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.
From 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.
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).
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.
First of all, I am extremely proud of the effects of No Child Left Behind. For the first time, the federal government basically demanded results in return for money. It started by saying, We expect you to measure [student performance]. As a result, there has been a noticeable change in achievement, particularly among minority groups. And I’m proud of that accomplishment and proud of the fact we were able to work with people from both parties to get it done.
When I think back about No Child Left Behind, it’s one of the really positive things our Administration accomplished along with Congress. So on the 10th anniversary, it’s time to celebrate success, but it’s also a time to fight off those who would weaken standards or accountability. I don’t think you can solve a problem if you can’t diagnose it, and I don’t think it is fair for parents or students not to be informed of how their schools perform relative to other schools and how their children perform relative to other children.
Former President George W. Bush stating what should be obvious to all about the importance of the No Child Left Behind Act in fostering the first steps towards systemic reform of American public education. What is needed now is to expand accountability, especially in addressing the low quality of teacher training in the nation’s ed schools, not scaling back as being proposed by far too many people who should know better.
[If] a great teacher is leaving, parents should hold bake sales or pass the hat around in hopes of collectively offering the teacher as much as a $100,000 bonus to stay for an extra year… Conversely, a very poor teacher has the same effect as a pupil missing 40 percent of the school year. We don’t allow that kind of truancy, so it’s not clear why we should put up with such poor teaching. In fact, the study shows that parents should pay a bad teacher $100,000 to retire (assuming the replacement is of average quality) because a weak teacher holds children back so much.
New York Times Columnist Nick Kristof, gleaning the lessons from the recent Harvard-Columbia study on value-added analysis of teacher quality. (Dropout Nation offers more thoughts on improving teacher quality in this week’s Podcast and Building a Culture of Genius commentary on teacher evaluations.)
“We know that great teachers have the power to help students catch up when they’re behind. But you can’t catch up when you don’t have access to the best teachers.”
Arun Ramanathan of the Education Trust’s California branch discussing the outfit’s latest study on teacher quality in the Los Angeles Unified School District. This study comes on the heels of an agreement between the district and its American Federation of Teachers affiliate over revamping teacher performance management — and a lawsuit from families of L.A. Unified students suing the district to force it to improve its teacher evaluations and use student test data in teacher performance management.
“People who care about improving early childhood education need to be deeply concerned about taming the growth in college tuitions, for at least two reasons. First, skyrocketing tuition makes it more difficult and costly to raise the higher educational credentials of the early childhood workforce. Second, unless we reign in college costs, there’s a strong risk that public funding to support higher education affordability will wind up cannibalizing or squeezing out early childhood spending. That’s because most policy efforts to date to improve college affordability have focused on providing increasing public funds to help students pay for college. But, with ever-rising college costs that outstrip inflation and government revenues, this strategy can sustain and expand access only if it consumes increasing shares of government revenue”
Sara Mead, pointing to another state budget priority that will play a part in shaping school reform conversations — and not only for early childhood and prekindergarten programs. Dropout Nation Editor RiShawn Biddle made the same points in yesterday’s The American Spectator column on growing Medicaid burdens.
One can easily say this: The proposed bills for revamping No Child Left Behind Act proposed today by House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline could be worse. The more palatable of the two, called the Encouraging Innovation and Effective Teachers Act, would at least attempt to require school districts to use value-added analysis of student test score data as a “significant part” of evaluating teacher performance.(The fact that it imposes a federal mandate even as Kline declares that he’s attempting to Another element of the proposal, which would consolidate some federal teacher quality grants into a “Teacher and School Leader Flexible Grant” is a nod to the competitive grant model pioneered by the Obama administration through its Race to the Top and I3 initiatives.
But the rest of Kline’s proposals — including the so-called Student Success Act — are hardly worth the paper upon which they are written.
As with the now-comatose Harkin-Enzi plan and President Barack Obama’s senseless No Child waiver gambit, the Kline proposals would gut the Adequate Yearly Progress provisions, the most-successful element of the law that has spurred school reform efforts. Even worse, the current draft of the Student Success Act doesn’t even require states to still subject the nation’s 5,000 dropout factories and the five percent of schools with wide achievement gaps, something that Harkin-Enzi had required. Essentially it is another white flag declaring an unwillingness to pursue strong vigorous school reform efforts from the federal level Further putting the kibosh on accountability — and playing to the FairTest crowd — Kline’s proposals would allow states to opt out of testing students for science proficiency; currently No Child requires states to test students at least three times during elementary, middle, and high school years. This would effectively let schools off the hook for helping all kids improve their science literacy. In an increasingly knowledge-based economy, this aspect of Kline’s proposal is incredibly thoughtless.
