Tag Archives: Common Core

What State Policy Makers Can (and Should) Glean from the Largely Irrelevant ESEA Reauthorization Debate

These cold January days are shaping up to be heady times in federal education policy with Secretary Arne Duncan previewing the administration’s priorities for ESEA reauthorization in a speech this week and Congressional hearings set to begin. From conversation inside the beltway you’d never know that across the country, nearly every state legislature is gearing up to address many of the issues in focus in those national debates in real time. While the powers that be at the federal level will be debating annual versus grade-span testing, universal pre-k, and whether the federal government should increase its share of the total expenditure of public education by about one-half of one percent, state leaders will be acting on fundamental public education policies.

So how does this federal policy debate inform state-level work in the near term? It doesn’t really. Don’t get me wrong, federal education policy is important—clearly NCLB significantly affected how states, districts, and schools operate in the decade plus since its enactment. But under any realistic outcome scenario of the current reauthorization debate, federal requirements on states won’t increase much, if any. It’s much more likely that they’ll decrease. Given that, state policy makers are free to act in response to their own political contexts with low risk of winding up crosswise with a new federal mandate.

Consider the following statistics:

  • Number of state legislatures convening between the beginning and end of January: 45
  • Number of states in the middle of implementing the rigorous, new Common Core state standards: 44
  • Number of states in the middle of revisiting, reviewing, and otherwise “formally” arguing about those standards: 18
  • Number of states rolling out new assessment regimes over the next two years: 40
  • Number of states at some stage of litigation regarding school finance: 15.

To paraphrase Bull Durham, they’re dealing with a lot of {stuff}.  So, what about the national debate is instructive for state leaders now?

Annual testing is most likely here to stay. Secretary Duncan doubled down on it in his speech. And though the frequency of testing will be a central point of conflict between Congressional and Executive leadership, states won’t benefit from spending time and political capital pushing hard on this issue. Changing assessment regimes is expensive and time-consuming. Plus, there are compelling policy reasons to stick with the current annual system.

There’s not going to be a windfall of new federal money. Secretary Duncan’s $2.7 billion is almost certainly the high side in terms of possible new federal money for education. While it’s a big number by itself, in the context of total public education spending, not so much. He referenced about $1 billion for Title I, which leaves the rest for other priorities of the administration. So if this funding materializes at all, the bulk of it will most likely go to individual states with policy agendas that align with those priorities. If your state is ready to move toward universal pre-k and the like, your ears should perk up. Those with big money problems will need to do that work themselves (and they should).

States are going to stay in the driver’s seat with regard to standards and accountability—as they have been under waivers. And with great power, comes….you know. The bottom line on standards is that the context under which the Common Core standards were developed hasn’t changed. Students need to be ready for post-secondary training (really ready without remediation), and they increasingly need to compete with graduates all over the world. They are behind the 8-ball on both. Reducing the rigor of the standards perpetuates the myth that something less is good enough. So if state and local politics require that some states back away from the Common Core brand to get buy-in, then so be it. But don’t lower the standards. It sells students short. The policy lever to adjust here is on the accountability side with careful consideration about how to support transition and how best to measure and fairly judge the progress of students and schools.

With so much in public education in transition, these are certainly not the only important issues on which state policy makers will engage over the coming months. They are simply the ones most closely tied to the current federal debate. As a state legislative staff alumna, I wish my fellow staties the best of luck with all the heavy lifting.

Optimistic Predictions Notwithstanding, Common Core Faces Brutal 2015

Lots of edu-commentators have lots of edu-predictions for 2015. I’ve tried my hand at the forecasting business (relentlessly in some cases), so far be it from me to nitpick all this crystal-balling.

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Photo from savethepostoffice.com

But one recurring theme strikes me as wishful thinking: that the 2015 politics of Common Core won’t be so bad.

My Bellwether colleague Andy Rotherham, with whom I often agree, wrote the “biggest debates about Common Core might be behind us.” Similarly, Carmel Martin predicted our “Moving on From Common Core Debates.” She wrote, “for the most part legislators are getting tired of the issue.”

To me, believing this requires turning a blind eye to three enormous facts.

