Your editor wants to make one thing clear: The folks at the Education Trust deserve plenty of credit and admiration for being among the most-stalwart advocates for systemic reform. From battling with education traditionalists such as Linda Darling-Hammond over overhauling how teachers should be recruited, trained, and assigned to students, to shining light on how poorly states are doing in improving college access and graduation rates, EdTrust has done plenty of good in advancing the first generation of reforms unleashed by the No Child Left Behind Act that have kept more children off the path to academic and social despair.
But these days, EdTrust is learning some harsh lessons from advancing a policy that it believes is the right course, but in practice betrays its laudable commitment to helping all children succeed. The lessons come courtesy of the Obama administration’s wrongheaded effort to eviscerate the No Child Left Behind Act and the Adequate Yearly Progress accountability provisions the think tank supported so long ago — and the administration’s approval of Florida’s plan for how it would hold schools accountable in lieu of strong accountability.
This month, school reformers and civil rights advocates in the Sunshine State finally learned that state education officials, like counterparts in Tennessee and 15 other states granted waivers by the administration, are setting proficiency targets that allow districts and schools to indulge their low expectations for poor and minority kids. The ire among reformers, families, and civil rights activists over the Sunshine State plan spread to EdTrust because activists figured out that it was responsible for crafting something called Cut the Gap in Half, the alternative to AYP that Florida partly borrowed for its plan. The very role EdTrust played in promoting this concept (and managing to get the Obama administration to make it one of the models states could use at least in name only) has left the organization in the uncomfortable position of being accused of betraying its school reform credentials, and promoting the soft bigotry of low expectations for poor and minority kids. This, in turn, is complicating relations between EdTrust and the national civil rights-based reform groups with which it has long collaborated for advancing systemic reform, as well as with the old-school civil rights outfits that the organization has long tried to coax toward its position. After all, it is the affiliates of both groups that are now hopping mad at both EdTrust and the Florida plan.
Certainly getting caught in the crosshairs of Florida’s latest school reform debate isn’t where EdTrust wanted to be. In many ways, for good reason. Although the Sunshine State has borrowed the gap-cutting proficiency targets part of the EdTrust plan, it hasn’t embraced its accountability aspects, leaving vague what state education officials will do if the worst five percent of schools and the 10 percent of schools with wide achievement gaps fail to improve student performance. From where EdTrust sits, the uproar over the Florida plan (and similar plans like it) also ignores its contention that Cut the Gap in Half actually forces states, districts, and schools to work harder because they must improve achievement for poor and minority students at annual clips greater than the average rate. In Florida, for example, districts would have to improve math achievement for black students in third-through-ninth grades by a five percent annual clip two-thirds higher than the three percent annual improvement made between 2003 and 2010. Under such a plan, districts should have 74 percent of black students performing at proficient levels in math, while 88 percent of white peers in the same grades should be at such levels. If one just pays attention to the growth rates being advocated by EdTrust in its approach instead of the levels of proficiency, one can easily see how it appears to be a smart and supportable idea.
But EdTrust is in a quandary. Arguing that Florida isn’t fully embracing its entire Cut the Gap in Half plan does little more than remind fellow reformers, especially Parent Power activists and those of the civil rights mode, of the flaws of the entire No Child waiver gambit (which Dropout Nation has steadfastly opposed for the past year). Such a point also shines light on the fact that EdTrust and other centrist Democrat reformers backing the plan have been silent about the Obama administration’s sloppy and shoddy process for granting waivers, especially as President Barack Obama struggles to keep office; it is hard for waiver gambit supporters to complain about Florida’s implementation of one of the alternatives to AYP they support without pointing out how the Obama administration’s own mishandling of the effort allowed for such antics in the first place (or giving movement conservatives more reasons to oppose a strong federal role in reforming American public education).
As for the growth argument? Certainly expecting districts to improve the achievement of black, Latino, poor white and Asian, and Native students makes sense. But such an approach could have easily been undertaken under AYP; in fact, growth modeling (of which Cut the Gap in Half is a version) was approved in the last decade by then-U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings. This, in turn, points out one of the underlying flaws offered up by EdTrust and the Obama administration for eviscerating No Child: That the law doesn’t allow for consideration of how much work it will take to improve the achievement of kids subjected to years of educational neglect and malpractice. [One can argue that in using the growth argument to justify its position, EdTrust is not actually treating data in a sophisticated way.] More importantly, setting high levels of growth doesn’t matter if districts are being let off the hook for ensuring that all students get a high-quality education. Which is what both Cut the Gap in Half does (by setting lower levels for districts improving proficiency for minority students versus white and Asian peers), and No Child waiver gambit tacitly endorses (by allowing states to only focus on the worst five percent of school districts and at least ten percent of districts with wide achievement gaps). No matter how one looks at it, it is hard to defend Cut the Gap in Half and its Plessy v. Ferguson-like appearance.
Yet the predicament EdTrust faces isn’t all that shocking. After all, the underlying theory behind the organization’s Cut the Gap in Half approach (and the variations on the theme by Florida and other states) — that states should aim for “ambitious” yet “achievable” goals instead of pushing for all students to be proficient in their studies — has always been, to be kind, intellectually problematic for any reformer worth his or her salt. As I have argued back in July, the levels of proficiency set by states, like other aspects of public policy, are clear communications in action of the expectations we have for our society, especially when it comes to ensuring that every child gets a high-quality education. The 100 percent proficiency target set by No Child was an ambitious statement that all kids should get the education they need to write their own life stories, putting much-needed on states to embrace systemic reform. It is one reason why Florida has done so well up to now in improving student achievement compared to its peers. When levels of proficiency are set low, those who have to meet it won’t bother to work hard, and, in fact, won’t even meet those woeful levels. One can easily surmise that low proficiency levels are proclamations by state leaders that they don’t expect districts to do very much for the black, Latino, and Native kids in their care. In fact, one can dare say state leaders don’t even expect much from those kids themselves. And the children and families, in turn, probably shouldn’t expect districts or state leaders to ever meet their obligations.
You have to feel sympathy for EdTrust for getting caught up in the Florida affair. The organization has done great work on behalf of our children, and in some ways, it is wrongfully taking flack for Florida’s sudden failure to articulate a strong case for sustaining reform (as well as for the Sunshine State’s troubling backslide on at least one key principle). At the same time, EdTrust’s problems should serve as a lesson to all reformers: You can’t support defining proficiency down — and setting lower expectations for schools and districts to do well by all of our children — without appearing to betray your convictions.