Tag Archives: NCLB reauthorization

3 Observations On Senator Lamar Alexander and School Choice

Three observations on Senator Lamar Alexander and school choice:

1. Although Senator Alexander supports school choice, his proposal to reauthorize No Child Left Behind isn’t really a school choice bill. In the past Alexander, has personally sponsored a private school voucher bill, and at the Brookings Institution yesterday he outlined four things he thinks the federal government could do to boost school choice–vouchers, vouchers for students with disabilities, vouchers for District of Columbia students, and expanding the federal charter school program. Of those four things, only one, charter schools, made it into Alexander’s draft proposal for reauthorizing No Child Left Behind.

Maybe this is the Senator playing politics–he clearly still supports vouchers–but his NCLB reauthorization proposal is actually worse on public school choice than current law. Under current law, low-performing public schools must allow students the option to transfer to another school in their district. Alexander’s draft would make this provision optional, closing the only existing federal rule that ensures families have a choice of school for their children. Continue reading

The Burden of Proof in Federal Education Policy

Are states entitled to federal education money? Lamar Alexander, the Republican Chairman of the Senate HELP Committee, seems to think so. His draft bill to reauthorize the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act would entitle states with $14.9 billion a year federal dollars in exchange for…not much.

For the last 50 years, since the first federal K-12 education dollars began flowing to states, states had to ensure federal money was being spent on poor students and that they weren’t using federal investments as a replacement for state or local funding. Since the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002, states have also had to measure and do something about student learning results.

Alexander would end this quid pro quo relationship. Instead of states having to comply with federal rules in order to get federal money, Alexander’s bill would require the U.S. Secretary of Education to prove states didn’t deserve federal money. Here’s the key provision:

The Secretary shall…deem a State plan as approved within 45 days of its submission unless the Secretary presents a body of substantial, high-quality education research that clearly demonstrates that the State’s plan does not meet the requirements of this section and is likely to be ineffective or is inappropriate for its intended purposes.

Not only would it have the U.S. Secretary of Education acting like a time-constrained prosecutor, but the bill is sprinkled with at least 16 50 other ways to limit federal oversight over federal money.

Continue reading

My Reaction to K-12 Issues in SOTU

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.

Grade-Span Accountability Is A Bad Idea: Just Ask CAP and the AFT

The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the Center for American Progress (CAP) have released a joint set of principles for ESEA reauthorization. They call for preserving statewide annual testing requirements for students, but they would base school-level accountability only on tests taken once per grade span—once in elementary school, once in middle school, and once in high school.

Like the Education Trust, we think this is a bad idea. Grade-span accountability solves none of the problems of our current system while making other problems worse. Namely:

  1. It doesn’t address concerns about over-testing. Students could be taking the same number of tests as they have in the past, particularly if districts don’t reduce the number of duplicative and unnecessary local tests. CAP has rightly cited these local tests as the root of the problem, but this proposal would not reduce the number of federally mandated tests.
  2. Rather than decreasing the stakes on standardized tests, the AFT/CAP proposal would amplify them. Under their plan, a 5th grader would no longer be taking tests that reflect just on the 5th grade. His or her results would be the basis on which their entire school was judged. How, exactly, does this help “de-link [academic standards] from high-stakes tests”, as AFT President Randi Weingarten suggested a year ago?
  3. It makes it even harder to focus on specific subgroups. NCLB held schools accountable for every subgroup that had a sufficient number of students (called the minimum “n-size”). But under the CAP/ AFT proposal, a school’s 5th grade African-American, ELL, or SWD groups could be too small to meet the minimum n-size and the whole school’s disadvantaged students could go uncounted. This may sound wonky and technical, but it becomes a pretty huge issue even at relatively small n-sizes (such as 10 or 20 students). Arne Duncan has estimated that hundreds of thousands of students were invisible to state accountability systems because of n-size issues. CAP has praised states in the past for lowering their n-sizes, but their plan to have fewer students “count” toward a school’s accountability rating would mean less attention on important subgroups of students.
  4. We already have anecdotes about teachers who prefer to avoid tested grades and subjects. They may prefer teaching in 2nd grade, where there are no required standardized tests, than 3rd grade, where there are. But it’s tough to avoid the current tests altogether because they’re given in 3rd through 8th grade. Grade-span testing would make it even tougher to attract teachers into those few areas with much higher stakes. Who wants to be a 5th grade teacher when they might responsible for their entire school? In most places, they won’t even earn any extra money for all the added pressure! Moreover, this is exactly the kind of policy the AFT previously opposed for teacher evaluations. A year ago, Weingarten wrote: “In Florida, the system went completely haywire, giving teachers value-added scores for students they had never taught.” If it’s not okay for educator accountability, why is it okay for school accountability?
  5. Standardized tests are often criticized for merely reflecting student demographics. While states and districts have been slow to implement accountability systems that incorporate student growth, with annual statewide testing, we at least had a hope of shifting attention to how much progress students make over time. CAP and the AFT once shared this hope. Yes, not all that long ago AFT advocated for an ESEA that “judges school effectiveness—the only valid and fair basis for accountability—by measuring the progress that schools achieve with the same students over time.” With longer gaps between tests that count for accountability purposes, we’re more likely to lean even heavier on raw test scores, measures that are highly correlated with student demographics.
  6. Under this plan, students and families would still get a sense of how much progress they’re making. That’s important, but it’s odd to then turn around and suggest that states and school districts should ignore this same information for determining school progress. As CAP’s 2011 NCLB recommendations suggest, “Measuring and reporting student data is not sufficient to improve our nation’s schools. Congress should take several steps to ensure schools act on that data to boost student outcomes.” We assume they did not mean several steps backwards.
  7. AFT and CAP pitch their proposal as targeting interventions to schools with large achievement gaps. That’s true, it would identify schools with gaps. But, ironically, it would give no credit to schools that are actually closing those achievement gaps. CAP used to support annual gap-closing goals. But now, schools with large concentrations of economically disadvantaged and minority students, English Language Learners, or students with disabilities would all be penalized unfairly, worse than they are under NCLB.

Ultimately, this plan would move us closer to how other countries do testing: fewer tests with much higher stakes. Rather than having regular check-ups on student progress, with relatively low stakes on those results, we’d have much higher stakes attached to a smaller number of test scores. Fortunately, AFT and CAP have already told us why this is a bad idea.