NY Times’ Motoko Rich Fails to Examine the Deeper Issues in No Child Left Behind Waivers

At the beginning of her NY Times article yesterday,  Washington State, Political Stand Puts Schools in a Bind, Motoko Rich, the NY Times‘ education reporter, describes a Washington state public school that perfectly epitomizes Arne Duncan’s test-and-punish school turnaround narrative: replace the principal and half the staff, lengthen the school day and year, and use a $3 million federal grant to retrain teachers.  The school clearly won a School Improvement Grant to be turned around, and it seems to have miraculously improved its math scores, though we are not told, really, exactly how the transformation occurred and how the children’s experience at school changed.

Rich tells the story of Lakeridge Elementary School to make her point about Washington state’s foolish choice to lose its No Child Left Behind Waiver by refusing to comply with one of the conditions set by Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s Department of Education, that to qualify for a waiver, a state must use scores from a statewide standardized test as part of its plan to evaluate teachers.  She quotes Michael Petrilli, of the far-right Fordham Foundation, “We’re punishing schools and educators and arguably kids, because state policy makers don’t want to do what the Education Department demands.”

Rich explains that the No Child Left Behind Law is now known to be deeply flawed.  She describes the public schools in Washington state that have lost their waiver as now forced to be “held to an outdated benchmark that is all but impossible to achieve,” and she describes the consequences.  Washington’s schools that were unable to prove all their children proficient by 2014 are to be labeled failures.  Because the law embodied a utopian aspiration that all American children were to be proficient by 2014, virtually all of the state’s schools and all schools across America are—according to No Child Left Behind—now “failing” schools.  And under the old rules of No Child Left Behind—rules that have been eliminated for states winning waivers—Washington must set aside Title I funding for children who wish to transfer out of their “failing” school and for privatized tutoring for parents who want their children in failing schools tutored.  Rich writes that the loss of the waiver and the naming of all schools as “failures” has demoralized teachers, confused parents, and perplexed educators and lawmakers.

What Rich does not do in her article is examine the U.S. Department’s conditions for states to qualify for waivers.  Rich does not explore questions about the use of state standardized test scores for evaluating teachers, despite the presence of a healthy debate about these subjects in both research literature, including a warning just last spring from the American Statistical Association, and the press.  The policy of using students’ scores to rate teachers has been widely questioned because standardized test scores were not designed to evaluate teachers.  Neither have students’ standardized test scores shown themselves to be reliable or stable from year to year as a representation of the performance of particular teachers.  Rich’s article does not acknowledge that such widespread concern may have motivated some legislators in Washington state to vote against the use of standardized test scores for evaluation of teachers.  She merely treats the loss of the waiver as a catastrophe that should have been avoided.

Although Motoko Rich is the NY Times education reporter, she is not an educator.  Her biography on the newspaper’s website says: “Motoko Rich writes about national K-12 education for the New York Times.  Prior to that, she covered the national economy, writing about work force training, unemployment, housing and retirement.  She also covered the book publishing industry for four years… Before joining The Times, Motoko worked as a staff reporter at The Wall Street Journal for six years, in Atlanta and New York.  She started her career as a reporter at The Financial Times in London.”  One wonders if Rich might have covered the story of the Department of Education’s denial of Washington state’s waiver differently if she had a background in education.

In the context of Rich’s article in yesterday’s NY Times, it is worth remembering the letter sent out to all parents in Vermont just two months ago, on August 6, 2014.  In this letter, Rebecca Holcombe, the state’s Secretary of Education writes:

“Under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), as of 2014, if only one child in your school does not score as ‘proficient’ on state tests, then your school must be ‘identified’ as ‘low performing’ under federal law.  This year, every school whose students took the NECAP tests last year is now considered a ‘low performing’ school by the US Department of Education… The Vermont Agency of Education does not agree with this federal policy, nor do we agree that all of our schools are low performing.” (emphasis Holcombe’s)

Holcombe describes positive accomplishments in the public schools across the state of Vermont, but then reminds parents why she is sending this strange letter telling them their school is a failure: “Nevertheless, if we fail to announce that each Vermont school is ‘low performing,” we jeopardize federal funding for elementary and secondary education… This policy does not serve the interest of Vermont schools, nor does it advance our economic or social well-being.  Further, it takes our focus away from other measures that give us more meaningful and useful data on school effectiveness.”

Holcombe explains why Vermont has chosen never to apply for a waiver: “Most other states have received a waiver to get out from under the broken NCLB policy.  They did this by agreeing to evaluate their teachers and principals based on the standardized test scores of their students… We chose not to agree to a waiver for a lot of reasons, including that the research we have read on evaluating teachers based on test scores suggests these methods are unreliable in classes with 15 or fewer students, and this represents about 40-50% of our classes.  It would be unfair to our students to automatically fire their educators based on technically inadequate tools.  Also, there is evidence suggesting that over-relying on test-based evaluation might fail to credit educators for doing things we actually want them to do, such as teach a rich curriculum across all important subject areas, and not just math and English language arts.”

Finally, Holcombe tells parents how she thinks they themselves ought to investigate the quality of their children’s schools.  She suggests parents talk with their children about school, and she suggests questions to guide these conversations, questions guaranteed to engage the parents in what’s happening with their children each day at school:

  • “What evidence does your school provide of your child’s growing proficiency?
  • Is your child developing the skills and understanding she needs to thrive in school and
    the community?
  • Are graduates of your school system prepared to succeed in college and/or careers?
  • Is your child happy to go to school and engaged in learning?
  • Can your child explain what he is learning and why? Can your child give examples of
    skills he has mastered?
  • Is your child developing good work habits? Does she understand that practice leads to
    better performance?
  • Does your child feel his work in school is related to his college and career goals?
  • Does your child have one adult at the school whom she trusts and who is committed to
    her success?
  • If you have concerns, have you reached out to your child’s teacher to share your
    perspective?”

While I am not particularly fond of the cliche about people who can’t think outside the box, I think in today’s article about Washington state’s loss of its No Child Left Behind Waiver, Motoko Rich fails to think outside the box by uncritically accepting all the assumptions behind Arne Duncan’s No Child Left Behind Waivers and the entire test-and-punish accountability narrative about school reform that has been the foundation of federal education policy under Presidents George Bush and Barack Obama.

Rebecca Holcombe, Vermont’s Secretary of Education is far more creative in the letter she sent to all of Vermont’s parents at the beginning of the school year.  Her sending this letter is a bureaucratic requirement of the flawed and very damaging No Child Left Behind Law, but she seized the requirement as an opportunity to educate parents about the serious consequences of rating teachers by students’ scores and the ludicrous “failing” label being attached to Vermont’s schools.   And her letter categorically affirms her confidence in Vermont’s teachers and her expectations for Vermont’s parents to engage actively in their children’s education.

I would prefer to see education coverage in the NY Times explore far more deeply the implications of federal policy, including the federal testing law No Child Left Behind, the competitive grant programs of President Obama’s Department of Education like  Race to the Top and School Improvement Grants, and the No Child Left Behind Waivers.  Vermont’s Secretary of Education is clearly less concerned about her state’s lack of a waiver than Motoko Rich is about the loss of Washington state’s waiver.

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