Tag Archives: Congress

My Reaction to K-12 Issues in SOTU

Alexander’s ESEA Draft: A Plan Isn’t a Good Plan

We already know just how little has changed in Senator Alexander’s new ESEA reauthorization proposal since his last stab at rewriting the federal law in 2013. But it’s worth elaborating on just how far Alexander is willing to go to “stop the national school board.” Never mind Senator Murray’s and Secretary Duncan’s insistence that federal policy must serve as a safeguard for educational equity and opportunity, and combat “the soft bigotry of ‘it’s optional.” Alexander’s draft does exactly the opposite. It doesn’t just provide more options for states by limiting the federal role. It allows for unlimited options by eviscerating the federal role.

That shift is most apparent in Alexander’s approach to Title I. Under his proposal, nearly $15 billion in Title I dollars would be distributed without any real mechanism to ensure state compliance. In all, I counted over a dozen ways in which federal oversight of state implementation would be hampered in Title I alone: The bill would create barriers for the Department to enact regulations if a negotiated rulemaking fails to reach consensus and would prohibit the Secretary from specifying, defining, or prescribing just about anything related to state standards, assessments, accountability and improvement systems, or educator evaluations. In short, the theory of action behind the nation’s largest federal K-12 education program would boil down to: submit a plan.

In general, I’m not a fan of plans. Just try reading the ones states submitted to receive an NCLB waiver–so many details, so little information on whether those detailed policies are actually improving student outcomes. But the Title I plans states would develop to comply with Alexander’s proposal could be far worse, lacking both detailed narrative and actual evidence to prove states meet key requirements.

That’s because, as my colleague Chad Aldeman pointed out (again), Alexander relies on assurances that states are holding up their end of the bargain, rather than demonstrations that they are (as NCLB requires). Assurances can be nothing more than promises—and the Secretary has few tools to enforce them in the new draft.

What does policymaking via assurance look like? Here’s a Cliff’s Notes version of a Title I state plan that could meet the requirements of Alexander’s proposal:

Dear Secretary,

Here in the 51st state, we have really great standards.  Our colleges pinky-promise that students who meet the standards won’t be placed in remediation.

Further, we have really great tests, even though a handful of districts are creating their own and our process for ensuring reliability or consistent scoring is half-baked. And we’re also only administering state tests in three grades, so that means there aren’t any statewide growth measures—just local ones, maybe, but we swear we’re keeping track of that.

Speaking of growth, we have an accountability system that’s super awesome. It’s based on a multiple measures dashboard (see attached 47-factor dashboard that helpfully breaks down information into an easily downloadable, 33-page, 10-font report for each school), that includes the four-year adjusted cohort graduation rate (since that’s the only detail the feds require), proficiency rates, and a bunch of other metrics.

And if we do find that some Title I schools are low-performing—and we’re not saying that they are—we promise that our districts are working hard to improve them. We don’t know if those efforts are based on science or research, but we’re sure you don’t mind.

Keep an eye out for our report cards!

Sincerely, 51st State

Alexander’s draft bill may appear to keep at least some key elements of federal policy intact: challenging standards, testing, school ratings, improvement strategies, and so forth. But thanks to the reliance on assurances, its Title I provisions are merely options masquerading as enforceable requirements.

It just goes to show, the only thing worse than a plan… is a really bad one.

Why Patty Murray is the Key to an ESEA Deal

Yesterday, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) released his hotly awaited discussion draft for a reauthorization of ESEA: the Every Child Ready for College or Career Act of 2015. But given that the 114th Congress has only been in session for a couple weeks, it should come as no surprise that this draft isn’t really new. It’s mostly his 2013 bill (of the same name) repackaged, as Chad Aldeman wrote earlier. Still, Alexander is determined to shepherd it through Congress by summer, despite the fact that this proposal failed to win a single Democratic vote in committee last time around.

But maybe times have changed. At least that’s what some, like Fordham’s Mike Petrilli, are hoping. After all, in floor speeches yesterday, both Alexander and Senate HELP Committee ranking member Patty Murray (D-WA) praised the virtues of bipartisanship in fixing No Child Left Behind. And Murray is known for being a savvy consensus-builder in her time at the helm of the Senate Budget Committee.

