Growing political resistance on the far right and far left, in addition to unrealistically fast implementation timelines, have contributed to the lackluster adoption of the assessments provided by PARCC and SBAC. But another (rarely discussed) reason stems from the shortcomings of competitive grant programs like Race to the Top as a policy tool: The legislation only provided temporary encouragement for states to adopt the same policies when the federal government should have taken a stronger stance on regulation curricula and assessments.
If states had similarly fragmented approaches to regulate another domestic policy area like transportation, the federal government would typically act to force the adoption of a uniform policy. In education, this isn’t possible because the same system that creates local variation in policy is the same one that restricts the federal government. This leaves Congress and the President with few policy options.
Increasingly the Obama administration has turned to competitive grant programs as its primary policy mechanism to help overcome this barrier, but this strategy can only achieve moderate success in the long term. States will pull out of reform efforts if local politics go sour — or the moment there is potential political gain from adopting a locally tailored reform effort. Because support for a stronger policy mechanism is weak, this will continue to stymie both good and bad reforms alike.
Josh Bleiberg is a research analyst in the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution. Reach him via email or Twitter.