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Based on all the complaints from Washington State politicians and conservative Beltway school reformers such as Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute reported by Motoko Rich last Sunday in New York Times, you would think that the Obama Administration’s leveled a great injustice by not renewing the waiver given to it two years ago to ignore the No Child Left Behind Act. If anything, as an update of a study by Thomas Ahn of the University of Kentucky and Duke University’s Jacob Vigdor shows, moving back under No Child will help spur reforms that will help children in the Evergreen State succeed. If anything, the Obama Administration should abandon its counterproductive gambit altogether and embrace the strong approach to accountability at the heart of the federal law.

statelogoFrom where Washington State politicians and Petrilli sit, the Obama Administration’s decision is “punishing schools and educators” because the state will now have to fall back on No Child’s Adequate Yearly Progress accountability provision, as well as the aspirational provision that states must ensure that all kids are proficient in reading, math, and science. This, along with No Child’s provision that states must make sure all kids are proficient in their core subjects by 2014, would lead more schools being labeled for under-performing than they supposedly should be. Meanwhile Petrilli and others believe that the Obama Administration is acting arbitrarily in violation of federal law. From where they sit, the administration cannot require states to fulfill promises they made as part of seeking the waivers.

Rich’s report (as well as the views of politicians and others cited in the piece) has garnered much-deserved criticism from Anne Hyslop of Bellwether Education for offering a misleading perspective on how No Child’s accountability provisions actually work in practice. This includes the fact that the 100 percent proficiency provision isn’t actually so (thanks to safe harbor provisions and other legalisms in place, it is actually 92 percent), as well as the fact that the school highlighted in the piece, Evergreen Elementary in the Seattle suburbs, wasn’t identified as being in need of improvement in 2012-2013 because of better performance. So I won’t spend time on this.

But Evergreen State politicians, along with Petrilli and other Beltway reform wonks, ignore a few inconvenient facts.

For one, they ignore the key reason why the Obama Administration declined to renew Washington State’s waiver: The state’s failure to meet its promise to replace its shoddy observation-based evaluations with more-objective data-based performance management tools using test score growth data. After all, implementing those new evaluations was a key condition of attaining the waiver in the first place. Because state legislators, at the behest of the National Education Association’s affiliate there, refused to pass a law back in February allowing the use of test score growth data in teacher evaluations. As in the case of Oklahoma (whose own failures in getting its No Child waiver renewed was discussed on these pages in August), Washington State had ample opportunity to muster the political will needed to change the law in order to fulfill its promise under the waiver. So it deserves no sympathy for failing to do so.

There’s also the fact that the Obama Administration is rightfully holding Washington State accountable as it is supposed to. Sure, as your editor has long explained ad nauseam, the No Child waiver gambit is a grand misadventure that is damaging efforts at advancing systemic reform. At the same time, the administration is correct in holding Washington State accountable for not meeting the condition of its waiver. What is the point of the entire exercise if the federal government will let states off the hook? Just as importantly, and contrary to assertions by the Petrilli crowd, the Obama Administration is legally correct in doing so. The No Child waiver gambit is legally questionable because the administration is allowing states to ignore whole sections of federal law. But the administration is allowed to hold states responsible for how they spend federal subsidies. This includes any promises states made as part of attaining waivers.

In any case, Washington State’s return to AYP should be welcomed and not disdained. Why? Because it has been proven that No Child’s accountability provision is critical to spurring reforms that help children succeed.

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Washington State would have kept its No Child waiver if state legislators voted to change state law needed to fulfill its promise of overhauling teacher evaluations. Photo courtesy of Washington State Wire.

This was made clear this week in Ahn’s and Vigdor’s study on the impact of AYP on improving student achievement in North Carolina, a new version of research developed last year for the American Enterprise Institute on the impact of No Child’s accountability measures. Freed from the efforts of AEI’s education czar, Rick Hess, to spin the results in support of his opposition to accountability and focusing on achievement gaps, Ahn and Vidgor point out that AYP has “beneficial” effects on student achievement. By shining harsh light on the low performance of schools as well as prescribing consequences for continued failure, No Child’s accountability approach forced districts to focus on improving student achievement, especially for poor and minority children they have long ignored.

In the case of North Carolina, for example, the mere threat of No Child’s sanctions alone led to many schools that were identified as failing for the first time to take on the kind of reforms needed to improve student achievement. It also worked for schools failing AYP for the first time; on average, a Tar Heel State school failing AYP improved its math performance by five percent of a standard deviation. Even better, the failure of a school to achieve AYP led families to transfer their kids to better-performing schools under No Child’s school choice provision allowing them to escape, which led to improvements in their math achievement.

The benefits are even better when perpetually failing schools are forced to take corrective action under No Child accountability. A poor-performing North Carolina school under Needs Improvement for a fifth consecutive year (and forced to develop a restructuring plan) improved reading performance by six percent of a standard deviation, while math achievement improved by nearly three percent of a standard deviation. An under-performing Tar Heel State school forced to restructure after six consecutive years of laggard performance improved did improve student achievement in math by six percent of a standard deviation.

No Child accountability was particularly helpful for poor and minority kids. Ahn and Vigdor found that a student in a school that missed AYP saw math achievement improve by four percent of a standard deviation; a student in a school missing AYP for five consecutive years improved math achievement by nearly 10 percent of a standard deviation. For poor and minority kids, AYP has proven to be a critical tool in helping them gain the knowledge they need for lifelong success. None of this is shocking. As Dropout Nation has noted, data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress shows that accountability (along with other reforms) have led to declines in illiteracy and innumeracy among poor and minority kids (including a 10 percentage point decline in the number of black fourth-graders reading Below Basic between 2002 and 2013).

