These days when comes to advancing systemic reform, the Obama Administration tends to be more talk than action. And the last few days have once again borne out this reality. Sure, the administration made an important move this past week when it announced that it require states to end the use of alternative assessment given to children in the nation’s special education ghettos. It has been long past time to eliminate the federal two percent rule, which has essentially allowed states to perpetuate educational neglect and malpractice against children condemned to special ed ghettos mostly because of the unwillingness of districts to address their underlying learning issues. But then, the administration filed suit against Louisiana’s state government to prevent it from providing vouchers to — and expanding high-quality school opportunities for — poor and minority children living in traditional districts under federal desegregation orders. As with the administration’s efforts to shut down Washington, D.C.’s school voucher program, the administration essentially betrays its own stated goals of helping poor and minority children — including young black men who look like President Barack Obama himself — gain the high-quality teaching and comprehensive college-preparatory curricula they need and deserve.
So it is difficult for any reformer worth his or her salt to take seriously U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s declaration today on the pages of the august Washington Post that it is time to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act and his admonition of congressional leaders for having left town for summer recess “without passing a responsible replacement”. Considering how the administration has worked diligently for the past four years to avoid pressing for reauthorization and how its own effort to eviscerate No Child has exemplified irresponsible policymaking, Duncan’s claptrap is simple and clearly brazen hypocrisy.
Duncan attempts to argue that No Child’s Adequate Yearly Progress accountability provisions are “inflexible” and “an obstacle to progress”. As Dropout Nation readers know by now, this is a play upon earlier Duncan talking points, including his complaints about the mostly-aspirational goal of all students being proficient in reading, math, and science by 2014, and his admonition in 2011 that between 82 percent and 90 percent of schools would be found academically failing. But as your editor and others — including Andy Rotherham and Charles Barone of Democrats for Education Reform — have pointed out, Duncan’s argument is pure hogwash. Thanks to the various safe harbor provisions in the law, the 100 percent proficiency provision actually requires states to ensure that just 92 percent of all students are proficient in academic subjects. And given that just 48 percent of schools were rated as academically failing two years ago, Duncan’s argument that No Child is an obstacle doesn’t square with reality.
If anything, one of No Child’s shortcomings was that it allowed states too much flexibility. States were allowed to spend too much time slowly putting AYP into place (and in some cases, even lowering standards for academic success), then ratcheting things up; this act of gamesmanship was one reason why Duncan claimed that most schools would be found academically failing under the law in the first place. The fact that states often set test score proficiency cut scores low at the behest of suburban districts also means that families and taxpayers have been deceived about how badly districts are doing in improving student achievement. These are inconvenient facts that Duncan would rather ignore.
Duncan then also attempts to argue for the waiver gambit, under which 40 states and the District of Columbia have been allowed to ignore federal law, by calling the initiative a “road map toward a better law” that allows for states to develop new teacher evaluation systems that can advance systemic reform by using objective student test score growth data. What Duncan fails to admit is that such efforts could have been allowed within the framework of No Child itself. In fact, the Obama Administration actually started that process through No Child when it launched the first two rounds of its more-sensible Race to the Top competitive grant program, and in fact, provided funding to states such as New York to do exactly that — and none of it required the administration to eviscerate accountability. If the Obama Administration didn’t think No Child allowed for it, Duncan could have easily granted waivers limited in scope as allowed under the law to make such adjustments; Duncan’s predecessor, Margaret Spellings, did this when she allowed states to use student test score growth in their AYP accountability measures.
Meanwhile Duncan implicitly criticizes congressional Republicans — including House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline, whose plan for reauthorizing No Child passed out of the House last month — for their efforts to “reduce the federal government to a passive check-writer” instead of its rightful role of making sure that states and districts “meet the needs of the most-vulnerable students”. This is certainly true. But Duncan then backs the No Child reauthorization plan put together by Kline’s senate counterpart, Tom Harkin, which essentially does the same thing. This is because the Harkin plan would keep in place accountability regimes and proficiency targets approved by the Obama Administration as part of its waiver gambit, all of which render poor and minority kids as invisible. As Dropout Nation has pointed out ad nauseam, thanks to such subterfuges approved by the administration as lumping all of subgroups into a so-called super subgroup category, states allow districts to obscure data on the success or failure of districts and schools in helping each and all kids. By allowing all states to ditch AYP, the Harkin plan would also do exactly what the Obama Administration has done with its gambit: Weaken the decade of strong reform efforts which the law’s accountability provisions helped usher — including the very reforms Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Duncan have pushed under their watch — as well as take away real data on school performance, making it more difficult for families to make smart decisions as well as complicate the work of researchers and policymakers.
