Accountability light and lighter

Sen. Tom Harkin and the Democrats have proposed a new version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (aka No Child Left Behind). So have Sen. Lamar Alexander the the Republicans. Both “move away from the strong federal accountability system at the center of the much-maligned NCLB law, but to different degrees,” reports Ed Week.

The Harkin bill would require states to create accountability systems that essentially build on the administration’s waivers (which are in place in 37 states plus D.C. so far), meaning that states would have to set goals for student achievement and come up with some sort of system to help turn around the schools that are struggling the most. The Alexander bill, on the other hand, would continue to require states to test in grades 3-8 and once in high school, but the senator is counting on transparency to be the main lever for school improvement. And under the Harkin bill, schools would be on the hook for helping the bottom five percent turn around—plus fixing another 10 percent of schools with big achievement gaps. There’s nothing like that in the Alexander bill . . .

Harkin wants teachers to be evaluated based on student achievement with the results used to ensure that low-performing schools get an “equitable” share of high-quality teachers. The Alexander bill eliminates the provision on “highly qualified” teachers and leaves teacher evaluation to the states.

The House Republicans don’t agree: Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House Education committee, wants to mandate teacher evaluation. He introduced his ESEA reauthorization bill today.

Alexander also would let “federal Title I dollars follow a child to any public school they want, but not to a private school or for outside options like tutoring,” writes Klein. And the Alexander bill specifically forbids the U.S. Secretary of Education from requiring districts to adopt certain tests, standards, or accountability systems.

Harkin claims to be ending federal “micromanaging” of schools and offering states “flexibility.”

That’s laughable, writes Mike Petrilli on Fordham’s Flypaper blog.  He lists 40 policy questions that Harkin’s bill decides, ranging from “equitable distribution of quality teachers” to collaboration time for teachers in low-performing schools.

School report cards must include  (“detailed data on the number of pregnant or parenting students and their outcomes,” data on “school violence, bullying, drug abuse, alcohol abuse, in-school student suspensions, out-of-school student suspensions, expulsions, referrals to law enforcement, school-based arrests, disciplinary transfers (including placements in alternative schools), and student detentions” for each subgroup, etc.)

Fordham favors “reform realism” about the limits of federal power. On Dropout Nation, RiShawn Biddle calls that “mushy.” He thinks both bills are “lackluster.” But, at least, Harkin is trying to hold schools accountable.

States would still have to provide data on how districts and schools are helping poor and minority children, keeping one of the most successful aspects of No Child’s accountability provisions. States would also have to provide families with an “equity report card” complete with data on how well districts are doing in providing comprehensive college preparatory courses – including Advanced Placement classes – to all kids; this would make data easily accessible to families so they can make smarter decisions and be lead decision-makers in education.

But Harkin repeats the Obama administration’s error of focusing on the worst-performing schools and letting the rest off the hook, Biddle writes.

Neither bill will pass, nor will there be “anything even resembling a compromise, anytime ever until there are new folks in Congress (and maybe a new president),” writes Alyson Klein. That means rule by waivers will continue.

Let’s make a deal

Now that everyone’s cards are on the table, let’s make a deal on reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (aka No Child Left Behind), writes Mike Petrilli on Gadfly.

Democrats across and beyond the nation’s capital—in the Administration on Capitol Hill in advocacy groups and in think tanks are up in arms about the ESEA reauthorization proposals released by House GOP leaders on Friday. Or at least they are pretending to be. While they contained a few surprises, the House bills were pretty much as one would expect: significantly to the right of both the Senate Harkin-Enzi bill and the package put forward by Republican Senator Lamar Alexander and his colleagues.

In the parlance that we’ve been using at Fordham for three years now, the House GOP embodies the views of the Local Controllers, Senator Alexander embraced Reform Realism, and Harkin-Enzi represents a mishmash of ideas from the Army of the Potomac and the System Defenders.

Petrilli suggests a path to a workable — possibly bipartisan — policy.