I wouldn’t count on it this time. That’s because Alexander and Murray may agree on the tone of the debate, but not on policy. And in Senator Murray’s view, the problem with NCLB is not an out-of-control federal government. Rather, Murray defended the federal role, even though her own state lost its waiver from NCLB because of it, and laid out key principles for reauthorization that echoed Secretary Duncan’s remarks on Monday: the need for a new ESEA to ensure that states adopt high standards, better and more streamlined annual testing systems, and strong accountability policies, alongside increased investments in innovation and early childhood.

As leader of the committee Democrats and a member of Senate minority leadership, Murray’s ESEA stance is a leading indicator of how Alexander’s draft will be received, and proceed, through the Senate. Her remarks may not have been as forceful as the Secretary’s, but that only proves her value in the coming negotiations–as one that could bring the two sides closer together (UPDATE: especially after Duncan’s tepid reaction to the draft bill).

But in making so few changes to his 2013 draft bill, Alexander has yet to make a serious effort to bring Murray into the fold. And that’s a mistake. It’s true that her support may not be critical to getting Alexander the 60 votes he needs on the floor, especially if he tries to woo anti-testing, union-friendly Democrats. But her support remains critical to getting the 60 votes Alexander will need to get a bill to President Obama that he can sign.

If these are Murray’s policy preferences—and if Secretary Duncan insists on combatting the “soft bigotry of ‘it’s optional’”—then Alexander’s draft bill just isn’t going to cut it. Not in the super-majority Senate, and not on the President’s desk.

The “Soft Bigotry of ‘It’s Optional’”–and What it Reveals about ESEA Politics, Policy, and Prospects

No matter the final outcome, one things is for certain: the new Congress has energized the debate over ESEA reauthorization. In the span of a weekend, numerous organizations articulated key principles for overhauling No Child Left Behind, including state education chiefscivil rights organizations, and the nation’s second largest teachers union, the AFT.

Now, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has stepped into the fray, in a significant policy speech this morning, marking the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s call to Congress to expand the federal role in education–which resulted in the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

The big news item here is Secretary Duncan’s “line in the sand”–keeping the requirement for students to be tested statewide in reading and math annually in grades 3-8 and once in high school. But what sets Duncan’s remarks apart from the statements released over the weekend isn’t testing, but how strongly he defended other potential federal responsibilities in a new ESEA, including requirements for states to:

  • adopt college- and career-ready standards;
  • continue producing annual information for families about their child’s learning, and the learning environment and results for their schools as a whole;
  • maintain school accountability systems that include consequences for schools where students don’t make academic progress; and
  • improve teacher preparation programs, and establish teacher evaluation systems that include evidence of students’ learning.

Duncan also highlighted ways the federal government could be even more active in promoting opportunity, such as resource accountability to ensure that low-income and minority kids are not shortchanged when it comes to course access, effective teachers, and fiscal resources; new support for innovation and research that helps schools continuously improve; and an expanded role within ESEA to help states deliver high-quality preschool.

In defending a robust federal role, Secretary Duncan even co-opted President Bush’s talking point by calling out “the soft bigotry of ‘it’s optional.’” That’s not just a great punch line. It also revealed much more about the politics of reauthorization, the confusing and convoluted federal education policy landscape, and the prospects of this particular effort to rewrite NCLB. Continue reading

Let’s Talk about Tests: Four Questions to Ask

If you follow education news, politics, and social media, it’s clear that testing is having a moment. I was surprised it wasn’t listed alongside Taylor Swift as a nominee for Time magazine’s 2014 Person of the Year. Everyone–policymakers, unions, state leaders, local administrators, teachers, parents, you name it–seems to agree that the amount of testing and its role in America’s schools and classrooms merit reconsideration. But the momentum of this “over-testing” meme has overshadowed the fact that testing policy is complicated. And when the field talks about “over-testing,” it’s often not talking about the same kinds of tests or the same set of issues.

To help clarify and elevate our over-testing conversation (because it’s here to stay), here are four questions to ask, with considerations to weigh, when deciding whether testing is indeed out of control–and evaluating the possible options to change it. Continue reading