Then it’s probably a really bad idea. Which is what U.S. Sen. (and onetime school reformer) Lamar Alexander should admit to himself this after the nation’s largest teachers’ union tacitly endorsed his plan to dismantle the No Child Left Behind Act and its Adequate Yearly Progress accountability provisions. Declared the union in a letter sent to Alexander last week: “We are pleased that your ESEA package addresses the current unworkable accountability system… we support your proposals regarding teacher quality.”
Why would the NEA, which has endorsed President Barack Obama in spite of sparring with the administration over its school reform plans, even back the Alexander plan? Because the plan achieves their goal of stemming the advance of school reform. As Dropout Nation pointed out last month, the Alexander plan merely goes a few steps further than the Obama Administration’s own effort to gut No Child’s accountability rules, doing away Adequate Yearly Progress provisions that have exposed the low quality of education across the nation’s public schools — including urban districts and in suburbia. It also offers a set of mealy-mouth college- and career-ready standards that simply avoid holding states accountable for the quality of education provided in all but a few of its traditional public schools. Poor and minority children in suburbia — and even white kids in those schools — will simply have to struggle in cultures of mediocrity that, as this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast notes, are failing against high-performing school systems throughout the rest of the world.
The essential willingness of Senate Republicans and their colleagues who control the House to walk arm and arm with the NEA and the American Federation of Teachers on reducing accountability is amazing. But not necessarily surprising. For those Republicans whose districts are in suburbia — where school systems have been revealed by No Child’s accountability rules to be just marginally better than urban dropout factories — there is plenty of pressure to pull back from reforms, many of which are backed by their gubernatorial and statehouse colleagues. The desire of movement conservatives to pull back from anything backed during the George W. Bush era — which they feel did little more than to expand federal power at the expense of what they consider to be conservative principles — means culling back federal education policy even at the cost of allowing states and districts to spend money freely without being accountable for results.
Meanwhile Senate Republicans and their congressional counterparts are being aided and abetted by some conservative reformers, especially American Enterprise Institute scholar Rick Hess, who have begun retreating on various aspects of school reform with “reform realism” proposals and arguments that the focus on addressing achievement gaps is wasteful. What is happening is the very conservative reformers who, at the beginning of the last decade, were the strongest supporters of pushing systemic reform, have essentially thrown up their hands.
Yet Senate Republicans, along with their backers, fail to consider these realities. For one, No Child and AYP have helped reform-minded governors on both sides of the political aisle beat back opposition from suburban districts and affiliates of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, which have long dominated education at the state level. The law, along with Race to the Top, is the leading reason why 13 states this year expanded school choice, either in allowing for the expansion of charter schools and starting various forms of school voucher plans. Stepping back accountability at the federal level — especially when congressional leaders are unwilling to force states to adopt Common Core standards in reading and mathematics — means setting back reforms, especially the very school choice measures Republicans and conservatives proclaim they support.
Second: The Alexander plan fails to deal with the reality that accountability needs to be expanded, not scaled back. For example, the need to force the overhaul of ed schools, who train most of the nation’s new teachers, is still critical to the reform of American public education. Yet the Alexander plan (along with Duncan’s waiver plan and proposals from congressional Republicans and Senate Democrats) is silent on that issue. Certainly Duncan’s ed school reform proposals — which include requiring states and ed schools to provide more detailed reporting on the effectiveness of newly-minted teachers in improving student achievement during their first two years on the job — are helpful. But it isn’t enough. Forcing the overhaul of ed schools should be part of any No Child reauthorization.
Alexander’s plan also doesn’t address the crisis of low educational achievement among young men of all backgrounds, one of the leading symptoms of the education crisis. As Richard Whitmire and I proposed in June, simply requiring gender to be measured as part of subgroup accountability would do plenty to force states and districts into dealing seriously with this problem. If anything, abandoning AYP will set back efforts to address this symptom of the nation’s education crisis back even further because there will be no meaningful transparency in what schools are doing when it comes to student achievement. The Alexander plan, along with others, is also silent on the matter of expanding Parent Power — including requiring states to enact Parent Trigger laws in exchange for a smaller federal footprint. Essentially, the status quo in this area remains ante, denying families their rightful places as lead decision-makers in education.
And finally, the Alexander plan simply returns things back to the days when the federal government ladled out dollars with almost no accountability in return. It doesn’t embrace the best elements of Race to the Top — including its emphasis on forcing states to compete for federal money and show results. This is especially shameful because maintaining the program-based funding nature of Title I will do little to spur reform. Given that no Republican is proposing to cut out federal spending on education entirely, the plan is hardly conservative. If anything, the Alexander plan guarantees that many states will simply go back to spending federal money without any consideration of results, which will lead to an eventual backlash.
The good news is that much of this plan may not go anywhere, especially since Senate Democrats are in the minority and congressional Republicans are hardly moving at all on No Child’s reauthorization. There may be some other good news at least on the Senate side. Senate Democrats in control of the upper house are considering plans to make Race to the Top a permanent fixture of federal funding. Whether or not it will mean transforming at least part of the $12 billion devoted to Title 1 funding into competitive grants is an open question; but such a move would help move federal education policy away from simply doling out dollars to programs and demanding compliance instead of results.
But these days, when it comes to No Child, the plans being offered for its reauthorization merely declare that helping all children succeed in school and life is not in anyone’s thoughts. As I noted in last week’s piece on the need for Freedom Riders for school reform, it’s time for reformers to put pressure on congressional and Senate leaders to do better.