Harkin-Enzi advances

The bipartisan Harkin-Enzi bill to rewrite No Child Left Behind (the Elementary and Secondary Education Act) made it out of committee with all the Democrats and three Republicans on board.

Credit Arne Duncan’s waivers for motivating the senators to take action, writes Mike Petrilli on Flypaper. The Dems seem willing to vote for anything, he writes. The Republicans, notably Sen. Lamar Alexander, a former U.S. Education secretary, will have lots of clout.

“Civil rights groups and lefty reformers are getting rolled,” he concludes. Federally enforced accountability has lost political support. 

Petrilli thinks Harkin-Enzi is better than NCLB. Like Alexander Russo, I’m not so sure the states will hold schools accountable for educating all students. Duncan said the bill should include accountability, but didn’t fight for it — at least not in public — notes Russo. 

. . .  are they just hoping that this all falls apart on the Senate floor and in the House so that they can do the waiver thing?   

Meanwhile, President Obama’s plan to fund teachers’ (and public safety officers’) jobs died in the Senate when two Democrats and Independent Joe Lieberman sided with Republicans.

10 big issues for ESEA

Fordham’s ESEA Briefing Book looks at the 10 issues that must be resolved to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (also known as No Child Left Behind).

It’s party time for Jay Greene, who has a drinking game linked to frequent mentions of  “tight-loose” regulation.

Fordham frames a debate between people who want the feds to mandate something, such as standards and cut scores, and those who want federal money without mandates, Greene writes.

Fordham takes the middle ground of saying that the feds should mandate standards, cut scores, etc… or allow states to prove to a panel of experts that their alternative approach is at least as good.

The alternative is worthless, Greene argues. “The burden of proving the merit of your alternative choices would effectively compel you to comply with the mandate.” And “more committees of so-called experts” is not what we need in education.

Fordham’s false middle isn’t the only sensible alternative, Greene argues.

I support a limited role of the federal government in education to facilitate the education of students who are significantly more expensive to educate, such as disabled students, English language learners, and students from very disadvantaged backgrounds. Only the federal government can ensure this type of “redistributive” policy in education because if localities attempted to serve more expensive students they would attract those expensive students while driving away their tax base.

Fordham is big on “college and career readiness,” Greene adds. So is the Gates Foundation.

No one knows what college and career ready means. It has no clear, technical, objective definition. It is yet another political slogan substituting for an idea with actual substance, sort of like “reform realism” or “tight-loose.”

And yet this empty slogan is the entire purpose of the nationalization project on which Fordham-Gates-AFT-U.S. Dept of Ed are embarked. Only in the D.C. bubble of power-hungry analysts who provide no actual analysis could we launch a radical transformation of our education system with little more than a series of empty slogans. It’s enough to make you drink.

Kevin Kosar is blogging on Federal Education Policy History.  Check out the graph on the use of “failing school” over time.

Outcomes matter

Federal education law should move from a command-and-control system to an outcomes-based system, says Rep. George Miller at the March 1 hearing on federal education regulations.  He makes an eloquent defense of data.

I met Miller about 25 years ago, maybe more. He hasn’t changed at all. It’s Dick Clark-like.

A national curriculum?

Common Core math and English Language Arts standards aren’t rigorous enough to prepare students for college work, writes Sandra Stotsky on Jay Greene’s blog. Yet wording in the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act would force all states to use tests based on the new standards.

States should be able to pick “internationally benchmarked, research-based” tests that satisfy their high school diploma requirements, argues Stotsky, who headed the writing of Massachusetts’ standards. “They may prefer objective end-of-course tests in algebra I, geometry, algebra II, U.S. history, chemistry, physics, and biology instead of ‘performance-based’ subjective tests.”

The two federally funded consortia developing tests for Common Core are creating what amounts to a national curriculum, writes Rick Hess. That will push all schools to teach the same material at the same time to give students a chance to pass the new exams.

The American Federation of Teachers wants a “common, sequential curriculum” to match Common Core standards so teachers “are not making it up every day,” reports Ed Week’s Curriculum Matters, quoting Randi Weingarten, the union president. (More here on what the test-writing consortia are working on.)

