An Interview with Jamie Gass: Those Pesky Little Things Called Laws

Mar 28, 2012 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

Jamie Gass is Pioneer’s Director of the Center for School Reform. He has two decades of experience in public administration and education reform on both the state and municipal levels. Between 2002 and 2005, Jamie worked at the Massachusetts Office of Educational Quality and Accountability (EQA). As Senior Policy Analyst-Technical Writer with the EQA, he oversaw the writing and editing of 80 school district review reports. From 1991 to 1996, he worked for the Dean of the Boston University School of Education/Boston University Management Team in its partnership with the Chelsea Public Schools. Jamie earned a Bachelor of Arts in International Relations from Boston University. He has appeared on WBZ’s Nightside with Dan Rea, WRKO’s Tom & Todd Show, WBZ’s Keller at Large, WGBH’s Callie Crossley Show, and WBUR. He has been quoted in The Economist, Education Week, and The Boston Globe, and his op-eds are regularly published in The Boston Globe, Worcester Telegram & Gazette, The Boston Herald, The Lowell Sun, The MetroWest Daily News, The Providence Journal, and other regional newspapers. He speaks on school choice, academic standards, and school district accountability at events throughout Massachusetts.

In this interview, he responds to some contemporary questions about current issues and concerns.

  1. Jamie, first of all, tell us about you, your organization and what you are trying to accomplish?

I’ve worked in and around K-12 education policy in Massachusetts for approximately 20 years. That is, working for the Boston University management team that ran the Chelsea, MA public schools; for the state’s independent school district accountability agency; as well as for several of the former members of the state Board of Education who oversaw the development of academic standards and assessments that are a national model. Having viewed Massachusetts’ historic ed reform efforts from the school district and state levels, I’ve seen first-hand that public education reform is very much possible and can work, but it requires good laws coupled with far-sighted leadership at the state, district, and school levels.

As is our practice, Pioneer is trying to use high quality, independent, and fact-based research to inform and drive state and national policy debates about national education standards and testing. We increasingly view the push for national standards as an illegal, costly, and academically weak effort by D.C. trade groups, the Gates Foundation, and the US DOE to impose a one-size-fits-all set of workforce development standards and tests on the country. The Common Core movement clearly operates outside the country’s legal and constitutional framework. Finally, national standards ignore the basic lessons of state law and policymaking that were the basis for the Massachusetts’ historic 1993 education reform law, nation-leading state academic standards and assessments, and the unprecedented gains on NAEP, SAT, ACT, TIMSS and PISA testing.

2) Now, there was a recent column by George Will who seems to think that the U.S. is ignoring these “pesky things called laws”. Briefly summarize what he had to say

Mr. Will wrote what I think is an excellent column based on Pioneer’s research, authored by former US DOE General Counsel Kent Talbert and Deputy General Counsel Robert Eitel, as well as the work of Bill Evers of the Hoover Institution, on the illegality of this push for national education standards. The Pioneer authors lay out in careful detail that three federal laws prohibit the federal government and US DOE from advancing, directing, funding, or validating the development of national standards, tests, or curriculum materials. And yet, via RTTT, conditional NCLB waivers, and funding two national testing consortia, this is precisely what the US DOE officials have been doing for several years now.

3) It seems that the U.S., let me say it, is SUBSIDIZING UNESCO—in spite of our tremendous deficit- how can this be happening? What are these people in D.C. thinking?

It’s a very troubling development in our democracy, but especially in K-12 education, which is supposed to teach our schoolchildren about the basic tenants of the rule of law. When unelected DC education trade groups and private foundations are willing to work with federal officials to either violate or circumvent federal laws, something has gone seriously wrong. These laws that proscribe the limits of national standards, testing, and curricula are not just a list of recommendations, but clear and longstanding prohibitions. Interestingly, in addition to national standards proponents having blasé attitudes toward federal laws, within this whole national standards efforts none of the major players – the US DOE, Gates, NGA, CCSSO, Achieve, Fordham, or the Hunt Institute – can cite even one state where their work has improved student achievement in the last 20 years. And, tellingly, even though states and local governments will be expected to pay for 90 percent of the cost of national standards and tests, none of the CCSSI proponents have even bothered to provide a projected cost for this massive project.