Kline’s plan would also put an end to the federal School Improvement Program, one of the three key aspects of the Obama administration’s school reform efforts. Your editor has offered plenty of reasons why only one of SIG’s four improvement models is likely to be the most-successful (and why school turnarounds driven, in general, particularly driven by districts, are a fool’s errand). At the same time, Kline doesn’t offer anything that would address the critical question of what to do with dropout factories and failure mills. While the Student Success Act would require states to include some form of “system for school improvement”, the proposal doesn’t require districts to either shut down schools or demands states to enact a Parent Trigger law that would allow families to force their overhaul (or replace district management of the school with a for-profit or nonprofit charter operator).
Meanwhile Kline’s legislation is silent on expanding school choice or advancing any other form of Parent Power measure. While Kline will argue that expanding charter schools is addressed in a bill passed by the Education and the Workforce Committee last year, the current proposal does little to push states or districts to allow parents their rightful role as lead decision-makers in education. The Kline proposals are also more aimed at putting the kibosh on the Obama administration’s reform efforts than offering anything coherent in terms of federal education policy on tackling the nation’s education crisis. One provision would restrict the Department of Education’s use of the regulatory process to require states to enact college- and career-ready standards in exchange for grants or for waivers. That is largely driven by complaints among movement conservatives and reformers from the Heritage and Cato crowd that the administration’s tacit support for Common Core standards in reading and math are tantamount to enacting a national curricula.
Essentially, Kline’s plan would simply revert back to the days before the passage of No Child, when federal dollars were handed out to states without showing any results. And traditional districts would essentially be let off the hook for failing to provide high-quality teaching and curricula to poor and minority students. Essentially the word from Kline’s camp to those kids, along with young men of all races, is basically: “You’re on your own.”
Certainly none of this is shocking. Kline has made clear his intentions more than a year ago in his interview with Dropout Nation. The good news is that Kline’s effort won’t go very far.
For one, his attempt to address federal education policy through a series of piecemeal legislation runs counter to the desires of both his senate counterpart, Tom Harkin and the Obama administration, to reauthorize No Child in its current omnibus form. It is unlikely that Harkin will go along with Kline’s plans. Another roadblock lies within his own party, starting with House Speaker John Boehner, who teamed up with the late Ted Kennedy and President George W. Bush a decade ago to help usher No Child into place. This fact, along with the opposition to gutting AYP from other Republicans (including reform-minded governors, many of whom have already embraced Common Core and would likely rather take their chances with Obama’s waiver effort), means that Kline’s efforts are at a standstill.
Add in the reality that congressional Republicans, regardless of their position on No Child, have no interest in offering Obama any form of legislative victory just in time for his re-election bid, and it is unlikely that any effort to revise No Child (or gut AYP) will at least come out of the federal lower house. Whether the Obama administration will be able to continue its waiver effort without a court challenge? That’s a different story.
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.
Your editor thought that this week’s effort by Dan Willingham and the Core Knowledge crowd to tout curriculum reform as the silver bullet for overhauling American public education would be the height of education’s silly season. But the efforts by education traditionalists and even some school reformers seem to take leave of intellectual rigor just to be provocative keep coming.
One spectacular example is the “odd couple” piece on the No Child Left Behind Act, the federal role in education (and, supposedly, how to “rescue” school reform) offered up yesterday by American Enterprise Institute education czar Rick Hess and Stanford’s resident education traditionalist, Linda Darling-Hammond. Declaring that the current debate over the federal role in education is stuck between Republicans arguing as to whether the feds should be involved at all, and sparring between reform-minded Democrats and the teachers’ unions who have, until now, been the leading activists within that party, Hess and Darling-Hammond argue for abandoning the No Child Left Behind Act (which Senate Democrats, congressional Republicans, and President Obama are already trying to do) because, as far as they are concerned, the federal role in education doesn’t work. From where they sit, “the federal government is simply not well situated to make schools and teachers improve” and does little more than add bureaucracy. As far as the twosome are concerned, the feds should simply stick to four areas, including encouraging transparency, overseeing school research, ensuring basic civil rights for poor and minority children, and promoting innovation through competitive grants.