Congress banned the use of federal funds to write a national curriculum in 1979, but the consortia argue they’re just writing “curriculum frameworks, model instructional units and such” or a “clearinghouse of curriculum resources,” not a curriculum.

Rewriting ESEA

Reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) — that is, rewriting No Child Left Behind — is on the agenda this year, notes National Journal’s Education Experts. Bipartisan agreement is possible on “fixing the accountability system, targeting interventions at the lowest-performing schools, advancing teacher evaluation and improvement systems, and restoring some flexibility to states,” according to Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa.

Bipartisanship could mean catering to the “worst instincts of both parties,” warns Sandy Kress, who was a Bush education adviser.

A bill that merely “fixes” NCLB by gutting accountability and strutting pretty words about high standards and “flexibility” for the states would be a pitiful and unworthy next step.

It’s easy to criticize NCLB, but it’s going to be difficult to improve it, writes Steve Peha of Teaching That Makes Sense.

People don’t like AYP. Fine. Come up with a better way to tell schools and the people who go to them how they’re doing. People don’t like testing. Fine. Come up with a better way—a viable, actionable, scaleable way—that we can get a read on how kids are doing in school. Same goes for teacher quality. Don’t like VAMs and being held accountable for student progress under measures you don’t trust? Propose other approaches that help teachers improve, reward people for results, and increase the respect of the profession.

NCLB forced “serious discussion of serious ways to help seriously disadvantaged kids,” Peha writes. We can’t give that up.

Drop annual testing in third through eighth grade, advises Monty Neill of Fair Test.  One test in elementary, middle and high school is enough.

Local control: Is there a deal?

Republican John Kline, the likely chair of the House Education and Labor Committee, wants to restore “local control” of education. Education Secretary Arne Duncan wants to push reform through Race to the Top grants. But both Republicans and Democrats want to modify No Child Left Behind, officially the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). In its current version, 100 percent of students must reach “proficiency”  by 2014 or their schools will be considered failures. National Journal asks: Is there room for a deal?

Conservatives have tough decisions to make, write Sandy Kress.

Are we for local control so much that we support encrusted, top-heavy, expensive local bureaucracy? Are we for local control so much that we support union and bureaucracy-based decisions that prevent meaningful parental choice? Are we for local control so much that we support decisions in many districts that foster waste and ineffective spending?

Really the only “intrusion” from NCLB is to say that for all the federal dollars schools and districts receive they must be held accountable (by the locals!) for closing the achievement gap for poor kids and kids of color. The sad part of this “intrusion” is that it permits this accountability to be so much on local terms it can be to low standards.

So, is taking away even that pressure what is meant by “relief” and allowing the locals “to make their own decisions?”

Secretary Duncan’s reforms don’t have a proven record of helping vulnerable students, writes Kevin Welner, a University of Colorado education professor.  “So it just looks like Washington arbitrarily telling local communities how to run their schools.”

Expect a NCLB patch in 2011 — not a full-scale reauthorization — to avoid labeling most schools as failures, predicts Rick Hess. His long-term bet: “A bipartisan measure which renders NCLB toothless — either by making its remedy provisions voluntary or otherwise declawing AYP — will pass sometime in 2012.”

School groups are pushing for “regulatory relief,” reports Ed Week. But some think regulatory fixes “could slow the momentum for a comprehensive, bipartisan reauthorization of the ESEA.”

What now for education?

Obama’s education plans fit the new Congress, which will take a more humble approach to federal policy, predicts Chad Aldeman on The Quick and the Ed.

Obama’s Blueprint for ESEA Reauthorization admits the federal government can’t make states fix all the schools — one in three — that haven’t made  Adequate Yearly Progress under No Child Left Behind, Aldeman writes.

Instead, the Obama Blueprint asks states to really focus on repairing a smaller, more manageable number of persistently low-performing schools identified by the states themselves.

