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Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Point/Counterpoint on the Every Student Succeeds Act: N.Y. Times Yea, Washington Post, Nay

From The New York Times

Why the New Education Law Is Good for Children Left Behind

By David L. Kirp
December 10, 2015

"Good riddance to a misbegotten law. Will its replacement be any better?"

The No Child Left Behind law will soon be consigned to the dustbin of history. With a rare display of bipartisanship, Congress has overhauled federal education policy. The law’s successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act, is headed for the president’s desk, and he has signaled his intention to sign it.

No Child Left Behind, on the books since 2002, was supposed to close achievement gaps for disadvantaged students (racial and ethnic minorities, low-income students, youngsters with special needs and English learners), and to eliminate what President George W. Bush decried as “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”

The goal was audacious — by 2014, the law decreed, 100 percent of students would perform at grade level.

Instead, things have gotten worse by almost every measure. SAT scores have declined, as have the scores of American students, compared with their counterparts in other nations, on the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) exam. The rate of progress on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the nation’s report card, was actually higher, both over all and for specific demographic groups, during the decade before No Child Left Behind than after it was passed.

At the same time, the law’s aspiration morphed into a high-stakes target for accountability — not for the politicians, with their unachievable demands, but for school officials who were given an impossible burden of meeting annual testing goals. Under the law, schools that didn’t make “adequate yearly progress” faced ever more draconian sanctions, including wholesale reorganization and closings.

As a result, public schools have turned into pressure cookers. Teachers are pushed to improve test results. A vanishingly small amount of time is spent on art, music and sports, because they aren’t part of the testing regime. Students have become test-taking robots, sitting through as many as 20 standardized exams a year.

The Obama administration initially acted as if the miracle of 2014, with every student proficient in math and reading, would come to pass. But in 2012, when it became clear that the achievement gap wasn’t about to vanish, the Department of Education started giving waivers to states that wanted to devise their own definition of adequate yearly progress.

While almost every state has gotten an official permission slip, federal bureaucrats retained the final word on whether a state’s plan would pass muster, and those waivers were conditioned on commitments to adopt administration-approved education reforms.

In effect, the department has been relying on waivers to rewrite No Child Left Behind.

The Every Student Succeeds Act shifts, for the first time since the Reagan years, the balance of power in education away from Washington and back to the states. That’s a welcome about-face.

No longer can the Department of Education deploy the power of the purse, as it did with “Race to the Top” challenge grants, to prod states into adopting dubious policies like using students’ standardized test scores to judge teachers or expanding the number of charter schools. Now those decisions are left to the states.

The dread “adequate yearly progress” requirement is gone, as are the escalating series of consequences inflicted on school districts that don’t measure up. States must intervene to help the weakest 5 percent of all schools, high schools that graduate fewer than 67 percent of their students on time (the national norm exceeds 80 percent) and schools where a subgroup of students “consistently underperforms.”

But the states, not Washington, determine how to turn things around. That’s accountability with a needed dollop of flexibility.

While states are still required to test students annually in reading and math from third to eighth grade, and at least once in high school, they have a freer hand in designing those tests. What’s more, those standardized tests count for less in evaluating schools.

At least one other measure of academic improvement, like graduation rates and, for nonnative speakers, proficiency in English, must be included. And a student performance measure, like grit or school climate, has to be part of the evaluation equation. This multipronged approach should make it easier for educators to replace some drill-and-kill memorization with more hands-on learning and critical thinking.

Civil rights groups have been tepid in their support for the legislation because they fear that some states will revert to the neglect of minority students that drove Congress to pass No Child Left Behind. They have history on their side: “Leave it to the states” was disastrous for minority students. Will this time be different?

The new law maintains the old requirement that test scores be made public and that those results be disaggregated. As a result, we’ll know where the most vulnerable students are. There will be still be fights over accountability, but those will be at the state level, and advocates will need to keep up the pressure for equity.

Hope springs eternal in school reform, only to be followed by disappointment. (Announcing his education bill, Lyndon B. Johnson declared his education plan the “passport from poverty.” Clearly, that didn’t work.)

Rewriting the standards of evaluation and giving states freer rein in bailing out weak schools, as this law does, is a good day’s work inside the Beltway, but it’s no guarantee that the quality of teaching and learning will change. Making those improvements will take hard work on the part of committed educators and parents. Stay tuned.

David L. Kirp is a professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, and a senior fellow at the Learning Policy Institute.