The piece — along with Hess and Darling-Hammond — has already garnered well-deserved criticism from Bellwether Education’s Andy Rotherham on his Eduwonk site for essentially talking out of both sides of their respective mouths — espeically in declaring at different times in different pieces that No Child’s Adequate Yearly Progress provisions are both overly prescriptive and “vague”. (Neal McCluskey of the Cato Institute has his own criticisms and I’ll leave it at that.) The fact that neither Hess nor Darling-Hammond realize (or want to admit) that No Child has been beneficial as a civil rights law and in promoting education research and transparency makes their argument especially senseless.
But in many ways, the schizophrenic nature of the overall argument advanced by Hess and Darling-Hammond isn’t shocking. Like her equally thoughtful fellow-traveler, Pedro Noguera, Darling-Hammond is someone who genuinely realizes that American public education is need of systemic reform (and whose criticisms of teacher training are largely honest and on-target), but unwilling to challenge either the thinking and practices of her fellow education traditionalists or her own worldview. As for Hess? These days, contrary to his declarations, he seems more concerned with needless playing the contrarian than offering a coherent approach to systemic reform. Certainly foolish consistency is Walt Waldo Emerson’s hobgoblin of little minds, one can all hold two contradictory thoughts within the same mind, and contrarianism isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But these days, the otherwise admirable Hess has a habit of stretching the limits of intellectual inconsistency.
As a result, Hess and Darling-Hammond have put together a piece with flawed narratives about the role of No Child in expanding bureaucratic morass, the Republican debate over federal education policy and, the benefits of No Child in spurring systemic reform.
For one, Hess and Darling-Hammond seem to solely blame No Child for growth in the bureaucratic nature of school activities. That’s rather simplistic. Even before the passage of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the first iteration of No Child, in 1965, bureaucracies were growing largely because of the expanding role of states in governing school systems (including the passage of laws that forced districts to bargain with National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers affiliates) and the consolidation of school districts from smaller operations into massive bureaucracies. Thanks to the efforts of the NEA and AFT to make teaching more-comfortable for its members and further expansions of state education governance (including the use of categorical programs in providing state funding to districts), those bureaucracies expanded further. Between 1949-50 and 1969-70, the number of administrators and other staff increased by 94 percent; it increased by another 68 percent between 1969-1970 and 2001-2002.
Since the passage of No Child, the percentage of school bureaucrats increased by only 24 percent by the 2008-2009 school year. Which makes sense. For one thing, No Child didn’t so much expand the federal role in education as it signaled 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, and that states have been expanding their role in governing schools since the 1950s, this has always been implied. (The fact that most of the growth in education over that period has been driven by the increase in the number of teachers in the workforce, and the accompaniment of paperwork and expensive compensation costs, by the way, also doesn’t factor into either Hess’ or Darling-Hammond’s thinking.)
Another problem with the piece? Hess and Darling-Hammond oversimplify the debate within Republican circles over the federal role in education and in spurring systemic reform. Movement conservatives, who are generally supportive of expanding school choice and even holding schools accountable for spending, are largely rebelling against the against the excesses of Dubya’s presidency (and his legacy, on education, as the Democrats’ favorite Republican). This is why the current GOP field has essentially abandoned discussions about school reform except tossing out bromides about wanting to end the U.S. Department of Education.
Even those statements can’t be taken seriously: Both Mitt Romney and Rick Perry, for example, were strong supporters of No Child during their respective tenures as governors of Massachusetts and Texas; and Romney, despite his protests, has praised the work of President Barack Obama and his secretary of education, Arne Duncan — at least, until Perry made it a campaign weapon.
As for the rest of the Republican side: Even as House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline pushes to abolish No Child’s accountability provisions, he also champions increasing the $11 billion the federal government ladles out to special education programs, essentially supporting the perpetuation of an educational ghetto that has helped fuel the nation’s education crisis by labeling illiterate but otherwise capable young men as “learning disabled”. While Kline and some of his colleagues on Education and the Workforce push for tearing apart No Child, the law still has strong defenders, especially among governors such as Indiana’s Mitch Daniels (who, along with his colleagues, have successfully used the law to push through reforms at the state level), former education secretary Margaret Spellings (who has championed the law from her perch at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce), and House Speaker John Boehner (who teamed up with Bush, congressional Democrat education point man George Miller, and Ted Kennedy to pass the law in the first place). In fact, it is this opposition from those Republicans that is a reason why Kline hasn’t been able to pull apart No Child.