The Obama Blueprint asks for greater transparency around teacher and principal effectiveness, requires states to measure the effectiveness of teacher preparation programs, and would compel states to publicly report data on college enrollment and remediation rates by high school. None of these new data elements are paired with any stronger accountability than a “plan” to address any inequities that are revealed.

States can join the Common Core Standards Initiative or “upgrade their existing standards, working with their 4-year public university system to certify that mastery of the standards ensures that a student will not need to take remedial coursework upon admission to a postsecondary institution in the system.”

. . . the anti-testing crowd won’t like that none of the testing requirements would be repealed, civil rights groups may not like a lesser focus on important sub-groups of students in schools deemed OK overall, and the teachers unions may not like the new teacher effectiveness or public transparency elements – but all in all it holds up remarkably well for the changing political landscape.

If the Republicans were telling the truth with that Pledge to America, there will be less discretionary spending and therefore less money to buy reforms.

The National Education Association, which put $40 million into the elections, saw some allies defeated, notes Politics K-12.

. . . the NEA and other education groups, including the American Association of School Administrators and the National School Boards Association, are hoping the Department of Education provides regulatory relief from what they see as the most onerous parts of the NCLB law, possibly including the “all-or-nothing consequences” of not meeting achievement targets, which don’t differentiate between whether a school misses the mark for one subgroup of students (such as English-language learners) or all its students.

The red tide carried many GOP governors and state superintendents into office, State EdWatch reports. But not in California — now a national refuge for Democrats — where the union-backed candidate, Tom Torlakson, beat Larry Aceves, a retired superintendent.

For more on education and the elections, see National Journal.

If GOP wins, ed reform could lose

What happens to education reform, if the Republicans win control of one or both houses of Congress? The House GOP’s Pledge to America doesn’t even mention education, observe Checker Finn and Mike Petrilli on Flypaper and Gadfly. To the extent there is a national Republican policy, it favors local control and state’s rights.

In an Education Week interview, Rep. John Kline of Minnesota, who’d likely chair the education committee in a Republican House, opposed extending Race to the Top because the states don’t get to decide their own policy. Kline also said he’s watching the Common Core State Standards “very closely,” warning that if the feds get involved in “putting in a de facto national curriculum,” his “caucus will rebel.”

If the Republicans “reflexively revert to weary old themes” of state’s rights, local control and parental choice, the opportunity to reform education will be lost, Petrilli writes.

States’ rights in education today mean weak standards, shaky accountability, ed school monopolies in preparing teachers and principals, limited (and resource-starved) school choices, meaningless certification and regulation requirements, and scant freedom for those running schools to ensure that they’ll be effective.

Sure, some states are honorable (partial) exceptions to this glum litany but—honestly—not many. Without cajoling, bribing, nudging, and scolding from Washington, we suspect there would be fewer, not more. The fact is that state legislatures are where the traditional public-school establishment wields the most power and is best able — often working behind the scenes — to keep anything much from changing. (In Colorado, most of the Democratic members of the state House education committee are former teachers—and current union members.)

“The old GOP education agenda isn’t what 21st America needs,” Petrilli writes.  Fordham backs “reform realism,”  which means “tight” controls on the results we want our schools to achieve but “loose” controls on how schools, districts, and states get there.

The Obama Administration’s blueprint for ESEA reauthorization isn’t a bad summation of “reform realism” in action, and Republicans should seize much of it. Trashing “adequate yearly progress,” devolving authority back to the states when it comes to “accountability,” and killing the “highly qualified teacher” provision are all in line with Kline and company’s instincts around state and local control—and well worth doing.

But the GOP should also embrace some of its reform aspects, too, like turning more formula grants into competitive ones and promoting tenure reform.

It’s possible victorious Republicans would team up with the administration on realistic reforms, Petrilli writes. But it’s just as likely the GOP will give up on education reform in the name of local control.

Update: On Cato @ Liberty, Neal McCluskey urges Republicans to “tell Uncle Sam to butt out” of education and give control to parents.