4) NCLB has been around for a while, but it seems that there are exceptions—IF ONLY states comply with Obama’s criteria. Is this legal?

NCLB had its virtues and vices, though as I mentioned above, federal education policy had little to do with Massachusetts’ successes. Truth be told, the Bay State was so far ahead of NCLB-style reforms, which only began in 2001-2, that people here seemed to largely game it while using state generated academic standards, assessments, teacher testing, charter schools, and district accountability to drive actual reforms. So, as states were always seeking a way out of NCLB, the reality is that many had been ignoring or gaming it for years. In its own way, national standards are a continuation of the lawlessness that seemed to proliferate in states under NCLB. Previous US education secretaries were permitted to and have granted federal waivers, but my understanding is that they cannot attach conditions that have not been approved by Congress to those waivers. And the US education secretary certainly cannot exempt the US DOE from either constitutional or legal restraints on that agency. I’m not an attorney, but I think even middle and high school-aged students know that in our democracy and under the rule of law, the executive branch cannot unilaterally create law and that all public officials—state and federal—are duty bound to obey federal laws. This is American government 101.

5) I know Williamson Evers to be a person of integrity. What has he recently said about this quagmire and morass?

Whether it’s done by Sandra Stotsky, Ze’ev Wurman, Jim Milgram, Ted Rebarber, Kent Talbert, Bob Eitel, or Bill Evers, Pioneer has been very pleased with the quality, rigor, and independence of the research we’ve published on national standards. It’s been an honor working with these scholars, experts, and other key partners on the academic quality, legality, and cost of CCSSI. The reality is we’ve done more work on this topic than any other research organization in the country. In terms of the key elements we’ve examined, specifically the huge loss of classic American literature and slower progression towards the gateway course of algebra I, CCSSI is clearly an academic step backward for Massachusetts. In short, the academic quality of CCSSI in both ELA and math is mediocre, the federal overreach profound, the adoption process deplorable and illegal, and I think the cost will prove to be prohibitive for states and schools. Sadly, I think states and districts are only just beginning to wake up to the fact that national standards and tests will lead to “NCLB on steroids.”

6) You and I know that once the money is spent, and once the laws are on the books, it is difficult to change things. Is Obama thinking to make these changes before he is defeated in the next election?

I think that the proponents of CCSSI, whether in the US DOE, Gates or the D.C. trade groups, have proceeded in a very cynical and dishonest way. The operative motto of CCSSI seems to have been “catch us if you can.” That is, given the efforts to obscure the costs, bypass state legislatures, the literally more than $100 million in Gates money given to trade groups and state decision makers, the efforts to circumvent federal and state laws via privately unaccountable trade organizations, and the general lack of public transparency, this is certainly a road map for how not to conduct democratic policymaking. In 20 years of education reform I’ve seen many policy decisions that I think put the interests of adults before students and were an abuse of the public trust, but they are miniscule compared to this illegal push for nationalized standards, tests, and curricula.

7) This is a perennial question that I ask Neal McCluskey, Rick Hess, and a variety of other people- but where the heck in the Constitution does it allow the Federal government to get involved in education?

The Framers wisely understood and that K-12 education is a local and state prerogative under our U.S. Constitution, which is why state constitutions like Massachusetts and Virginia are specific about education and the federal constitution is virtually silent on the topic. In fact, from the Framers to Lincoln to Theodore Roosevelt to FDR, JFK, and Reagan, there isn’t a major American political figure of any note who thought the federal government had much, if any, real role to play in K-12 education. Clearly, a constitutional amendment would be required to secure the kind of national powers that the advocates of national standards and tests would like to see. Frankly, I doubt very much that the proponents of national standards, tests, and curricula, have more wisdom than the Framers did about the limited nature and appropriate role of the power and authority of the federal government regarding K-12 education.

8) What have I neglected to ask?

This has been great. Thank you so much for the opportunity to share my ideas with you and your readers.

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