This morning’s passage by the U.S. Senate of the Every Student Succeeds Act puts an unfortunate nail in the coffin of the No Child Left Behind Act and the strong accountability provisions that helped spur reforms that have helped more children attain high-quality education than at any other time in the history of American public education.
But the death of No Child came long before the passage and President Barack Obama’s seemingly inevitable signing of this legislation. In particular, today’s passage is just one of two dates that correspond to major mistakes in national education policy that should be remembered by people who care about building brighter futures for children.
The earliest date was in September of 2011. That is the time when now-former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced his grand waiver scheme to deal with problems arising from implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act. The law was then four years overdue in being reauthorized. More schools were at risk of being identified as in need of improvement than the authors had intended in 2001, when the Act was passed. Instead of addressing this problem through legislation or administrative action, Duncan used the problem as leverage to force states to accept input policies he, along with the Obama Administration and centrist Democrat reformers, favored.
The administration had a choice about how to resolve the problem. It could have gone one of two directions. Unfortunately, the manner in which it implemented its decision represented a huge mistake that has had and will continue to have serious negative consequences for our nation’s schools and its students.
The Obama Administration could have, absent legislation, chosen to give states flexibility specifically to avoid over-identification in return for improvements and strengthening of their accountability systems. This would have been a superb occasion to advance and further refine the accountability provisions already in federal law.
Had this been the basis of administrative action, several good results would have likely occurred. First, accountability would have been improved. Second, relief would have been appropriate to deal with problems that were then arising from NCLB. Third, the Congress would likely have accepted the action because it fit within the legislative intent behind No Child. And finally, making accountability work smarter and better would have likely lessened the public opposition to accountability that has developed in the wake of a system that has not been updated and improved.
Instead the Obama Administration chose a different, fateful path. It weakened accountability. It did so by reducing the scope of accountability to a very few schools, permitting super-subgroups to be used to mask subgroup problems, and arbitrarily voiding certain consequences permitted under No Child. Further, the Administration decided without any Congressional authority whatsoever to create its own quid pro quo requirements for granting the waivers. Among other things, it demanded that states adopt certain content standards, which were generally deemed to be the Common Core standards. And it required that states develop certain kinds of teacher evaluation systems. None of this was authorized by the Congress, and all of this was highly controversial.
Even worse, the administration’s process for vetting proposals from states under the waiver process has been a demonstrative failure. As Dropout Nation has documented throughout the past four years, Obama and Duncan granted waivers to states that didn’t have reforms in place to make their plans successful, often over the objections of its own peer review panels. Anyone who has spent time working on issues at the state level knows how difficult it is to implement anything amid opposition from teachers’ unions and school districts who rarely want to do the right things for children.
The point here is not to debate whether these were good or bad policies. The point here is simply to say that the Obama Administration weakened accountability in return for demanding state action to adopt policies based on its favored input strategies, using un-repaired features of No Child as the basis for the deals.
This strategy has failed. Not only has state performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress been stagnant in the four years this waiver scheme was put in place. As a result, the improvements in student achievement in the last decade (as measured through NAEP) have stalled.
Now, we have this date in this ending year, when both houses of Congress, with the Obama Administration’s blessing, gutted accountability with the so-called Every Student Succeeds Act. While annual testing and the provision for states to put together accountability plans with certain features continues to be required, this legislation fundamentally finishes off the evisceration of accountability begun by Obama and Duncan four years ago.
The federal government will have virtually no authority to enforce the meager “requirements” that remain. It will also have no power whatsoever to require any consequences for schools that fail to lift student achievement or close achievement gaps. The law has substantially weakened the rightful civil rights role played by the federal government in ensuring that children from poor and minority households, young men and women from black and Latino households long served poorly by public education, are provided high-quality education.
There are those reformers now cheering the passage of the bill who hope that states and districts will become accountable on their own. But this isn’t happening. As seen in Texas, California, and even in strong reform-oriented states such as Indiana and New York, traditionalists have been successful in weakening standards for high school graduation, getting rid of accountability measures, and ditching tests that are key in observing how well schools are serving our children. Opponents of reform have been successful in getting more money for doing less for our students — and that is all that has happened. And that can be credited to the Obama Administration’s decision four years ago to abandon strong accountability.
The celebration that those reformers who wanted an end to No Child, especially those in the Beltway, are doing right now will eventually turn to jeers and tears as they recognize what has been lost. The tools needed to provide high-quality education to children in our schools and beat back traditionalists who want anything but are now gone. What has replaced them will serve neither them nor our children any good.
Let’s hope for the best, and let’s work toward a far better end than I am predicting. But, from this month on, we must be exceedingly vigilant about the policies and practices that are adopted across the nation in the absence of federal pressure to improve and reform. We must watch all measures of student achievement, and if this month indeed proves to be the second red letter date marking the continuation of a long period of stagnation in student achievement, we must vow to bring news of such stagnation to the awareness of our fellow countrymen and women. And we must then press with all our strength for a return of the accountability we must bear if our young people are to be educated effectively to the high standards that are required for their success.