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Congressional Fellow Report

The Politics of Unrealistic Expectations and the Rhetoric of Accountability

by Joyce Iutcovich, Congressional Fellow

In conversation with a friend the other day, I was asked about what I considered to be the most disappointing aspect of my Congressional Fellowship experience. Recognizing the value of that question, I would be remiss if I did not provide some reflection on this in my last column.

My previous columns have all touched upon the relevance of science in the development of social policy and my “words of caution” regarding its use—particularly as it relates to the selective use of science by policymakers, the role of values and interests in public policy, and the extent to which science is unable to provide us with all the answers. Given these circumstances, public policy comes about through a negotiation between various sides in a debate (and the negotiating power in such situations may or may not be relatively balanced). All in all, I would say this is a good process, which allows multiple voices to be heard and some compromise to be reached.

However, one aspect of the policymaking process that seems problematic to me is when evidence and reality are completely ignored and unrealistic expectations are put into law, with agencies being held accountable, not only for the implementation of a policy, but as well, for the expected outcomes (and if outcomes are not achieved, sanctions are imposed).

As an applied social scientist whose career has been in conducting evaluations and measuring outcomes, the importance of designing and implementing programs that work—and engaging in systematic analysis of programmatic efforts—is something that I have always supported. But in my work, I have cautioned program developers not to establish goals that are impossible to achieve (since success will be measured with respect to these goals). Further, I have cautioned funding agencies about trying to hold agencies accountable for aspects of programmatic efforts over which the agencies have no control.

Indeed, there is an enormous fallacy operating out there that assumes if policymakers set high standards and hold agencies accountable, then they have “done their duty.” Hence, blame for unfulfilled promises can be placed into the laps of the implementing agencies that have failed to achieve their mission.

As a case in point, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which was passed by Congress and signed into law in December 2001, was hailed by both Republicans and Democrats, as well as President Bush, as a landmark piece of legislation—duly dubbed as the “No Child Left Behind” Act. Not only did this legislation set the standard that all children will be “ready for school” by the time they enter first grade, it also required that school districts hire only “highly qualified teachers” beginning in 2003 and that all teachers shall be “highly qualified” by 2007. How could anyone disagree with the value of educating children and making sure that no child is left behind? I’m beginning to feel as though I’m living in the land of Lake Wobegon, where everyone is above average.

In discussing the standard that all teachers must be highly qualified, the Senate education staffers currently working on the reauthorization of a companion education law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), are faced with a conundrum. Recognizing the difficulty of having all general education teachers “highly qualified” by 2007, the staff responsible for drafting the changes in IDEA are reluctant to incorporate a similar standard, since it is virtually impossible to achieve. Not only is there a severe shortage in special education teachers today, the capacity of colleges and universities to train these teachers is limited because of a corresponding shortage of faculty at these institutions.

Given these problems with capacity building (which does not even address the quality of the teachers), it would seem foolish to repeat in IDEA what is a bad policy in ESEA. However, in discussions about what to do with teacher standards in the reauthorization of IDEA, staff have pointed out that it would be political suicide not to have the same high standard for special education teachers as exists for the general education teachers. IDEA, as a civil rights statute, requires that local education agencies provide a free appropriate public education for children with disabilities—something long denied them prior to the 1970s. To say now that it is not as important for children with disabilities as compared to other children, to have highly qualified teachers would be politically incorrect and it would become a “lighting rod” issue among the disability groups. To further complicate matters, the accountability piece in IDEA has much stronger teeth and sanctions are more likely than under ESEA. Although recent reports on IDEA enforcement have revealed that a substantial percentage of states are out of compliance with the law, none have lost their federal dollars, which is a sanction that can be imposed for repeated noncompliance.

No doubt I have not been able to present the full complexity of this issue. But suffice it to say, my disappointment is with regard to the legislation of unrealistic expectations (when legislators know the standards cannot be achieved). The end result is a subsequent undermining of the accountability process (when enforcement is weakened and therefore ineffective in improving program performance).

Although this final reflection on Capitol Hill has been critical, I have to say that my experience as a Congressional Fellow, overall, has been positive and well worth the time I have devoted to this effort. It has given me the opportunity to learn about the legislative process, both the ideal and the real. It allowed me to have a closer examination of the connection between science, policy, and practice. Finally, it has rejuvenated my desire to carry out applied social science and to work with policymakers in their effort to develop and improve social policy.