The Wrong Innovations (Or Why Mike Petrilli is Off-Target on Accountability)
As Dropout Nation readers know, your editor opined about the consequences of the Obama administration’s No Child Left Behind waivers gambit for the New York Times‘ Room for Debate forum, alongside some Diane Ravitch mini-me and NEA beneficiary Leonie Haimson (whose continued aiding and abetting of failed thinking continues without thinking anything through) and New America Foundation education scholar Kevin Carey (who, alongside Pedro Noguera, was trying to tout that weak school inspections approach Carey’s former employers at Education Sector have embraced without much thought about the problems of subjective observations).
But the most-interesting piece came not from either Haimson or the generally stellar Carey or Noguera (whose idea of treating schools like hospitals is a good one, even if he can’t get the rest of his ideas right), but from Thomas B. Fordham Institute education czar Mike Petrilli, who once again tried to defend the idea of rolling back No Child’s powerful Adequate Yearly Progress accountability provisions (even if the approach taken by the administration is none to his liking). From where Petrilli sits, rolling back federal accountability will ultimately allow states to “encourage instructional excellence” and stop states from engaging in “curriculum narrowing” and “gaming” federal law. How? By allowing states to develop their own accountability systems that can use other approaches for measuring outcomes such as college completion rates. If only the Obama administration would stop forcing states to continue some form of subgroup accountability and allow for more “race-neutral” approaches, then there could be more innovation in accountability that may further systemic reform.
Certainly longtime Dropout Nation readers know that Petrilli is articulating another version of the Kissingeresque “Reform Realism” concept that Fordham has touted for the past two years with the help of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander, who sits on the think tank’s board. It is based on a play on movement conservative thinking that No Child greatly expanded the federal role in education, stifling both systemic reform at the state level by forcing states to comply with burdensome accountability rules, while somehow magically also allowing them to game the system. And if you haven’t been paying much attention to what has been happening in federal education policy for the past decade, you may actually even buy into Petrilli’s argument.
Which is the problem: Petrilli’s underlying thesis (one peddled last year by his tag-team partner, American Enterprise Institute education czar Rick Hess, in his piece with Linda Darling-Hammond) isn’t exactly so. In reality, No Child did little to expand the federal role. What the law did do is signal the reality that states, not school districts, control the direction of education. Given that school districts, as local governments, are merely tools of state control, this has always been implied. But since the 1960s, successful efforts by teachers’ unions to pass state laws forcing districts to bargain with them, along with school funding lawsuits and property tax reforms such as California’s Proposition 13, have led to states taking a more prominent role in all aspects of education.
Although No Child make requires states to improve graduation rates and test scores — including the aspirational goal that all children (and actually, based on safe harbor and other caveats, 92 percent of them) are proficient in reading, math, and science — states are given plenty of leeway when it comes to interpreting how to meet certain requirements (like the one assuring that all teachers be “highly qualified” for instruction) and develop their own solutions in order to achieve them. If anything, you can argue that one of No Child’s flaws is that the law — or more importantly, the U.S. Department of Education — allowed for too much leeway, allowing for states to engage in gamesmanship. But even with the gamesmanship, No Child still managed to spur the first round of reforms that are allowing for the efforts to transform American public education today. For reform-minded governors and legislators, the federal pressure exerted through No Child gave them the tools to expose how poorly traditional districts were serving children — especially in suburbia — and the cover needed to back traditionalists opposed to proposed solutions.
No Child isn’t perfect (especially the provisions of the law that are a legacy of the original Elementary and Secondary Act, which legitimately deserve scrutiny). But then, that’s a given. After all, nothing crafted by human hands is ever flawless. More importantly, we must now embark on a new round of reforms to continue overhauling and transforming American public education. But No Child has helped more children – especially from poor and minority households — get strong, college-preparatory education and high-quality teaching, has helped provide the data needed to expose how poorly American public education is serving kids even in supposedly great districts such as Fairfax County, paved the way for efforts such as Race to the Top, and has likely led to 217,432 fewer fourth-graders being functionally illiterate — and likely to drop out — in 2011 than in the year after No Child was passed.
Meanwhile Petrilli gets it wrong on what should suffice as innovation in accountability that can actually spur further reforms and hold schools accountable for educating all children regardless of his background. Certainly one can appreciate Petrilli’s desire for better forms of accountability; Dropout Nation has continually argued for more-expansive accountability, including greater scrutiny of the nation’s university schools of education (whose failures in recruiting and training aspiring teachers are one of the culprits behind the nation’s education crisis), and using college completion data in K-12 accountability systems. But innovation is only valuable in the area of accountability if it reinforces the most-important goal: Ensuring that all children get a high-quality education. And the so-called innovations in accountability touted by both Petrilli and the Obama administration in its No Child waiver gambit actually define quality down.
The relatively raced-neutral approach Petrilli defends is already coming into play thanks to the waivers granted to states such as Indiana, and Florida, which are using so-called super-subgroup measures that commingle poor and minority students into one. The problem with the approach in general is that by essentially getting rid of subgroups, it effectively hides those groups of students from view (especially Native students, who often make up just one percent of all students in all but a few states), allowing states and districts to not concern themselves with accounting for their academic progress. The A-to-F grading systems being used in states such as New Mexico (which are using those systems alongside the super-subgroup measure), have similar flaws; a school can hide its wide achievement gaps and still get an A grade if it meets the other categories in the formula. (The fact that these new accountability systems will make it more-difficult for families to get the information they need to make smart decisions, and complicate the work of researchers whose work, along with that of reformers, have benefited from No Child’s accountability provisions, all of which factor into holding failure mills and the schools that run them accountable for failure, and recognizing those schools doing well by kids, doesn’t factor into either Petrilli’ s or the Obama administration’s thinking.)
Then there are the other “innovations” on accountability being peddled by states through the waiver process. And if any of that is really innovation, reformers should shudder about what they would consider to be revolution.
As I noted last week, the Obama administration has effectively allowed states to define proficiency down, letting them ditch the 100 percent proficiency target with supposedly “ambitious” yet “achievable” goals. This has resulted in states such as Tennessee letting traditional districts get away with low bar goals, such as ensuring that 42.8 percent of black high school students are proficient in Algebra I during the 2012-2013 school year, some 20 percentage points lower than the rate of proficiency for white peers. Virginia, which gained a waiver last month despite its lack of aggressiveness on the reform front, reaffirmed its reputation for being more-concerned with not disrupting the state’s educational ancien regime by approving AMO targets that only require districts to ensure that 57 percent of black students (and 65 percent of Latino peers) are proficient in math by 2016-2017. (VirginiaWatchdog.org‘s Kenric Ward further elaborates on the Old Dominion’s low expectations for poor and minority kids.) And in the process, these states are engaging in the very narrowing (in this case, lowering) of standards that Petrilli (and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan) have wrongly claimed No Child was doing.
The results of this “innovation” are clear: Only some kids are deserving of high-quality teaching, comprehensive, college-preparatory curricula, strong school leadership, and cultures of genius in which they are nurtured through high expectations. And that’s not the innovation school reformers, especially Beltway types such as Petrilli, should be supporting.
Certainly Petrilli may mean well when he argues for rolling back federal accountability. But the reality is that we need more federal accountability than ever to spur the next round of reforms. Instead of embracing “humility” that does little for all children, reformers such as Petrilli should be advocating for strong accountability.