One of the major arguments advanced by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and the Obama administration for ditching No Child’s Adequate Yearly Progress accountability provisions was that it was penalizing far too many schools arbitrarily for failing to improve student achievement. Since February, Duncan has been declaring that 82 percent of schools would be found academically failing under No Child, and insisted that as many as 90 percent would be found failing. And he has stuck to this statement even as school reformers such Charlie Barone of Democrats For Education Reform and Andy Rotherham, and early numbers coming out of state education carpets, proved that Duncan’s estimates were nothing but smoke.
So it isn’t surprising that Duncan attempted to dance around yesterday’s Center on Education Policy report that showed that just 48 percent of schools were found to be academically failing under No Child’s accountability provisions. Declared Duncan: “Whether it’s 50 percent, 80 percent, or 100 percent of schools being incorrectly labeled as failing, one thing is clear: No Child Left Behind is broken.” Despite all evidence to the contrary, Duncan essentially insists that No Child is unfair to schools that are making progress and yet could be labeled as failing.
What Duncan continually fails to acknowledge is that the underlying reason for that had to do with the gamesmanship by states that didn’t make their standards and proficiency targets more-rigorous in the first place, then ramped them up just a few years before the 2014 target would come into play. The gamesmanship was tolerated by both Duncan and his predecessors. Since Duncan took over as education secretary, he has allowed more gamesmanship on the accountability front. For example, the U.S. Department of Education has allowed Montana and Idaho to keep their accountability targets at last year’s levels, essentially allowing schools and districts in those states to essentially escape accountability for the time being; Virginia has even been allowed to set its accountability targets retroactively, gaming the system even further.
More importantly, in arguing that No Child’s accountability provisions wrongly label schools, Duncan fails to acknowledge that American public education today is poorly serving all of its students regardless of who they are or where they live. As Harvard’s analysis of 2009 PISA data has shown, our top-performing students are outscored by top-performers in 22 other countries; top-performing white students are outperformed by students in 16 nations. Suburban districts, whose failures to provide high-quality education to poor and minority children has been exposed by No Child’s provisions, are also doing a disservice to middle-class families. Just 30 percent of students in the prosperous Fairfax County, Va., district would outperform kids from Singapore, and only 41 percent would do better than kids from Canada (a nation that is almost as diverse as the United States).
Even with the gamesmanship by states, No Child’s accountability rules have shown that far too many schools are dropout factories, failure mills, and warehouses of mediocrity; that far too many teachers are not capable of providing high-quality instruction; that school leadership at all levels is often abysmal; and that the fierce urgency of right now is not only necessary, but paramount to helping all kids get the education they need to fulfill their potential. Contrary to what Duncan argues, No Child is hardly broken, and has actually done its job. After all, without No Child, the conditions for which Obama’s signature school reform program, Race to the Top, could be successful would have never existed.
Meanwhile the Obama administration’s effort to essentially eviscerate No Child’s accountability requirements will do nothing to stop such gamesmanship. Duncan says that states can only evade AYP and the aspirational 100 percent proficiency provision if they enact a vague set of “ambitious but achievable goals”, and an equally amorphous requirement that states must put “college and career-ready” curriculum standards in place. But federal law essentially prohibits the U.S. Department of Education from laying out exactly what these standards should be (lest it be accused of crafting a national curricula), and it cannot public support the implementation of Common Core standards in reading and math already underway in all but a few states. As a result, a state can probably come up with some mishmash, call it college- and career-ready, and easily get it past federal officials without actually following through with their promises.
Meanwhile the waivers don’t actually address the need to expand federal accountability. For example, the waivers fail to address the need to overhaul the nation’s ed schools (which train most of the nation’s new teachers), or push for the development of alternative teacher training programs outside of university confines. The waiver plan 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 earlier this year, 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. The waivers may allow for the possibility of states targeting gender for subgroup accountability (and thus, addressing the crisis of low educational attainment among young men of all socioeconomic and racial backgrounds) on their own. But the conditions under which the waivers are being granted don’t require states to take on any additional accounting for the performance of young men or other children whose academic failures are the result of the education crisis.
Until this year, Duncan has done a great job on pushing systemic reform. What he should do now is stop this wasteful effort to ditch accountability and get back to work.