Between 2002 and the end of 2015, many who care about U.S. public education lived and breathed strategies for ending No Child Left Behind’s rigid and punitive accountability mechanisms. The law was supposed to make all public schools accountable for improving schooling, especially for children in poverty and children in racial and ethnic groups who have historically been marginalized. NCLB was supposed to ensure that every child in America would be proficient by 2014. Its strategy was using fear as the motivator—driving everybody to work harder to avoid terrible sanctions like teachers being fired, schools being closed, and schools being turned over to private operators.
But, although teachers were fired, and schools were closed, and schools were turned over to private contractors, test scores did not rise appreciably and achievement gaps did not close. And, because test scores in the aggregate reflect family and community economic levels, the schools that were closed or privatized were too often in the big city neighborhoods the law was supposed to help and the teachers who were fired were too frequently black and brown teachers living and teaching in those cities.
So… when Congress replaced No Child Left Behind with a newer version of the federal education law—the Every Student Succeeds Act, many people hoped for more support for the poorest schools in America’s big cities. And supporters of public school improvement were not sorry that the Republicans who dominated Congress in December 2015 seemed to want to soften the “punish” part of test-and-punish. The testing part, unfortunately, remains: once every year in grades 3-8 and once in high school. But the punish part was turned over to the states, who were told they must set goals for improving test scores and find ways to reach those goals. It was all pretty vague—and lots of people worried that what it really meant was a return to states’ rights. That worry paled, however, compared to a widespread consensus that it is impossible to punish schools into raising test scores.
Then a year later Betsy DeVos, the devoted privatizer and strong supporter of less regulation of education, arrived to lead the U.S. Department of Education. People began watching as, in the spring of this year, states began submitting their required ESSA plans—their goals for raising test scores and their strategies to push schools to reach those goals. Everybody was shocked in early July when DeVos, the de-regulator, allowed her department to demand that Delaware make its plan tougher on accountability. Here is Erica Green of the NY Times: “Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who made a career of promoting local control of education, has signaled a surprisingly hard-line approach to carrying out an expansive new federal education law, issuing critical feedback that has rattled state school chiefs and conservative education experts alike.”
Green describes Senator Lamar Alexander, the Republican chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, pushing back at the Republican Secretary of Education: “Proponents, especially congressional Republicans and conservative education advocates, believed that a new era of local control would flourish under Ms. DeVos…. But her department’s feedback reflects a tension between ideology and legal responsibility.”
It turns out that the person at the Department of Education who has been reviewing states’ ESSA plans is Jason Botel, an acting assistant secretary of education. (His appointment has not yet come before the Senate.) Botel is a longtime corporate school reformer whose background includes stints at KIPP charter schools and Maryland’s chapter of 50CAN, an advocacy organization supportive of strong accountability for public schools. Erica Green quotes Botel advocating for a strict interpretation of the wording of ESSA, which spells out that states’ plans must be ambitious: “Because the statute does not define the word ‘ambitious,’ the secretary has the responsibility of determining whether a state’s long-term goals are ambitious.”
Senator Alexander responded: “I think we have a case of an assistant secretary who hasn’t read the law carefully… The heart of the entire law… was that it’s the state’s decision to set goals, to decide what ‘ambitious’ means, to make decisions to help schools that aren’t performing well.” (What this means is a little unclear, as in the past test-and-punish was defined as “helping” schools that aren’t performing well.)
On Monday morning of this week, the Department of Education, in a notice published in the Federal Register, answered Senator Alexander’s concerns—clarifying what sort of evidence it will require from states to ensure their accountability plans are ambitious. Here is Sarah Sparks of Education Week explaining how the Department will interpret the rules: “For the most part, the rules tweak or clarify existing rules to incorporate ESSA’s four increasingly rigorous levels of evidence: …To use an intervention or approach for school improvement under ESSA, it must be backed by research that is strong (experimental trials), moderate (quasi-experimental), or by promising studies that don’t meet the higher standards of rigor but still statistically control for differences between the students using an intervention and those in a control group. For topics aside from school turnaround where there just is no rigorous research, states and districts can test an intervention while conducting their own study.”
Also this week, Betsy DeVos signed off on the ESSA plan Delaware had presented and Botel had rejected, though the state tweaked the application a bit to satisfy the Department. Alyson Klein summarizes for Education Week: “Delaware made some tweaks to its plan, and clarified some things for the department. The state gave some more information to show why its goal of cutting the number of students who don’t score proficient on state tests in half by 2030 is, indeed, ambitious. And it explained that all public high school students do, in fact, have access to the courses, tests, and other measures the state wants to use to figure out whether students are ready for college and the workforce. Delaware also moved science test scores to another part of its accountability system, at the behest of the feds… Apparently, all that was good enough to convince DeVos—who has final say over giving a state plan the thumbs up or down—to approve Delaware’s ESSA vision.”
What seems clear is that ESSA enforcement is not Betsy DeVos’s top priority. It also seems that the Department, under DeVos’s leadership, is not going to make waves with powerful Congressional Republicans like Lamar Alexander.
It is also clear that federally driven, test-based school accountability is not going away. One can only hope that academic researchers and the Department of Education will watch carefully to see if any of the evidence-based strategies states impose under ESSA as the response to low test scores do begin to deliver real improvement in our nation’s struggling schools.
My prediction is that in a climate of tax cutting and austerity budgeting at the federal level and in many states, we won’t see much school improvement. Across the states schools are unequally funded, with struggling rural and urban schools overwhelmed as well by student poverty that is being exacerbated by budget cuts to the health and social service programs needed by the same students who attend the poorest schools. No Child Left Behind never delivered the necessary resources to jump-start school improvement nor has Congress attached significant resources to ESSA. And Trump’s budget proposal does not increase the Title I formula, the one federal funding stream designed to support schools serving concentrations of children living in poverty.