In essence, there is far less divide among Republicans over the federal role — especially among those who hold congressional seats, and thus, must make sure that the school districts in their communities continue getting some of that dough — than Darling-Hammond or Hess (the latter being the education czar for one of the leading think tanks within the conservative movement and Republican Party elite) want to admit. Save for libertarians such as the folks over at Cato’s education shop (who are alone even among libertarian think tanks in opposing a federal role in education) most conservative and Republican school reformers think that the federal role in education has real value (even if it neither lucrative from a fundraising or public discussion perspective, to admit it publicly).
Among other Republican camps, the issue isn’t the federal role (at least in terms of the cash that comes from the coffers), but the fact that the federal government is finally requiring suburban districts to admit they are poorly educating children, especially kids from poor and minority households. Like Democrat colleagues who stick to their NEA- and AFT-provided talking points, they don’t want to admit the need to abandon a failed, amoral vision of American public education.
Which gets to the biggest problem of Hess’ and Darling-Hammond’s piece: Their unwillingness to admit that No Child has been the most-critical element in spurring the first successful national efforts at systemic reform and in amplifying initiatives that began before its passage with the work of Southern governors, big-city leaders such as former Milwaukee mayor John Norquist and school superintendent Howard Fuller, and the grassroots efforts of reformers such as Wendy Kopp at Teach For America.
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, No Child set clear national goals for improving student achievement in reading and mathematics; it finally focused attention on using data in measuring teacher quality. The law also made it clear to states and suburban districts that they could no longer continue to commit educational malpractice against poor and minority children; and it focused American public education on achieving measurable results instead of damning kids to low expectations.
Through its Adequate Yearly Progress measures, the low quality of education across the nation’s public schools — including urban districts and in suburbia — was exposed while 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). As stated earlier, No Child fully signaled the primary role of states in education governance. 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.
Proof of the imperfect success of No Child in spurring systemic reform can be seen in the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress. The percentage of all fourth-graders reading Below Basic proficiency declined from 39 percent in 2002 to 33 percent in 2011; the percentage of black students who were functionally illiterate declined from 60 percent to 51 percent during that period, while the percentage of poor and minority kids reading Below Basic declined from 54 percent to 48 percent. To quantify this overall (based on federal enrollment data and Dropout Nation‘s projections of fourth-grade enrollment for 2010-2011), it is likely that 217,432 fewer fourth-graders were functionally illiterate — and likely to drop out — in 2011 than in the year after No Child was passed.
(Some will attempt to use long-term NAEP data to argue that little has happened. But given that most states didn’t participate in NAEP until 1996, any data from NAEP extending from before 1996, and really, before 2001, when all states were required under No Child to participate in the exam is essentially invalid because it is incomplete.)
Certainly No Child has not been an absolute success — and no one should dare suggest it. The AYP provisions needed to be tightened up in order to ensure that states didn’t game the system. But the problem lies not with the law itself, but with the U.S. Department of Education’s implementation of AYP (which now has been used by Duncan and Obama to declare that they need to scrap accountability altogether). No Child’s Highly Qualified Teacher provision was a rather wishy-washy element that didn’t require the use of student test data in measuring teacher quality (focusing instead on certification and other qualifications that have no positive correlation to student achievement) and allowed states and school districts to simply allow laggard teachers to keep their jobs at the expense of students and taxpayers alike. No Child also never took aim at the low quality of teacher training at university schools of education, which train most of the nation’s teachers; it also never addressed the critical role of chronic truancy in spurring the nation’s education crisis, allowing states to dodge the problem.
Nor should No Child be the end all of the federal role of systemic reform. If anything, we need more federal accountability efforts, not fewer. It has been proven that reform-minded state leaders need a strong federal hand (along with active grassroots efforts and reform-minded players working statehouses) to help them cut through the political barriers for systemic reform. The federal Race to the Top effort, which has pushed states such as New York to allow for the expansion of charter schools and require the use of student test data in evaluating teachers, has proven the importance of making competitive grants an important part of federal education funding. Forcing states to finally push for systemic reforms of their ed schools, an effort already underway in Indiana and Louisiana, must be part of any federal reform effort.
