School reformers and news reporters can learn plenty, both good and bad, about the policy directions of states and the federal government when they choose to read. This is particularly clear when one looks at the preliminary plans, approved proposals and peer reviews from the Obama administration’s effort to eviscerate the Adequate Yearly Progress accountability rules and other provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act. For example, a reporter from, say, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution could have learned in February 2012 that the state education department only expects districts to ensure that 76.9 percent of black high school students are proficient in biology by 2016-2017, some 15 percentage points lower than what is expected for white high school peers, or that districts should make sure that 80.4 percent of Latino students are proficient in economics in that same period, 10 percentage points lower than what is expected for white students. Meanwhile the state only expects districts to ensure that 87.2 percent of poor elementary and middle school students are proficient in math; that’s lower than the 94.7 percent proficiency level for white students, and 90.9 percent expected for all kids in the primary grades.
Considering that Peach State officials argue that their waiver effort will allow them to help students get the kind of strong, college-preparatory curricula they need to succeed in an increasingly knowledge-based economy, these proficiency levels for poor and minority kids essentially perpetuate the soft bigotry of low expectations. Especially when one remembers that the Peach State’s proficiency levels for fourth-grade mathematics alone would barely meet the Basic levels on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
Meanwhile a reform activist out of Atlanta could have found out exactly what the peer review panel vetting the Peach State’s original waiver proposal thought of it. For example, there were concerns that the state didn’t incorporate graduation rates for poor and minority students into its College and Career Ready Performance Index, the new accountability that the state put in place; as the peer review panel pointed out, the lack of subgroup graduation rate data meant that “a school could earn a high CCRPI with low graduation rates for some subgroups”. By the way: This doesn’t include the rather disconcerting fact that Georgia incorporates a five year graduation rate into its accountability index, instead of a four-year graduation rate that accurately measures whether students are graduating on time. Nor were the performance of poor and minority kids incorporated into another aspect of the accountability system, the Status Achievement Indicator, which made up 70 percent of the performance rating. Then there were concerns from peer reviewers that Georgia’s new accountability system would do a poor job of accounting for how districts and schools were improving the performance of students condemned to special ed ghettos; the state was only measuring whether districts were putting special ed students in “general education environments greater than 80 [percent]” of the school day. As the peer review panel pointed out, this only measured access instead of performance.
Based on Dropout Nation‘s review of both the approved waiver request and Georgia’s own public presentation, it appears that few of these concerns were ever addressed either by the state or by U.S. Department of Education officials. In fact, one could even say that the Obama administration all but ignored the peer review comments and just stamp ‘approved’ on Georgia’s waiver request.
Certainly a reporter or a reformer could have snuffed this out if any bothered. This is a point Andy Rotherham made last week during a panel convened at a national legislative conference. Some have. Dropout Nation has consistently looked through both the waiver requests and the peer reviews, as has Education Week‘s Michele McNeil, and Kenric Ward of the Franklin Center’s Watchdog.org (who broke news about Virginia’s Plessy v. Ferguson-like proficiency levels). Former Center for American Progress analysts Jeremy Ayers (now working for Rep. George Miller on the House Education and the Workforce Committee) and Isabel Owen are also among the few policy players who have peered through the approved waiver requests and written about the issues within them. Rotherham has also made points about waivers. And the Alliance for Excellent Education, along Native education organizations and Rep. Miller, has pushed hard on the various aspect of the gambit — including the Obama administration’s failure to make sure waivers required states to report accurate graduation rate data.
Yet many reporters and columnists on the education beat have done little reporting on the peer reviews, the approved waiver requests, or even the process behind the Obama administration’s decision-making. Sure, there has been extensive coverage about the reaction from civil rights activists and reformers in Virginia and Florida about the results. But quite a bit of the uproar would have probably not happened in the first place had a few intrepid reporters and editorialists got out of covering classrooms (and listening to chat-fests about how you can “see” kids being engaged in school that have long ago been proven to be rubbish), combed through the reports, and wrote some hard-hitting exposes on the consequences of the waiver gambit — especially in setting back efforts to provide accurate and useful data for families, school leaders, teachers, and researchers.
Calling this a failure of media outlets to do what they are supposed to do — cover policymaking, afflicting the comforted, and comforting the afflicted — is an absolute understatement. As I have always made clear, what happens outside of classrooms — from the process of recruiting and training teachers, to the policies driving overdiagnosis of learning disabilities — has tremendous impact on what happens in classrooms, and ultimately to children. Especially for local education reporters and their colleagues on the national level (along with pundits focused on education), it is important to shine light on what is being decided by federal and state education officials, and how those decisions are reached.
At the same time, perhaps those covering education would have put more energy into covering how the Obama administration was granting waivers if reformers, especially centrist Democrats who have championed the waiver gambit in the first place (and whose impatience over the delayed reauthorization of No Child led them to push for this exercise in bad policymaking), weren’t so silent about either the process or the possible consequences in the first place. Especially among reformers working out of the Beltway, there has been a rather inexcusable failure to remember that education policymaking isn’t just about setting laws and target. It is also about a clear communication in action of the expectations we have for our society to ensure that every child is provided high-quality education. How the Obama administration and Congress engage in such policymaking is as important to these goals as the actual results themselves. When one looks at the No Child waiver process in full, it is clear that the Obama administration has engaged in the kind of inexcusable policymaking reformers would never tolerate from traditionalists. And now, as states such as New York are struggling to implement the teacher evaluation reforms promised under the waiver, and more evidence accrues about the negative impacts of the waiver gambit on efforts to systemically reform American public education, the silence among reformers appears even more than ever like sheer cowardice.
By not holding the Obama administration’s feet to the fire on this issue, reformers have ceded plenty of moral and intellectual high ground. How can one declare that they want to end the soft bigotry of low expectations when they remain silent about a policymaking effort that does exactly that? As I noted late last year in my criticism of the Education Trust’s support of one aspect of the waiver gambit, you cannot support policymaking efforts that end up lowering expectations of states, schools and districts to do well by all of our children without appearing to betray your convictions. And while it is nice to see more reformers, especially EdTrust’s Kati Haycock, partly realize the error of their ways, it does little for our children, who will bear the brunt of the consequences for abandoning No Child, an admittedly imperfect bit of policymaking which helped spur reforms that have helped more children achieve lifelong success.
It will be interesting to see how reporters and reformers address the waiver requests submitted last week by Texas, Wyoming, and Pennsylvania, especially in light of the past rounds. There’s no excuse for shining light this time around. And no reason to do the investigative work after the fact.