With NCLB reauthorization taking another step forward today, I’m again hearing the refrain that states won’t back away from school accountability when they’re not forced to by the feds. “We’re in a new era,” I’m told, and states are going to lead the way forward. I hope this is true, and this is certainly the theory of action behind the current reauthorization proposal, but historical precedent runs against it. Here are just a few examples from NCLB:
Annual testing: Prior to NCLB, nearly every state required some test in reading and math, but they weren’t given annually and many were norm-referenced, meaning they compared students against their peers rather than holding all students to the same standard. As of 2002, only 9 states required all students in grades 3-8 to take a criterion-referenced test in English Language Arts. Only 7 did so in math. Only 14 states required any test in ELA in grades 3-8, and only 10 did so in math. These figures come from a 2002 CCSSO report tracking state education policies.
Accountability systems: States began implementing school accountability systems in the early 1990s, but by the time of NCLB’s enactment in 2002 just 29 states had adopted some form of consequential accountability system. Another 14 relied on transparency alone, and the remaining 7 states did nothing. (For more details on the timeline and why consequential accountability matters, see here).
Disaggregation: States may have been testing or holding schools accountable, but a 2000 GAO report found they generally weren’t looking at the performance of particular groups of students. 10 states failed to disaggregate results for students with disabilities, 11 didn’t do so by race, 12 didn’t track students with Limited English Proficiency, and 24 states didn’t disaggregate by income. Only 17 states disaggregated by ALL these groups. (See Figure 5).
Other measures: The same GAO report also showed that states were slow to enhance their accountability systems with other measures beyond test scores. As of 2000, only 22 states disaggregated graduation rates (graduation rates!) by high school.
NCLB forced states to improve on all these measures. And while people routinely laud NCLB for that fact, those same people often assert that federal authority can’t do anything worthwhile. It can, and it did.
This same pattern has continued to play out since NCLB as well. Federal nudges keep prodding states along in ways that are good for the country. Practically no state was using a growth model to hold schools accountable for the progress students made each year rather than just their final proficiency rates until the Bush Administration specifically invited states to participate in a pilot program. Only a few states had the technical capacity to do so, but within a few years of the pilot program, 15 states did. That progress stalled after the Obama Administration failed to promote or improve the pilot. When the Obama Administration offered states an opportunity to re-think their accountability systems as part of its waiver initiative (which I worked on at the Department of Education), some states took up the offer and did come up with creative new ideas. But many states failed to take up the mantle and use the opportunity to really rethink their accountability systems.
I’m afraid this is what we’ll see more of when the federal government stops pushing states forward. We’ll continue to see some high-flying states doing really creative, good things for students. But we’ll see a lot more just kind of getting by and doing the bare minimum, particularly when local politics and inertia prevent state leaders from pursuing bold changes on behalf of disadvantaged students. I hope I’m wrong, but history suggests I’m right.
Seattle Public Schools students headed back to school late this week after a teachers strike delayed the start of the school year by about one week. The main grounds for the strike were lack of teacher pay increases and heavy teacher workloads—both of which got sorted out in the deal negotiated by the Seattle Education Association (SEA) and the school district. Another significant result of the negotiation? Student test scores will no longer be tied to teacher evaluations.
A major reason the SEA was able to slide in the negotiation about student test scores and teacher evaluations is the fact that Washington State does not have an ESEA waiver, which requires student growth to be a “significant” part of evaluations (how significant is largely left up to the states). For teachers of tested grades and subjects, the waiver rules require that state tests be included at some level. Interestingly, the ESEA bills moving to conference in the coming months will not include teacher evaluation, effectively removing the federal requirement for the use of student test scores in teacher evaluation. All of this raises the question: could what happened in Seattle be an indicator of what may happen to teacher evaluation systems across the country? Continue reading →
This week, Paul Bruno wrote a thought-provoking piece for the Brookings Institution arguing that the waning teacher supply in certain parts of the country could be driving overwhelmingly positive teacher evaluation ratings in most states and districts. “The extent to which a principal is willing to dismiss (or give a poor evaluation to) a teacher will likely depend in part upon her beliefs about the probability of finding a superior replacement in a reasonable period of time,” Bruno writes. While there is some truth to Bruno’s argument, his framing of teacher evaluation—as a system that is built to “dismiss teachers”— furthers a flawed narrative about the purpose and use of teacher evaluation systems.
The purpose of reformed teacher evaluation systems, first and foremost, is to identify teachers’ strengths and weaknesses in order to refine educators’ instruction for improved student learning. Continue reading →
Yesterday the House ESEA rewrite squeaked through with just enough votes to pass. Yet there was much less debate over an opt-out amendment presented by Rep. Matt Salmon, a Republican from Arizona. Surprisingly, Salmon’s amendment looks a great deal like a business item approved at the NEA convention earlier this month.
After some back and forth, the NEA Representative Assembly approved a proposal to support the opt-out movement. But the nation’s largest teachers union didn’t stop there. Another approved business item requires the NEA to highlight what affiliates are doing to inform parents of the “negative effects of testing” and their ability to opt out their children. And there’s yet another approved proposal related to opt-out that requires the union to recognize parents who decide to opt their students out of standardized assessments. If you ever questioned how the NEA feels about the opt-out movement, you now know.
These were just a few of more than 15 anti-testing proposals debated at the 2015 NEA convention. Another directs the union to campaign to end the assessments created by the PARCC and Smarter Balanced consortia, as long as they’re used for teacher evaluation and school ratings. Others have the NEA taking part in everything from lobbying state legislatures to oppose cut scores on Common Core assessments, to providing talking points on the history of standardized testing.
As Stephen Sawchuk pointed out, these NEA proposals are just that, proposals—they direct the union to do something for a year, but aren’t resolutions or longstanding declarations. However, they signal where the union is headed.
In an increasingly partisan world, it’s striking when parties on two separate sides of the aisle agree to buck the federal government and protect the interest of adults.
It started with two really depressing facts. NCLB hadn’t worked. But the pre-NCLB era hadn’t worked either–that’s why we got NCLB, for goodness sake.
But instead of obsessing about the weakness of both (we and everyone else had done plenty of that already), we started thinking about the strengths of both. Before NCLB, states and their districts and schools had lots of flexibility. They could develop policies and practices that fit local needs, and they could change courses swiftly when things went wrong. Education leaders were in charge of their standards, tests, and accountability systems, so they felt a sense of ownership over their state’s system of public education.
In the NCLB era, we got an increased focus on student achievement. We were able to track the performance of all kids, and we were assured of meaningful school and district interventions when students were falling behind. We also enjoyed an unprecedented increase in accountability for billions in federal taxpayer funds.
Our question became: Is it possible to marry the best of both eras? We started sketching something out.
We eventually hit upon what turned out to be The Big Question–the one that ultimately brought about “Pacts Americana,” the report we’re releasing today: Does the education world have some kind of time-tested system–something could be brought to bear on ESEA reauthorization–for combining real accountability with real autonomy?