A new education law — or more waivers?

No Child Left Behind (aka the Elementary and Secondary Education Act) expired in 2007, but Congress hasn’t come up with a rewrite. House Republican leaders have postponed a vote on their version, the Student Success Act, because some conservatives think it doesn’t go far enough to curb federal mandates.

“My district doesn’t like it. They just feel that we’re moderating No Child Left Behind. They hate No Child Left Behind,” Rep. John Fleming (R-La.) said.

In the Senate, Republican leaders hope to work with Democrats on a bipartisan bill.

Conservatives should back the Student Success Act, argues Rick Hess.

The Student Success Act (SSA) jettisons NCLB’s invasive system of federally mandated accountability and gives states the freedom to gauge school performance and decide what to do about poor-performing schools. It also puts an end to NCLB’s remarkable requirement that, as of 2014, 100 percent (!) of the nation’s students would be “proficient” in reading and math.

The SSA repeals the “highly qualified teacher” mandate, a bureaucratic paper chase whose most significant accomplishment was lending fuel to lawsuits attacking Teach For America (litigants had some success in California’s courts by arguing that TFA teachers failed to meet the “highly qualified” standard). It eliminates or consolidates 65 programs. It includes expansive new language intended to finally stop federal officials from pushing states to adopt Common Core (or any other particular set of academic standards).

The bill also boosts funding for charter schools, though it doesn’t authorize school vouchers.

Conservatives don’t like the requirement for annual testing, but “shorn of NCLB’s pie-in-the-sky accountability mandates, once-a-year tests will no longer distort schooling and infuriate parents in the way they have in recent years,” Hess argues.

President Obama has threatened to veto the bill. Education Secretary Arne Duncan attacked the provision letting federal dollars follow low-income students if they move from high-poverty to low-poverty schools. Urban school districts could lose millions of dollars, he said.

With NCLB in limbo, Duncan has used waivers to get states to adopt his education policies, notes the Washington Post.

If a Republican wins the White House in 2016, the Democrats could regret opening the door to rule by waiver, Hess writes. He imagines President-elect Rick Perry nominating Michele Bachmann as secretary of education.

Chris Wallace: Are you worried you’ll be unable to make the legislative changes that you and the President think necessary?

SecEd Nominee Bachmann: Once upon a time, that might’ve been a concern. Happily, the Obama administration provided a path for driving educational change even when you don’t have the votes. That’s why we’ve promised that, come inauguration day, we’ll be ditching the Obama administration’s requirements for waivers from No Child Left Behind and substituting our own. They’ll be drawn from the President’s plan that we’ve been calling the Freedom Blueprint.

If states want a waiver, says Bachmann, they’ll need “to institute a moment of silence in all “turnaround” schools, adopt a statewide school voucher plan for low-income students and those in failing schools, require abstinence education, restrict collective bargaining to wages and prohibit bargaining over benefits or policy, and ask states to revise their charter laws to ensure that for-profit operators are no longer discriminated against on the basis of tax status.”

It’s not looking good for reauthorization, concludes Hess.

Alyson Klein reports on the politics. “In the end, House Republicans are going to have to decide whether they want to pass a bill that — while maybe not perfect — is clearly an improvement to NCLB from their point of view; or they can do nothing and let the President and Federal government have unchecked control over education policy for the remainder of his term,” says Vic Klatt, a former aide to Republicans on the House education committee.

Anti-testers want to dump data, end reform

“Opt-out activists are targeting more than just the tests themselves,” writes Owen Davis in Alternet’s 7 Big Public Education Stories of 2014. “As an assistant principal in New York explained to me in October, ‘The whole school reform machine falls down without the data’.”

“Indeed, the school reform movement DOES fall down without the data,” writes Lynnell Mickelsen on Put Kids First. So why do progressives want to dump the evidence showing that children of color are failing in traditional public schools?

LA Johnson, NPR

LA Johnson, NPR

No Child Left Behind required schools to test annually in grades 3 to 8 and report the results by demographic subgroups, writes Mickelsen, who describes herself as a progressive Democrat and recovering journalist. “The resulting data showed stark, systematic gaps between white kids and children of color that couldn’t be dismissed simply by income levels.”

