The Fatal Conceit & ESSA

“The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design” - F.A. Hayek, The Fatal Conceit

The ink on the recently released Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is barely dry, but progressive ed reformers are already panning the proposed successor to the defunct No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Conor Williams argues that not only should Obama veto the NCLB rewrite, progressives should fear it.1 His case for progressive opposition to ESSA boils down to this:

“If this were a debate over clean water protections, voting rights protections, or most other policy issues, progressives would line up to yell about how states can’t be trusted to do the right thing without strong federal oversight.”

This begs the question: what is “the right thing” for states to do? Is there even one “right thing” that can apply to all states? Reading Williams’ argument, I kept hearing the Hayek quote above in my head.2 I’m not as confident that we know enough to design the accountability system he imagines.

Two weeks ago, Mike Petrilli wrote about the ed reform movement’s need for more humility:

“We know what works, we just need the political will to do it”: That’s the foundational creed of today’s reform movement. But what if the truth is closer to “We are just beginning to learn what works to help poor kids escape poverty, but we still don’t know how to do it at scale”?

I couldn’t agree more. As a movement, we’ve made some significant progress in figuring out “what works”, but what we have learned is dwarfed by what we need to know in order to provide all students with a quality education. This means that we not only need to invest more in research (see Jay Greene’s writing for more on that), but we should also encourage and evaluate new approaches. ESSA would give states a great opportunity to expand our understanding of “what works”.

Right now, it looks as if ESSA is likely to pass and that most of the education policy action will (rightfully) be at the state level. Instead of giving in to the “fatal conceit” Hayek describes, I hope that both progressive and conservative reformers embrace the opportunity to adopt accountability systems that will challenge and improve the status quo in ways that acknowledge the current limits of our policy tools.

  1. Williams also argues that conservatives should oppose ESSA because it replaces relatively simple and clear federal accountability measures with more latitude for states to design their own systems. For conservatives, that is a feature, not a bug, for conservatives. 

  2. If you’re at all interested in Hayek, I hope you’ve seen one of my favorite YouTube videos, the Keynes v. Hayek rap battle