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In Defense of Standardized Testing

According to a Gallup poll last fall, one in eight teachers thinks that the worst thing about the Common Core is testing. On the surface, that’s hardly newsworthy. We know states are changing their tests to align to the new standards, and those changes have inevitably bred uncertainty, anxiety, and even hostility, especially when results could carry high stakes someday. But educators surveyed didn’t say they were upset that the tests were changing, or that there could be consequences tied to the results. Rather, they were upset that the tests exist. Specifically, 12 percent of U.S. public school teachers “don’t believe in standardized testing.” Much like the debate over global warming, these non-believers refuse to validate an unassailable fact: standardized testing does have positive– and predictive–value in education and in life, just as the Earth is, indeed, getting warmer.

More specifically, this righteous conviction—“I don’t believe in testing”—is at odds with most policy analysis. Regardless of political or ideological bent, most will admit that NCLB got one thing right: exposing achievement gaps through the disaggregation of student data. Where did that data come from? Standardized tests. Instead of ignoring longstanding disparities in schooling, NCLB’s testing regimen forced states and districts to quantify them, examine them, and most importantly, try to improve them. It gave policymakers, administrators, and educators a common language to talk about student achievement and progress, and evaluate what was working based on evidence, not perception. Sure, standardized testing needed to be refined over the last decade to enhance quality and reduce unintended consequences—and could still use upgrades and be open to further innovation. But the value of standardized testing in terms of better understanding and improving a public education system as vast and fragmented as ours is undeniable, right? Continue reading

NCLB Reauthorization Lies Through the Center, But Can It Hold?

Like clockwork, every two years, Congress decides it’s time to debate a reauthorization of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). And the alarm is set to go off again, with NCLB at the top of the legislative agenda for the incoming Republican chairmen of the House and Senate education committees. After sessions marked by record-breaking inefficiency, could the 114th Congress be the one that finally gets an NCLB rewrite done?

It would be fitting, after all, with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act turning 50 next year. And nobody seems to care for Secretary Duncan’s NCLB waiver strategy in lieu of a permanent reauthorization. Plus, with the ascendance of Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and a changing of the guard on the left after the retirements of Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Rep. George Miller (D-CA), it’s possible that new leadership could move past the partisanship that marred the last attempt to rewrite the law in 2013.

But which direction will they move? If the end goal is a bipartisan reauthorization, there are actually two ways GOP leadership could attempt to piece together a coalition:

  1. Bring together the wings. One of the most unusual developments over the past year or so is the convergence of the extremes of both parties. Staunch conservatives on the right, incensed by what they consider to be egregious federal overreach in regards to Common Core, teacher evaluations, and school turnarounds, have found common ground with unions and progressives on the left, fed up with what they see as out-of-control standardized testing and its undue influence on high-stakes accountability for schools and teachers. The solution, for both, is the same: gut NCLB’s signature standards, testing, and accountability provisions, and devolve most authority back to states and local districts. In other words, federal education policy circa 1994.

The problem is, of course, that standards-based accountability–or lack thereof–is one of the only things this motley bipartisan coalition could agree on. The right would like Title I portability, or even vouchers, in the law, or to expand the use of block grants to trim categorical programs. But if there’s one thing progressives and the unions won’t tolerate it’s less money for public education, or the loss of dedicated funding streams for certain programs (arts education, afterschool programs, English language learners, incarcerated youth, etc.). With those policy preferences, the wings of both parties are unlikely to coalesce around a complete NCLB reauthorization–there are just too many roadblocks over funding, choice, and other provisions. And even if they can come to some agreement on funding (say, a large increase in Title I formula funds in exchange for converting most of it to block grants), it’s even less likely that President Obama would sign such a bill if it’s main selling feature is “ending the Obama administration’s National School Board.” Continue reading

Rural Schools and Education Reform

Here at Bellwether’s great new blog, I’m going to be writing regularly about rural K-12, with special attention to the important developments getting too little attention and the interesting reform work flying under the radar.

rural schoolhouseSome of these posts will be dedicated to fascinating, hot-off-the-presses research from the ROCI Task Force, a joint effort of a group of terrific scholars (led by Paul Hill), Bellwether, and the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation. Stay tuned for my first installment along these lines: a piece about Hill’s excellent introductory piece to the ROCI work and contemporary rural education reform.

But to get things kicked off, I wanted to offer just a flavor of the big stuff going on in this field. Continue reading