Schools aren’t solely to blame for the gap, she writes. But, “this is what institutional racism looks like, folks: starkly different outcomes for different groups.”

In addition, analyzing the data has shown that “different teachers consistently had very different results,” Mickelsen adds.

 This data made it harder for the teachers’ union to claim that no one could really tell who was a good teacher or not—it was all so subjective and personality-driven, which is why seniority had to be the top criteria in almost all staffing decisions, etc.

In recent years, more states have “required that teachers be evaluated in part  by the progress their students make on these exams,” she writes. “And ding, ding, ding, this is when the organized backlash against ‘high-stakes,’ ‘high-stress’ testing seems to truly have started.”

When the sole responsibility for test outcomes was on the children, there was little to no organized test resistance. But as soon as some of the responsibility shifted to the adults, oh my God!  Let the weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth begin. Oh, the inhumanity! Oh, the stress of “high-stakes”! Oh, the loss of childhood! Oh, the corporate conspiracy of Pearson! And so forth.

I’m not entirely unsympathetic to the anti-test movement. Some districts test too much. Endless rote test prep is dumb. Art, music and gym are all crucial and belong in the curriculum.

But the organized movement to dump standardized testing and replace it with projects or individual teacher’s tests, also strikes me as blatant attempt to dump the evidence.

Most opt-out parents are white, “Crunchy Mamas,” she writes. Their kids are doing fine, or so they believe. “Check your privilege, people,” she writes. “Just sayin’.”

Forget about “fixing” black kids and try fixing white liberals, Mickelsen writes in the MinnPost.

Who backs testing? Liberal reformers

Now that school testing is unpopular, its enemies see it as “conservative,” writes Rick Hess. But, liberal reformers are the most enthusiastic advocates of testing, which they see as the way to close the “achievement gap.”

“Conservative enthusiasm for testing has been tempered by an appreciation for school choice,” Hess writes. Liberals are all in.

In 2009, the Obama administration’s Race to the Top pushed states to sign on to the yet-to-be-developed Common Core tests and to promise they’d start judging teachers based on test scores. Since that time, the administration’s dubious practice of granting states “waivers” from No Child Left Behind if they agree to pay fealty to administration priorities when it comes to things such as teacher testing has continued to herd states down this path. The teacher-evaluation systems, in particular, require a spate of new tests for the three-quarters of teachers not captured by those NCLB reading and math tests.

Well-intentioned liberal reform groups such as the Education Trust, Center for American Progress, and Democrats for Education Reform have led the gap-closing charge, Hess concludes.

Why we need annual testing

Credit: Christopher King

Credit: Christopher King

The bipartisan campaign to roll back testing would “roll back progress” for students, argues Bellweather’s Chad Aldeman in the New York Times.

Improve test quality, he writes. (He thinks better tests are coming soon.) Cut back on time-wasting tests for benchmarking or teacher evaluations. But keep annual state exams to measure “how much students learn and grow over time.”

Grade-span testing — for example, testing only in fifth, eighth and 10th grade — would let many schools off the hook for the achievement of low-achieving subgroups, Aldeman writes.

A school with 10 Hispanic students in each grade would no longer be held accountable for whether those students were making sufficient progress, because the 10 fifth graders wouldn’t be enough to count as a meaningful population size.

To get a sense of how many students could become newly “invisible,” consider public elementary schools in Washington, D.C. Applying the same minimum group size currently used for entire schools to the fifth grade only, about half of the city’s 119 elementary schools with fifth graders taking math tests would not be held accountable for the progress of low-income or African-American students, because there aren’t enough of them in that grade to constitute a reliable sample size. For that same reason, less than 10 percent of schools would be responsible for Hispanic students or English language learners, and not a single elementary school would be accountable for the progress of students with disabilities.

No Child Left Behind has worked, argues Aldeman. Fourth and eighth grade achievement scores of black, Hispanic and low-income students are at an all-time  high, along with high school graduation rates.

The retreat from school accountability threatens disadvantaged students’ progress, warns the Bush Institute. Its Big Idea report defends annual statewide testing, but blames districts for overloading students with unnecessary benchmark exams.

