Participating earlier this week in one of the Ohio Department of Education’s stakeholder meetings about the plan Ohio will be developing to submit to the U.S. Department of Education to comply with the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), I watched as many people tried valiantly to frame their objections to the test-and-punish policies that have dominated federal and state education policy for more than a generation. Most people have a clear sense that something is very wrong, but framing their objections in specific policy terms is much harder. On Monday, Valerie Strauss published among the most lucid explanations I have read of what’s wrong, how the new law reproduces much of the same policy as the old No Child Left Behind, and what those of us who value our nation’s system of public education ought to be saying as we respond to these policies.
In Monday’s column, Bill Mathis and Tina Trujillo are promoting the new book they have edited, Learning from the Federal Market-Based Reforms: Lessons for the Every Student Succeeds Act. (This blog has covered that book here and here.) The book was published by the National Education Policy Center, where Mathis is the managing director. Please read Mathis and Trujillo’s column carefully and then plan to consult the academic research collected in this important book.
In this week’s column, Mathis and Trujillo set the context for the new Every Student Succeeds Act: “Washington was euphoric. In a barren time for bi-partisan cooperation late in 2015, both Democrats and Republicans were happy to get rid of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The K-12 education law was almost universally excoriated as being a failure—particularly in that most important goal of closing the achievement gap. Looking at long-term trends from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, gains were seen in some areas but the achievement gap was stuck. NCLB provided no upward blips on the charts. Thus, it is stunning that the successor law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) passed by Congress last December, is basically an extension of NCLB. Fundamentally, ESSA maintains the same philosophy and direction. It is still a standardized test-driven system that is punitive in nature. The main difference is that states are now responsible for designing the enforcement systems—which must be approved by the federal government. But states will not likely make many fundamental changes. They have invested heavily in their systems, as have local schools and districts. Test-based accountability has been the law of the land for the past 30 years—which means that it is the only system that many educators have experienced. Furthermore, vendors, textbook manufacturers, testing companies, consultants and the like have a strong bias toward protecting their investment—even while acknowledging that it didn’t work.”
What are the specific problems with No Child Left Behind-style school policy? “First, children who are hungry, suffering from malnutrition and live in substandard conditions are highly unlikely to score well on tests. We will never close the achievement gap until we close the opportunity gap… While giving considerable lip service to the plight of poor children and children of color, we have not backed-up our rhetoric with our actions… The 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (of which NCLB and ESSA are the latest versions) has always been intended to address these disparities, but it has never been adequately funded.”
“Second, test-based accountability does not improve learning. Psychologist B.F. Skinner taught us more than 60 years ago that negative reinforcement has unpredictable and undesirable consequences. Yet, we embarked on a path of test and punishment whose inevitable outcome was sadly predictable.” Mathis and Trujillo add that third, the various punishments including the prescribed school turnarounds failed. These included firing teachers, closing schools, and changing public schools into charter schools. Fourth, “The invisible hand of the market was to be the solution primarily through charters and privatizing schools… A growing body of literature shows that charter schools do not perform better than traditional public schools and they segregate schools by race and by socio-economic status.”
What about the underlying assumption of the whole scheme—that we have the capacity accurately to measure school quality? There is a big debate going on right now about whether states should provide a single summative “grade” for the state’s schools and school districts. Here is Mathis and Trujillo’s analysis: “The problem is in defining what should be measured, how it should be tallied, and how multiple scores can be combined into one… The challenge is that schools have many purposes and each would lend itself to a different way of measuring and weighing… The companion difficulty is trying to validly represent an important feature with an imperfect measure…. What is a valid combination and weighting of… measures? Or does one exist? Should the math scores be double the ELA (English Language Arts) scores? Should they be divided by the attendance rate? Such decisions are central but are not empirical. They are based on our underlying values.” And, “We learned that evaluating teacher and preparation programs creates a false scientism by placing too much trust in too weak a measure.”
Learning from the Federal Market-Based Reforms is a collection of peer-reviewed academic studies and is organized conceptually into sections. In this week’s column, Mathis and Trujillo summarize the conclusions of the academic research in each section of the new book. I believe the first is the most important: “The Opportunity Gap—The primary finding was that students must have opportunities, funding, and resources sufficient to meet what the state requires of them. There have been some 70 or so state adequacy studies and with very few exceptions, they have indicated we are not meeting the needs of students.”
Mathis and Trujillo’s conclusions are sobering, and they reflect much of what I heard earlier this week at my round-table discussion at the Ohio ESSA stakeholder meeting I attended. I wonder if the people collecting the comments from all the table-by-table conversations will tease out this message, even though I heard it reinforced in dozens of ways throughout the evening:
“The greatest conceptual and most damaging mistake of test-based accountability systems has been the pretense that poorly supported schools could systemically overcome the effects of concentrated poverty and racial segregation by rigorous instruction and testing. This system has inadequately supported teachers and students, has imposed astronomically high goals, and has inflicted punishment on those for whom it has demanded impossible achievements.” “This diverse nation and our common good require all students to be well educated. Yet, we have embarked on economic and educational paths that systematically privilege only a small percentage of the population. In education, we invest less on children of color and poor families. At the same time, we support a testing regime that measures wealth rather than providing a rich kaleidoscope of experience and knowledge to all. And we do not hold ourselves responsible for the basic denial of equal opportunities.”
I urge you to read and then re-read Mathis and Trujillo’s commentary published on Monday by Valerie Strauss. It is a discerning indictment of the public school policy that now pervades our society.