase on the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
The problem is that in general the new funding -- and often the new requirements that come with it -- are layered on top of what's already there. Hard
decisions are taken off the table because the political math is about addition. In other words, more money means policy changes tend to be additive and
not transformative. Zero-based budgets, meaningful fiscal and performance audits, and other tools to address duplicative spending are still rare in
education. The result is the current Byzantine system of programs and rules that characterize education policy -- the 82 separate federal programs to
improve teacher quality recently documented by the Government Accountability Office -- and a continuing lack of strategic ability to make hard decisions
at any level of education policymaking.
Schools lack for an adequate way to measure teacher performance. "Last In, First Out" (LIFO) layoff policies make no sense for organizations that are supposed to focus on performance and outcomes and that should be
focused foremost on the quality of the instruction students are receiving. Yet despite their prevalence in states and school districts nationwide,
these policies had mostly gone unnoticed and unused in education, because mass teacher layoffs were so rare. But now that state and local budget
constraints have made teacher layoffs a real issue, there is a concerted push from both within and outside the education establishment to allow schools
to consider factors such as -- gasp -- job performance in deciding who stays or goes. The problem is that, for the most part, agreed-upon, high-quality
tools to differentiate teacher performance don't exist. Without the need to thin the ranks -- or, until recently, a general focus on teacher
accountability -- there was little pressure to develop them. And so LIFO policies fill the void.
It's clear we need better evaluation tools -- for when future layoff decisions need to be made, for sure, but also to determine generally which teachers
are getting the job done. That said, it's still an open question as to whether a real emphasis on accountability for results can be sustained
politically over time.