The shifting of public opinion sometimes happens while we aren’t paying attention, and then it becomes clear that something has changed. Arne Duncan, the U.S. Secretary of Education, recently bowed to growing pressure against his policies when he told states they can delay for another year the requirement that they evaluate teachers based on students’ test results.
A couple of weeks ago Motoko Rich in the NY Times presented the history of the use of students’ scores for evaluating teachers: “Over the past four years, close to 40 states have adopted laws that tie teacher evaluations in part to the performance of their students on standardized tests… These laws were adopted in response to conditions set by the Education Department in the waivers it granted from the No Child Left Behind law, which governs what states must do to receive federal education dollars. The test-based teacher evaluations were also included as conditions of Race to the Top grants that have been given to states by the Obama administration.”
But recently controversy in several states about whether the U.S. Department of Education will renew or revoke the waivers from ill-conceived mechanisms of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) have drawn media attention to NCLB’s misguided policies, along with problems in what the waivers required states to do, and inconsistencies in the way Arne Duncan’s Department of Education is managing the waiver renewal process.
First came the extraordinary early August letter sent to all parents in Vermont by the state’s Secretary of Education, Rebecca Holcombe. Vermont is one of a handful of states that never applied for a waiver. That means NCLB is still operating in Vermont, and Holcombe sent the letter required by the law to all parents whose children attend schools considered “failing” by NCLB’s Adequate Yearly Progress mechanism. The problem is that, because NCLB required states to raise ‘cut scores’ for student proficiency higher every year at the same time NCLB mandated that all schools make all their students be proficient by 2014, virtually all schools across America (and all schools in Vermont) are now “failing schools” according to the way the law evaluates schools. In her letter to all of Vermont’s parents, Holcombe explained why her state has never sought a waiver, and then explained very clearly why NCLB’s ” failure label” is meaningless. She also explained how the whole test-and-punish regime of NCLB has been a fiasco, how the rules of NCLB and the waivers offered by Arne Duncan are all messed up, and why Vermont simply refuses to play the game. Her letter was a refreshing development! (This blog covered Holcombe’s Vermont letter here.)
No Child Left Behind and the NCLB waiver have also been in the news in Washington state, where the U.S. Department of Education revoked the state’s waiver because the state sought to let school districts choose the exam which would be used to evaluate the state’s teachers, when the waiver requirement is that the state test required by NCLB will be used for the evaluation of teachers. Reporters for the local Kitsap Sun on August 28th found themselves trying to explain—now that NCLB is operating again in Washington due to the loss of the waiver—why 88 percent of Washington’s public schools failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress under the newly reinstated standards of NCLB by which all students in 2014 are to reach proficiency or their schools be awarded a “failing” label. The reporters explain that the only schools in Washington state not deemed “failing” accomplished that feat under a little known “safe harbor” rule, “which credits schools for gaining significant ground in student achievement since 2011, the last time Washington had to calculate progress. Schools that reduce the percentage of students not meeting standard by 27 percent are deemed to be making adequate yearly progress, even if they didn’t hit the 100 percent target.” Only 260 public schools across Washington state met the “safe harbor” Adequate Yearly Progress standard. Like Vermont’s state superintendent, educational leaders across Kitsap County’s school districts are quoted listing the honors accomplished by many of the so-called “failing” public schools. It is refreshing to read discussion about unworkable federal education policy in a local newspaper.
Then Oklahoma lost its waiver on September 2, after the school year had already begun. This time the U.S. Department of Education revoked the waiver after the state’s legislature passed a law repealing the state’s adoption of the Common Core standards. Arne Duncan’s Department of Education had made a state’s adoption of “college and career-ready” standards a condition for receipt of a NCLB waiver, and federal regulators deemed the standards Oklahoma presented as an alternative to the Common Core—the state’s old Oklahoma Priority Academic Student Skills Standards—inadequate because too many Oklahoma college freshmen have needed remediation. Caitlin Emma, writing for Politico, explains that other states may be in line to lose waivers: “With Oklahoma and Washington out of the picture, 41 states and D.C. have waivers from No Child Left Behind. Thirty-fve of those waivers expired this summer and 22 states have received one-year extensions of their waivers so far.”
The Tampa Bay Times recently editorialized about the U.S. Department of Education’s threat to cancel Florida’s NCLB waiver: “Duncan’s staff has put Florida on notice that the state is at risk of violating NCLB standards that require all children to be counted equally in accountability formulas. Earlier this year, with the support of educators and advocates, the Legislature agreed to give non-English-speaking students two years in a U.S. school before including their standardized test scores in school grading formulas. The change was an acknowledgement of the huge learning curve such children face and that schools should not be penalized if those students can’t read, comprehend and write English at grade level within a year. Yet to the federal bureaucrats enforcing the unpopular NCLB law, such common sense doesn’t matter… The last thing federal enforcers should be doing is punishing a state for embracing a commonsense reform. Education Secretary Duncan needs to find a better solution.”
It is a very good thing to see the press exploring and exposing the local problems arising from of our federal testing law No Child Left Behind and from the state laws legislatures had to pass to enable their states to meet Arne Duncan’s conditions for receiving waivers. As more reporters cover these problems, perhaps like the editors of Tampa’s paper, more people will begin to cry out for commonsense reforms.
At the same time, there is still much confusion among reporters and the public about whose policies are driving what is becoming recognized as ill-conceived public education policy. Across the states debates are becoming heated about plans to evaluate teachers—based on students’ test scores. (You’ll remember that states had to pass legislation to this effect just to qualify for a waiver.) Despite that Arne Duncan has delayed for a year the requirement that states with waivers start such evaluations, discussion of the evaluations—at the same time states are launching the Common Core tests—is causing confusion, anger, and controversy. Many people (citizens as well as reporters) do not realize such test-based-evaluation of teachers is a federal waiver requirement. A recent article in the Athens (Georgia) Banner-Herald reflects the confusion. “Georgia’s new teacher assessment system is getting bad grades from Clarke County school administrators and school board members—really bad grades,” reported Lee Shearer late last week. “The new system is expensive–the school district has spent $10,000 in printing costs alone for newly designed pre-tests…. Another problem is the system’s heavy reliance on test scores. Under a 2013 state law sponsored by a bipartisan group of legislators, ‘student growth’ as measured by standardized tests accounts for half a teacher’s grade—even though the tests won’t count at all for individual students this year.”
That the Athens Banner-Herald is publicizing problems with excessive standardized testing is an important development. It is up to those of us who have been tracking federal policy, however, to continue to connect the dots to ensure that political pressure is not merely on state legislators, when state legislators passed the laws merely as a requirement to qualify for a federal NCLB waiver. Arne Duncan and the U.S. Department of Education are vulnerable right now due to all sorts of problems with the waivers. While controversy about the waivers continues to grow, we must ensure that reporters and citizens understand that federal waiver requirements are the reason for a number of problems in their states and local school districts. Political pressure needs to press the U.S. Department of Education to turn away from test-and-punish accountability.