Last month, I clearly stated some reasons why the Obama administration shouldn’t bother pursuing the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act — and why school reformers shouldn’t bother pushing it either. The most important reason of all had to do with the reality that there was ultimately more for the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers and other defenders of traditional public education to gain from reauthorization than for school reformers; the proceedings would give them opportunities to weaken the Adequate Yearly Progress accountability provisions within No Child that have helped shine light on the academic mistreatment of poor black, white and Latino children.
Since then, the Alliance for Excellent Education and other groups have pushed even further for reauthorization. And, depending on whether the Obama administration continues to sink into a political quagmire by pursuing health care reform and more-liberalized immigration (the latter of which I strongly support, but know is a tough sell even in good times), they may get reauthorization. But in the process, the Obama administration has shown far too much willingness to ditch AYP and turn the clock back on accountability altogether. President Obama formally announced yesterday his plans to do so — and to the virtual applause of defenders of traditional public education.
This is understandable in light of the administration’s political considerations. Having angered the NEA and AFT over Race to the Top (which has strongly encouraged states to link student test score performance with teacher evaluations, and is helping to lift restrictions on the expansion of charter schools), Obama and congressional Democrats must throw these important constituencies a bone; the NEA and AFT, after all, bring more than $66 million a year in much-needed campaign donations to the table at a time in which Democratic control of Congress is not only not assured, but may actually be lost by November. Considering that Obama has also been critical of AYP while on the campaign trail — and that Republicans post-G.W. Bush are divided about No Child (with many, notably the ranking Republican on the House education committee, strongly opposed to much of what No Child stands for altogether), the administration apparently thinks AYP is not worth keeping.
But by ditching AYP and leaving it up to states and school districts to decide how to remedy pervasive academic failure, the very progress the nation has made in improving the prospects of the nation’s poorest children and racial and ethnic minorities to gain high-quality education will be lost. States and school districts have proven that they will do little to address the achievement gap and improve teacher quality without federal intervention and activism. By gutting accountability, these children — the one’s most-neglected by traditional public education — will wind up back on public education’s proverbial short buses. Without strong accountability, without AYP, the efforts by Alliance and other groups on college readiness will be meaningless; you can’t be ready for college if you can’t read, write or multiply.
Common Core standards will also be meaningless without AYP accountability; so long as schools aren’t held accountable for implementing them in reality, the proposed standards will be little more than ink on paper. Anyone who thinks otherwise isn’t thinking. It doesn’t matter how much support Arne Duncan gives to Common Core (and honestly, NAEP offers a much-better way to bring states under one national standard than the admirable hodgepodge currently under consideration).
School reformers likely feel like they have been sold out. But this is the price they pay for not paying full attention to the politics driving Obama’s activities. Having overreached on far too many big reform efforts — almost all, save for education reform, aren’t embraced by the public — and failing to deliver on the Employee Free Choice Act, his administration is faced with the loss of congressional majorities and anger from labor unions and activists within the party who have expected more from him. He can no longer ignore teachers unions or other traditional defenders of public education, who bring more money to the political game than they do (even with the powerful dollars of Bill Gates and Eli Broad). They also bring the ground troops the Democrats will need to keep their seats. Why not some bad education policy in exchange for maintaining control of Congress?
The best solution for school reformers is to forget reauthorization this year. In fact, push against any decision until 2011, when Obama will need their support for his own re-election. After all, No Child’s provisions will remain in effect for this year. Which means the status quo remains ante. And for the millions of young children benefiting from AYP, this is the best possible scenario given the political climate.
By the Way (2:44 p.m. EST): Eduflack and Andy Smarick offer dueling and differing views on where accountability stands in the proposed reauthorization. Eduflack understates the impact of the changes, but notes that there is much for the NEA and AFT to dislike about the plan — even though without accountability, it is much harder to hold teachers or schools accountable in a meaningful way. Smarick says he’s conflicted; he wants the feds to play a much-smaller role in education reform and regulation, but realizes the damage that will come from the loss of the AYP provisions.