The Obama Administration’s waiver gambit has other problems. By allowing states to focus on the worst five percent of schools (along with another 10 percent or more of schools with wide achievement gaps), the administration is letting districts not under watch — including suburban districts which opposed the exposure of their mediocrity under No Child — off the hook for serving up mediocre instruction and curricula. The administration has also allowed states to ignore subgroup performance on other “multiple measures” such as performance on Advanced Placement tests as part of accountability measures, essentially ignoring how well or poorly districts are doing in providing kids with strong comprehensive college-preparatory curricula. Because the administration didn’t explicitly demand states to set targets for improving graduation rates or required them to tie those goals to proficiency targets, most states simply the key goal of ensuring that poor and minority students graduate from high school, the first step towards lifelong success. Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, and Maryland are the only states to do so. Meanwhile other states are using inaccurate five-year graduation rate (based on ninth-grade enrollment instead of eighth, as it should be) alongside the more-accurate and honest four-year graduation rate in order to measure how well districts are meeting graduation rate goals. In the case of Pennsylvania, for example, this encourages districts to cheat that state’s accountability system because the state will defer to the five-year graduation rate if it meets the 85 percent goal and if the district doesn’t meet the goal as it is supposed to within four years. As I noted on Saturday, President Obama as managed to gain the unenviable legacy of being the first black president to support plans that essentially subject poor and minority children to the soft bigotry of low expectations. This hardly lives up to the legacy of civil rights leaders of the 1960s who died in order for all children to gain better than low-quality education.
Meanwhile Duncan conveniently sidesteps two other inconvenient realities. The first: That No Child has been the single-biggest advance in education policy, both at the federal level and among states and local governments, since the National Defense Education Act of 1958. For the first time in the history of American public education, federal education policy set clear goals for improving student achievement in reading and mathematics, and finally focused attention on using data in measuring teacher quality. It also made it clear to suburban districts that they could no longer continue to commit educational malpractice against poor and minority children, as well as focused American public education on achieving measurable results instead of damning kids to low expectations. Through its accountability measures, the low quality of education across the nation’s public schools — especially in suburbia — was exposed for all to see. It gave researchers the impetus to look at the nation’s high school graduation rates (and present in clear, stark terms the high school dropout crisis); the shameful revelations that states were often reporting inaccurate graduation rate numbers (and using calculation methods that hid the reality that many kids were dropping out) forced education officials to take much-needed steps in reporting accurate (and sobering) numbers. No Child also proved that accountability (and the information on performance that it unleashes) works. For reform-minded governors and school leaders, No Child’s accountability measures gave them the tools they needed to beat back opposition to their efforts from traditionalists in their own states. Without No Child, there is no Race to the Top, no teacher quality reform movement, no discussion about value-added assessment and no real national focus on stemming achievement gaps.
The second inconvenient reality: That Duncan and President Obama could have actually pushed for the changes they wanted by advocating for reauthorizing No Child two years ago. In fact, it could have become a reality four years ago during the early halcyon days of the administration’s first term. After all, it did manage to convince Congress to enact much of its education reform agenda at the time through the passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Save for its blueprint on reauthorization, the administration has spent wasted much of its time not pressing for one. Certainly the opposition of Kline and other congressional Republicans to giving the administration a legislative victory has been a complication to reauthorization. So has been the sparring within Democrat Party ranks between centrist and civil rights-oriented Democrat reformers and allies of the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers. But such times call for leaders to behave like, well, leaders, using bully pulpits and political capital to pull a reauthorization together. The fact that Obama and Duncan have failed to embrace the mantles of leadership they used so skillfully during the first two years in office is another sign of how careless both have been in education policymaking.
But now, Duncan is calling for reauthorization. Which would be fine except that there are plenty of reasons for everyone to be skeptical of it. Not just because of its track record of sloppiness through the waiver gambit, and its efforts to avoid doing so in the first place. The fact that President Obama is now in the last years of his term in office means that he is seeking to secure a legacy that so far has been for the most part forgettable. There’s also political considerations: By calling for reauthorizing No Child — and by backing a Senate Democrat plan that is dead in the water even among the majority in the upper house — the administration can blame congressional Republicans for inaction. Considering that Democrats may end up losing control of the senate next year — and thus, putting the body’s Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee in the hands of Lamar Alexander –the administration has to do all it can to help its allies out. Which makes it harder to take Duncan’s demand for reauthorization seriously.
Duncan’s words will be worth taking seriously once he and the administration goes back to being seriously in advancing systemic reform.