An Atlantic story quotes Anya Kamenetz, author of The Test: Why Our Schools are Obsessed with Standardized Testing—But You Don’t Have to Be.

Citing a study of students in North Carolina that indicated 85 percent of variation in test scores could be predicted by family income, she asked, why — if income is such a strong predictor — do “we need to administer a test to define what’s happening to these children?”

Well, if we think that all low-income kids will score badly and that it’s impossible to help any of them improve, then there’s no point in testing. We don’t need to test the rich kids either. They’re predestined to succeed. Schools could spend no time on testing — or instruction. After all, family income is the thing that matters. Let the kids play!

Less testing is less effective

Congress is moving — finally — to revise No Child Left Behind, aka the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. There’s bipartisan support for rolling back the federal requirement for annual tests in grades three through eight, reports Education Week. One proposal is to require states to test only once in elementary, middle and high school.

Annual statewide testing is critical to judging school quality, write Matthew M. Chingos and Martin R. West in a Brookings paper. Annual testing shows students’ growth, making it possible to identify “the schools that contribute the least to students’ learning” and those that “perform well despite difficult circumstances.”

By contrast, testing once per grade span produces an average score that “judges schools based on the students they serve, not how well they serve them.”

Percent of Low-Income and High-Minority Schools Identified as Bottom-15%, by Measure


Duncan: Drop NCLB, but keep testing

Education Arne Duncan spoke yesterday at Seaton Elementary School in Washington, D.C.

No Child Left Behind is “tired” and “prescriptive,” said Education Secretary Arne Duncan in a speech yesterday. However, federal education law should include annual tests, Duncan said at a Washington, D.C. elementary school.

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (aka No Child Left Behind) is up for reauthorization, notes NPR. Duncan said he’d like to start over with a new bill, but retain annual testing.

In his speech, Duncan invoked famous phrases used by both President Obama and former President George W. Bush, the latter of whom introduced No Child Left Behind more than 13 years ago.

“This country can’t afford to replace ‘the fierce urgency of now’ with the soft bigotry of, ‘It’s optional,’ ” he said.

Duncan came out against “redundant” and “unnecessary” tests.

Brookings makes The Case for Annual Testing that tracks growth in student achievement, while eliminating most NCLB standards and accountability provisions.

Hill Republicans will decide what happens, writes Rick Hess in his ESEA predictions on Pundicity.  They see Duncan as “obdurate, unwilling to listen, and remarkably disinterested in what the federal government shouldn’t do or what it can’t do well.” So Sen. Lamar Alexander will work with Democratic senators, but Duncan could be out of the negotiations.

Why they cheated

Christopher Waller, the principal of Parks, was lauded in Atlanta, and became a minor celebrity of the school-reform movement.

A former math teacher at a high-poverty Atlanta middle school explains why the principal and teachers cheated in a sympathetic New Yorker profile.

Students who’d passed a competency test in fifth grade arrived at Parks Middle School with first-grade reading levels. The elementary schools were cheating, Principal Christopher Waller concluded. And his supervisors didn’t care.

Waller recruited Damany Lewis to lead a team of teachers willing to change wrong answers. He told them the school would close if it didn’t meet Superintendent Beverly Hall’s unreachable targets.

During testing week, after students had completed the day’s section, Waller distracted the testing coördinator, Alfred Kiel, by taking him out for leisurely lunches in downtown Atlanta. On their way, Waller called the reading coördinator to let her know that it was safe to enter Kiel’s office. She then paged up to six teachers and told them to report to the room. While their students were at recess, the teachers erased wrong answers and filled in the right ones. Lewis took photographs of the office with his cell phone so that he could make sure he left every object, even the pencils on Kiel’s desk, exactly as he’d found them.

As the school’s scores soared, it was lauded for its success, attributed to a “relentless focus on data.” Waller was lauded for his success.

In the spring of 2008, Parks’s scores were almost as high as those of a middle school in Inman Park, a gentrified neighborhood with yoga studios, bike paths, and million-dollar houses. Waller thought the results seemed obviously false, and he called his supervisor, Michael Pitts, to warn him.

