On several occasions over the holidays, I was reminded of something I already knew: most people don’t want to wade in the weedy marsh of education policy. If the mainstream press says the new Every Student Succeeds Act is a big improvement over No Child Left Behind, lots of people say, “Wow! We can cross that worry off our list!”
Unfortunately things are going to be a whole lot more complicated.
Much of the thoughtful analysis of the new federal education law has been written for the education wonks who will parse and compare NCLB and ESSA and argue about what the Department of Education will put into the administrative rules. Here, however, is education writer Alfie Kohn’s short, incisive, and well written commentary for the non-expert about the meaning of the new ESSA. Everybody ought to read it, because Kohn so intelligently summarizes the issues.
Here’s what Kohn says about No Child Left Behind, in response to those who liked NCLB and now worry that the new law waters down the old law’s strong federal pressure for accountability: “While the inadequacy and inequity certainly were (and are) inexcusable, NCLB was never a reasonable response Indeed, as many of us predicted at the start, it did far more harm than good; in general, and with respect to addressing disparities between black and white, rich and poor, in particular. Standardized testing was never necessary to tell us which schools were failing. Heck, you could just drive by them and make a reasonable guess… For years, I’ve been challenging NCLB defenders to name a single school anywhere in the country whose inadequacy was a secret until students were subjected to yet another wave of standardized tests. But testing isn’t just superfluous; it was, and remains, immensely damaging, to low-income students most of all.”
So what about those who are celebrating the new law because, they imagine, it will reduce standardized testing? “(T)he outrageous and incalculably damaging reality of testing students every single year—extraordinary from a worldwide perspective, in fact virtually unheard of for students below high school age—continues in ESSA… Far from challenging this reality, the law that President Obama just signed cements it into place. And beyond the issue of how often they’re administered, standardized tests—still yoked to overly prescriptive, top-down standards—remain the primary way by which kids, teachers, and schools are going to be assessed.”
The new law does turn over from the federal government to the states the responsibility for designing and implementing the corrections for schools whose test scores are low, but as Kohn notes, “If you’re a teacher, it may not make much difference if oppressive dictates originate in Washington, D.C., the state capital, or even the district office. The point is still that your skills as a professional educator, and the unique interests and needs of a particular group of kids, don’t count for much. ESSA remains the Eternal Standardization of Schooling Act.”
Kohn concludes: “The point is that, even with more authority and re-devolving to the states, the broader foundations of what has been the educational status quo in America for a generation are allowed to continue and in some cases are actively perpetuated: the creep toward privatization, the traditional approaches to pedagogy and curriculum, the bribe-and-threat manipulation of educators and children, and, above all, the reliance on standardized testing.”
We have a lot of work to do. The Every Student Succeeds Act has one major plus: it unbuckles—as a federal mandate—students’ standardized test scores from the formal evaluation of their teachers, but states can still judge teachers by students’ test scores if they so choose. Apart from that, test-and-punish remains the law of the land. Reading Alfie Kohn’s pungent analysis is a good reminder that we are a long, long way from any kind of policy that supports the schools and the educators in our most vulnerable communities.