Bad and Worse: Neither Harkin's nor Alexander's plans for reauthorizing No Child are worth the paper upon which they are written. (Photo courtesy of the New York Times.)

Bad and Worse: Neither Harkin’s nor Alexander’s plans for reauthorizing No Child are worth the paper upon which they are written. (Photo courtesy of the New York Times.)

When it comes to the long-stalled reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act, two things are clear. The first? That chances of reauthorization happening in this Congress is slim to none, largely because of the dissension over the future of the law within both Democratic and Republican party camps, as well as because of the Obama Administration’s unwillingness to broach any legislation that weakens its sloppy and counterproductive gambit to eviscerate No Child’s accountability provisions. The second? That the plans for reauthorization that will be offered this year will do little more than weaken the commitment to advancing systemic reform on behalf of the futures of children — that No Child represented.

wpid-threethoughslogo.pngSo your editor has little positive to say about either the lackluster No Child reauthorization plan unveiled Tuesday by Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Tom Harkin or the even worse alternative that will be offered up today by Lamar Alexander, the one-time reformer who now serves as the ranking Republican on the panel. Neither plan is worthy of our children’s futures.

One wouldn’t have expected both the Senate Democrats and their Republican counterparts to come up with competing proposals. After all, two years ago, Harkin and then-ranking member Mike Enzi came up with a reauthorization plan that actually made it out of the committee. But things have changed since then. Harkin attempted to negotiate with Alexander on developing a reauthorization plan, but it ultimately didn’t work out. Not that Alexander was engaging in any serious negotiating anyway. These days, he and his fellow Republicans in the federal upper house have plenty of reasons for not engaging in any discussion.

For one, Senate Republicans are looking to weaken both the Obama Administration and Senate Democrats; even teaming up with Harkin on a reauthorization of No Child would run counter to that goal. There’s also the fact that Alexander and his colleagues, who should be paying attention to the demands of Republican governors looking to advance systemic reform, are instead fearful of movement conservatives generally uninterested in education who oppose anything that seems like an expanded federal role. These movement conservatives, who mistakenly believe that No Child expanded the federal role in education (instead of realizing that it essentially signaled the reality that states, not school districts, control the direction of school policy), still rebelling against the excesses of George W. Bush’s presidency, and have been stirred up by their misplaced fears about the implementation of Common Core reading and math standards, already want to challenge Alexander and his colleagues in Republican primaries. But for Alexander, it isn’t just fears of losing office next year. Over the past few years, Alexander — who as both Tennessee governor and U.S. Secretary of Education, was once one of the most-stalwart of reformers — has bought into Reform Realism, the Kissingerisque mishmash developed by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute that essentially argues for the federal government to play less of a role in supporting systemic reform.

All that said, let’s at least say for Harkin: By offering his latest reauthorization plan, he is behaving like a grown-up. Unlike Alexander, or House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline (who remains committed to essentially going back to the days when the federal government ladled Title 1 subsidies to states and districts without holding them accountable for improving student achievement) or the Obama Administration, the Iowa Democrat understands that responsible political leaders should at least make the effort to engage in thoughtful lawmaking. The plan is, to put it kindly, not the worst that he and other Senate Democrats could have written.  States would still have to provide data on how districts and schools are helping poor and minority children, keeping one of the most successful aspects of No Child’s accountability provisions. States would also have to provide families with an “equity report card” complete with data on how well districts are doing in providing comprehensive college preparatory courses – including Advanced Placement classes – to all kids; this would make data easily accessible to families so they can make smarter decisions and be lead decision-makers in education. The move to hold schools with English Language Learner students (and receiving Title III dollars) accountable for improving the achievement of kids in their care is also a good step. And the Harkin plan smartly requires states to develop teacher evaluations that use objective student test score growth data; this was also a provision in the original version of the now-dead Harkin-Enzi plan. Given the opposition to such efforts from the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers, it’s questionable whether the provision will remain in the legislation; but at least Harkin is giving it the old college try.

Yet as with the Harkin-Enzi plan, the new plan is four steps backward for two steps forward. For one, the very name of the reauthorization itself — the Strengthening America’s Schools Act — emphasizes a misguided focuses on preserving traditionalist thinking when the focus of federal education policy should be on building brighter futures for children. Harkin fails to appreciate the symbolism of No Child’s name itself and the need to move away from policies and practices that preserve traditional districts at the expense of the children they are supposed to serve. The Harkin plan also ignores the crisis of low educational achievement for young men of all backgrounds that is a symptom of the nation’s educational crisis. As with the Harkin-Enzi plan, states and districts aren’t required to address policies and practices — including the overdiagnosis of learning disabilities and the overuse of suspension and expulsion in school discipline — that lead so many young men into the academic and social abyss. It also doesn’t add gender as a subgroup category for accountability purposes as Why Boys Fail author Richard Whitmire and I suggested two years ago. No one can ignore the consequences of the education crisis on young men and expect to achieve success.