As seen in today’s NAEP results for big cities — especially those such as New York and Boston — the early reforms spurred by No Child that led to strong gains are starting to slow. One of reasons lies with the fact these early reforms just touch the surface of the underlying issues of low teacher quality, lack of school choice, limits on Parent Power, and shoddy curricula that are at the heart of the nation’s education crisis. It would make sense to launch a new version of Race to the Top that targets reform-minded school districts and allows them to be transformed into the educational equivalent of enterprise zones in which they can be freed from tenure laws and other state policies that protect laggard teachers and their unions at the expense of children — and will be required to enact Parent Trigger laws, expand school choice, and ensure that all kids are taught rigorous, college preparatory curricula.
But No Child, for its imperfections, has been successful in spurring the first of many needed steps for systemic reform on a national level. And for Hess and Darling-Hammond to merely argue that No Child has merely been a lesson in “humility” about the federal role in education is the height of intellectual disingenuousness.
The good news, or at least as good as it can be given the dismal conditions of federal education policy discussions, is that the plan for gutting the No Child Left Behind Act offered up by Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Tom Harkin and Republican Ranking Member Mike Enzi, won’t be up for full consideration until next year. Even that is unlikely. Considering that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and his fellow Democrats will be struggling to keep control of the upper house, the likelihood of the Harkin-Enzi plan (or any reauthorization of No Child) coming up for a vote by the full body is slim to none.
None of this should be surprising. Looking to head off President Barack Obama’s almost equally as unappealing No Child waiver plan, Harkin finally got off the snide (and away from equally unproductive efforts to shut down the for-profit college sector) by putting together a gutting of No Child that was far more favorable to education traditionalists (and their efforts to preserve the status quo) than to continuing systemic reform. Not only did the proposal gut Adequate Yearly Progress — the most-successful element of the law that has spurred school reform efforts — it didn’t even move the ball on improving teacher quality, overhaul how teachers are trained by the nation’s woeful university schools of education, or expand school choice in any meaningful way. The initial plan to require states to evaluate teachers using student performance data was excised from Harkin-Enzi as soon as the National Education Association, American Federation of Teachers, and Senate Republicans made their opposition known; after all, without the support of the latter, Harkin-Enzi wouldn’t have made it to paper. Even with some of the small improvements made during the markup of the bill, Harkin-Enzi was a disservice to Parent Power efforts, to the futures of young black, white, Latino, and Asian men (who make up three out of every five children who ultimately drop out), and, ultimately, isn’t worth the paper upon which it is written.
But Harkin-Enzi could only come to pass if congressional Republicans who control the federal lower house would move on their own plan — and if Harkin’s fellow Democrats in the House would team up on a similarly bipartisan proposal. Harkin himself made that clear last week. But that was never going to happen.
House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline may want to gut No Child’s accountability provisions, but he wasn’t going to help President Obama get even a cosmetic legislative victory in the one policy area in which he has garnered mostly-bipartisan praise. The fact that Kline only wants to pass a set of piecemeal bills instead of an omnibus version of federal education policy, along with the divide among congressional Republicans and their counterparts outside of Congress (including No Child’s masterminds Sandy Kress and former U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, along with reform-minded governors, who have found No Child useful for their purposes), also dooms any effort on Kline’s part.
As for congressional Democrats? Given that the ranking member on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, George Miller, is a staunch defender of accountability, any effort to gut it wasn’t going to fly. Nor would it fly with other congressional Democrats. When the chairs of the Congressional Black Caucus, Congressional Asian-Pacific American Caucus, and Congressional Hispanic Caucus, declared last week in a letter to Harkin, Miller, Kline and Enzi that they would oppose any bill that didn’t keep and expand subgroup accountability and live up to No Child’s longstanding role as “a civil rights law”, Harkin had to know that nothing was going to happen on the legislative front.
Certainly Harkin-Enzi is now in a legislative coma. That is a good thing; it was a terrible piece of legislation. But the bad news is that Obama’s waiver plan, which will gut accountability as thoroughly as anything Harkin or Kline would offer, remains on course. School reformers will have to keep fighting to remind Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan of their responsibility to help all children succeed in school and in life — and that what they offer won’t do the job.