The benefits of AYP are also reaped by high-performing kids, according to Ahn and Vigdor, countering arguments by Petrilli and others that No Child’s focus on stemming achievement gaps led to high-performing students being shortchanged. Children in the top percentile of student achievement in schools missing AYP saw small gains in math and reading achievement. This corresponds with Dropout Nation‘s analysis of NAEP data, which shows that average reading and math scores for top-performing students improved between 2002 and 2011 (versus almost no change between 1998 and 2002, before No Child was implemented), while the percentage of students reaching such levels increased since its passage (including a four percentage point increase in the number of students reaching such levels in reading between 2002 and 2013).

Though Ahn and Vigdor concede that North Carolina’s implementation of AYP — including merit bonuses to teachers who increased student test score growth — may have ameliorated any possible “adverse impacts” on either top-performing or struggling students, they conclude that high-performing kids can benefit from accountability. If anything, No Child’s focus on stemming achievement gaps — and helping poor and minority kids receive high-quality teaching and curricula — benefits all children. And contrary to what Petrilli and others have argued, curricula and learning, especially in music and arts, hasn’t been narrowed either (something, by the way, that has been proven by both the U.S. Department of Education and Quadrant Arts Education Research founder Robert Morrison).

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Former President George W. Bush, along with congressional leaders such as George Miller, Ted Kennedy, and John Boehner, got it right with No Child 11 years ago. Obama should have built upon the law, not try to eviscerate it.

This isn’t to say that AYP is perfect or even an unqualified success. The fact that No Child allows a school to fail for six consecutive years before triggering an overhaul has never been a good idea; failure mills should be forced to restructure within at least three years instead. There’s also the fact that AYP focuses solely on schools and not on the laggard traditional districts whose failures are the reason why they are under-performing in the first place; forcing districts to overhaul their operations is as critical to helping kids succeed as restructuring and shutting down schools. The fact that AYP doesn’t focus on low educational achievement for young men of all backgrounds, the most-persistent symptom of the nation’s education crisis, has allowed districts to continue practices such as overlabeling of young men as special ed cases that toss more futures into the abyss.

No Child’s school choice option could have been more powerful than it has been. In fact, the school transfer option has often failed to work effectively in many districts because families weren’t fully informed of their options until June, when they are on their way to summer vacation and cannot exercise any choice. The fact that the school choice option was limited to just schools operated by the district (which may often be just as bad as the failure mills kids were leaving) instead of a wide array of charters and parochial schools outside of it has also blunted its usefulness.

Yet by holding states and districts accountable for — and forcing focus on — helping poor and minority kids they long ignored — No Child’s AYP provision has spurred reforms that have helped more kids get onto the path to lifelong success. This, in turn, points out a reality that neither the Obama Administration nor Beltway wonks such as Petrilli fail to admit: 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 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. Without No Child, there would be no Common Core, no overhaul of teacher evaluations (or focus on revamping how we recruit, train, and compensate teachers), or no expansion of school choice options. Even the most-sensible reforms touted by the Obama Administration — especially Race to the Top — wouldn’t have happened without No Child in place.

Which is what makes the Obama Administration’s No Child waiver gambit so disappointing. By dismissing the lessons gleaned from No Child’s success — and ditching the accountability tool that worked so well — the administration has weakened systemic reform on the ground. The ditching of AYP (along with allowing states to replace the 100 percent proficiency provision with Plessy v. Ferguson-like targets) has allowed states and districts to go back to subjecting poor and minority kids to the soft bigotry of low expectations. This is particularly true in states such as Indiana and Florida that have implemented A-to-F grading systems that essentially allow schools proclaim they are high-performing even when they have wide achievement gaps.

By allowing states to ignore AYP, the Obama Administration also took away valuable information on performance that is critical for shedding harsh light on school and district performance that is key to accountability. The effort has turned federal education policy into an incoherent mess, fueling opposition to a strong federal role in supporting reform. It has even weakened the advancement of the second wave of reforms — most-notably implementation of Common Core reading and math standards — critical to helping kids gain the academic proficiency needed to succeed in an increasingly knowledge-based economy.

But in not renewing No Child waivers for Washington (as well as for Oklahoma), the Obama Administration has an opportunity to set things right. More states are up for waiver renewal — and many of them are struggling to meet the promises they made in order to be allowed to ignore federal law.

As Dropout Nation has constantly pointed out, the administration shouldn’t have granted waivers to most of these states in the first place. Of course, the gambit shouldn’t have been undertaken either. The administration should decline to renew all of them save for those who have actually fulfilled their promises. [That the Obama Administration moved today to renew waivers for Arizona, Massachusetts, Missouri, Oregon, Rhode Island and Utah is a sign that it wants to continue on this disastrous path.*]

The Obama Administration could then take these last two years of its existence to advance reforms through the No Child framework, as it should have done in the first place. This includes issuing a new round of waivers that keep AYP in place, and at the same time, adjust it to address its shortcomings as well as take advantage of what has been learned about accountability over the past decade.

Certainly this will be displeasing to many. But it is clear that returning to AYP will help more children than continuing a waiver gambit that has become a present obstacle to systemic reforms the administration and the movement support.

Featured photo courtesy of the Associated Press.

*Updated to include this afternoon’s decision by the Obama Administration.

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