Then there is the fact that the Harkin plan allows for accountability for 40 states and the District of Columbia to keep in place accountability regimes and proficiency targets approved by the Obama Administration as part of its waiver gambit. Through this move, along with the decision to allow states to replace AYP with similar accountability systems, the Harkin plan replicates one of the worst flaws of the Obama Administration’s effort: The rendering of 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 weakness of the accountability systems that both the Harkin plan will allow to remain in place matters because the Obama Administration’s waiver gambit may actually have allowed for states with sluggish reform efforts to continue avoiding undertaking strong reforms that will help children succeed. As the Education Sector makes clear in a report released this week on the waivers, the Obama Administration granted waivers to states such as South Carolina and West Virginia, which have historically weak curricula standards and haven’t exactly been moving forward on revamping its teacher evaluation systems. This has resulted in children in those states trailing behind their peers in strong reform states such as Florida and Massachusetts. Giving weak reform states even more leeway in structuring accountability systems — especially given that they didn’t even take advantage of the leeway in pursuing reforms that was granted through No Child — doesn’t make sense.

Meanwhile the Harkin plan to require states to focus on just the worst five percent of schools (along with another 10 percent of schools with wide achievement gaps), the Harkin plan is also duplicating the Obama Administration’s mistake of letting most districts not on watch — including those in suburbia — off the hook for serving up mediocre instruction and curricula to middle-class students (as well as perpetuating educational neglect and malpractice upon poor and minority kids in those classrooms). Systemic reform is not possible is districts — and the adults who work in them — are not held accountable for the performance of children who are left in their care.

But at least the Harkin plan remains dedicated at least in word (if not necessarily in deed or spirit) to the very principles of advancing systemic reform contained in No Child. This isn’t true with Alexander’s plan. It essentially rolls back federal education policy back to the days before the passage of No Child when the federal government simply ladled federal subsidies without requiring states to hold districts accountable for providing children with high-quality education — and would be no better than what was proposed by Kline in the House last year.

The only good news out of the Alexander plan — besides containing one-fifth of the pages in Harkin’s reauthorization effort — is that it would essentially voucherize Title 1 dollars so that families can choose any high-quality traditional district or charter school option available to them. [Alexander says he will amend the passage to allow for families to use those dollars for private and parochial schools as well.] Yet the plan doesn’t actually require states to enact Parent Trigger laws that would allow for the further expansion of choice by allowing families to take over and overhaul failing schools in their neighborhoods that their kids attend; this move would help Parent Power activists and other reformers on the ground pass laws that put families at the head of education decision-making, something that Alexander implicitly proclaimed he wanted during a New York Times interview. This isn’t surprising. After all, the Alexander plan is not about empowering families or advancing systemic reform, but about letting states spend money as freely as they so choose with some fig-leafs for reporting student performance data.

The Alexander plan would roll back the federal role in spurring reform by restricting the U.S. Department of Education from requiring states to implement high-quality curricula standards or specific accountability systems as condition of receiving Title 1 dollars or funds from competitive grant programs such as Race to the Top.  This proposed restriction, driven by movement conservatives and their opposition to the role the Obama Administration has played in supporting Common Core (as well as the disdain from suburban Republicans for competitive grants), would make sense if Alexander then proposed to eliminate federal education funding altogether. But he doesn’t. Instead, by proposing to restrict the Obama Administration (and successor administrations Democrat and Republican) from providing support for reform-minded governors and legislatures, Alexander is essentially stating that he wants federal subsidies to flow to states and districts without any accountability for results whatsoever. This is not only a betrayal of conservative and Republican Party principles; it also puts Alexander into the same camp as traditionalists.

Meanwhile the Alexander plan leaves in place some of the aspects of No Child that didn’t work. The oft-criticized Highly Qualified Teacher provision — which focused on teacher certification and other qualifications that have no positive correlation to student achievement instead of on teacher performance — should have been scrapped; instead, Alexander keeps the rule in place. Alexander’s plan also keeps in place supplement-not-supplant rule, a legacy of the original Elementary and Secondary Act upon which No Child that is supposed to prevent districts from using Title 1 dollars as a replacement for funding for poor and minority kids derived from their own coffers. Supplement-not-supplant has long been criticized by reformers for restricting districts from engaging in reforms because they cannot use the funds to overhaul school and district operations in a comprehensive way, and because it essentially promotes the kind of practices — including removing kids from regular classrooms during the school day for specific interventions — that have long ago proven to be ineffective in improving student achievement.

The Alexander plan is, simply put, not worth the paper upon which it is written. Same is true for Harkin’s proposal. Both, in turn, fail to acknowledge this fact: 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, 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). No Child fully signaled the primary role of states in education governance. And ultimately, without No Child, the reforms that have taken place within the past decade — including the expansion of school choice and efforts to revamp teacher training — would have never gained traction on a national level.

Both Harkin and Alexander should toss their respective plans into the dumpster and start over again. This would begin by building upon the positives that No Child has wrought.