Nothing happened. Year after year, improbable numbers were accepted as valid. Complaints were ignored.

Parks attracted so many visitors who were eager to understand the school’s turnaround that teachers had to come up with ways to explain it. At Waller’s direction, they began maintaining what they called “standard-based mastery folders,” an index of all the objectives that each student needed to grasp in order to comprehend a given lesson. Lewis, who was taking night classes at the School of Education at Clark Atlanta University, wrote his master’s thesis on the technique. “It was a wonderful system,” he said. “But we only put it in place to hide the fact that we were cheating.”

Believing the tests weren’t valid, teachers saw cheating as a “victimless crime.”

Study: Post-NCLB, teacher morale is up

The testing-and-accountability era hasn’t turned teachers into “Debbie Downers,” as Education Gadfly puts it.

Teacher job satisfaction has improved since the enactment of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2001, according to a new study. Researchers looked at surveys of 140,000 teachers taken before and after 2001.

. . . post-NCLB, teachers are more likely to perceive support from their colleagues, administrators, and parents than prior to the law. The study also found that teachers report a greater sense of “classroom control” (e.g., autonomy over curricula, textbooks, discipline, etc.), greater job satisfaction, and a stronger commitment to the profession.

Researchers compared teachers’ responses in states with accountability regimes prior to NCLB to teachers in states that implemented systems as a result of NCLB.  “The onset of accountability positively impacted teachers’ feelings of classroom control and administrator support,” but had no effect on job satisfaction or commitment.

Illinois sets lower standards for blacks, Latinos

Under a No Child Left Behind waiver, Illinois schools will set lower standards for blacks, Latinos, low-income students and other groups, reports the Chicago Tribune.

For example, while 85 percent of white third- through eighth-grade students will be expected to pass state tests by 2019, the goal is 73 percent for Latinos and 70 percent for black students.

NCLB calls for 100 percent of students to pass reading and math exams this school year. Obviously, that’s not going to happen. “By 2013, almost 85 percent of Illinois schools had received failing labels, including many of the state’s premier high schools,” reports the Tribune.

Since Congress has failed to update the law, the Education Department has given most state waivers. Illinois isn’t the first to set different standards for different student groups.

The lowest 15 percent of struggling schools in Illinois will be targeted for state attention. The six-year goal is to halve the percentage of students and groups who fail reading and math exams.

 Each year, groups will have goals for improving that push them toward their 2019 target. Because groups start at different places, their final targets will be different too. For example, state data provided to the federal government shows the percent of students passing exams in 2019 would range from about 52 to 92 percent, depending on test, grade and student group.

For all students combined, the passing rate would be about 76 to 79 percent in 2019 — lower than the now-infamous 100 percent requirement.

Illinois also will use “supergroups,” lumping together black, Latino and Native American students in the same group rather than looking at their achievement separately.  The Campaign for High School Equity, a coalition of civil rights and education advocacy groups, said supergroups undercut accountability. “This eliminates one of the most important civil rights victories in education law, and returns us to a time where states may not be responsive to the needs of underserved students.”

Under the state’s new policy, districts won’t have to offer tutoring — or transfers — to students in repeatedly failing schools.

Each school will have different achievement goals, so it will be harder for parents to compare schools’ achievement results.

If you like local control, you can (heh) keep it …

The Common Core is a thin end of an enormous wedge of federal power, conservative pundit George Will said on Fox News.

“The advocates of the Common Core say, if you like local control of your schools, you can keep it, period. If you like your local curriculum you can keep it, period, and people don’t believe them for very good reasons,” Will remarked.

With textbooks and the SAT aligned with the Common Core, we’ll have a national curriculum for all states, warns Will.

The U.S. Education Department is demanding that Indiana prove it’s still eligible for a No Child Left Behind waiver after officially dumping the Common Core. Andy Smarick, a Core supporter, fears a backlash against what many will see as federal overreach.

Washington state already has lost its waiver and others could follow, he writes. “That means there will be a stack of letters from Uncle Sam scolding various state leaders about their inadequate fidelity to federal rules related to standards, assessments, educator evaluations, school interventions, and more.”