President Obama signs the ESSA into law.

From The Washington Post

New K-12 Education Law Leaves Schools Behind

By Chad Aldeman
December 11, 2015

"By the time the law is fully implemented in 2018, most schools will be free from any sort of federal pressure to improve."

After winning approval in the House and Senate, legislation ending the landmark No Child Left Behind Act was signed into law Thursday by President Obama. Although the new law enjoys broad bipartisan support, it’s important for anyone concerned about the quality of our schools to understand how radically it will diminish expectations for our nation’s public schools.

By the time the law is fully implemented in 2018, most schools will be free from any sort of federal pressure to improve.

What has changed is the federal government’s answer to one fundamental question: Do all schools need to improve, or just the worst ones?

The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), signed into law in 2002, was by no means perfect, but it sent a clear message: All schools, and all students, had room to improve. The law held every school accountable for meeting objective standards for performance, and no matter how many schools failed to meet that standard, they all were told that they needed to take action.

Over time, as expectations rose, so too did the number of schools failing to meet them. At the law’s peak, more than 19,000 schools — about two-fifths of schools receiving federal funds and one-fifth of all public schools nationally — were placed on lists of schools “in need of improvement” and subject to consequences built into the law.

In some ways, NCLB’s theory of action worked. Schools responded to the increased pressure with additional attention on low-performing students and more instructional time in math and reading. That’s exactly what was supposed to happen.

What the authors didn’t anticipate, however, was the political blowback from this pressure. If anything, the law worked too well, ratcheting up the number of schools identified for improvement and the consequences those schools faced.

As the law aged and those consequences rose, it became less and less politically acceptable to tell so many schools to improve, let alone expect states or districts to have the technical capacity to help them do it.

When Obama took office, he began advocating for a different way to identify schools. Rather than the criteria-based system of NCLB — where standards were set in advance and any school could theoretically fail them — the president called for a system focused on a predefined group of schools that was smaller and, theoretically, more manageable.

Under his 2010 “blueprint” for reauthorizing the federal law, Obama proposed an accountability system that focused on the worst 5 percent of schools, along with an additional 10 percent of schools with large achievement gaps. Although Congress failed to take up that blueprint, Obama himself implemented this approach through large-scale waivers of NCLB that began in 2012. (I served as an adviser to the Education Department and worked on the waiver initiative from 2011 to 2012.)

The number of schools told that they needed to improve began dropping immediately, from a high of 19,270 after the 2011-12 school year to 16,548 in the first year of Obama’s waivers. As a few more states collected waivers and moved to their own relative ranking systems, the numbers dropped again to 15,536 in 2013-14.

Policymakers still think this number is too high. Under the new law, states will have to identify only the absolute bottom 5 percent of schools, and since that rule applies only to a subset of public schools that accept federal funds, we’ll be down to identifying just 2,750 schools. From NCLB’s peak, states will let about 17,000 schools off the hook for meaningful improvement.

To be clear, there is no “right” number here. And there’s an inherent tension between how many schools are identified for improvement and how much can be done to help them improve. But the problems in our education system are not isolated to just the worst of the worst schools. Low-performing and mediocre schools are spread across all kinds of communities.

Ironically, while Democrats are often considered to favor strong federal rules and Republicans local control, those roles are reversed here. It will be the Republican George W. Bush administration that put in place the large increase in federally mandated school accountability, and the Democratic Obama administration that ends it.

Perhaps worst of all, a strategy focused on fixing the toughest problems hinges on the desire and ability to actually do something about poor performance. 

The Obama administration, to its credit, did allocate significant resources to chronically low-performing schools through its School Improvement Grants program. And in exchange, it required tough and aggressive interventions in those schools. Although the results of those efforts are still uncertain, they represent a real attempt to shake up persistently poor-performing schools.

The new law will do nothing of the sort. The tough interventions envisioned under the original Obama proposal were attacked as too draconian and inflexible, so the new law will let each district with a low-performing school — remember, these are the low-functioning districts that let the school flounder in the first place — decide what’s best for them.

There are no consequences for inaction, and local leaders who do want to make aggressive interventions will get no political cover from Washington. After shaming the worst of the worst schools, we’ll pretty much leave them on their own.

This new theory of action relies on, well, not much action at all. Few schools will be told they need to improve, and those few won’t receive the support they need. It appears our political system simply couldn’t tolerate anything stronger.

Chad Aldeman is an associate partner at Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit education consulting and research group.

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