Senate Will Consider Confirming John King, but He’s Unlikely to Repair Arne Duncan’s Damage

The word was that John King would remain an acting U.S. Secretary of Education for the remainder of President Barack Obama’s administration.  In January, Lyndsey Layton reported for the Washington Post, “King… will retain the ‘acting’ modifier for the rest of President Obama’s time in office.  He has not been nominated by the president, and he will not undergo the confirmation process required of Cabinet-level officers under the Constitution.”  But just over a week ago, another report in the Washington Post announced, “President Obama has nominated John B. King Jr. to officially lead the Department of Education, where he has served as acting secretary since the start of the year.  Officials at the White House had said before the announcement that the president was encouraged by the bipartisan support King has received in Congress, especially the commitment Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) has made for a speedy consideration of his nomination.”

It will be surprising if John B. King, Jr.—whether confirmed as secretary or continuing to serve as a mere acting secretary— accomplishes earth-shaking policy while he serves for the next few months.  The federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act was reauthorized late in 2015 while Arne Duncan remained the Secretary of Education, and the new Every Student Succeeds Act is significant for unbuckling—at the federal level—teachers’ evaluations from their students’ test scores.  This is a significant correction by Congress, whose members reached bipartisan agreement to reduce Duncan’s overt attack on school teachers, and John King has said he will try further to repair that breach that attacked the millions of professionals we count on to fill our nation’s classrooms.  It’s unlikely, however, that King will further reduce test-and-punish, and he won’t have the power to undo the teacher blaming across the statehouses that Arne Duncan set in motion when his Department of Education conditioned the receipt of federal waivers on states’ passing their own laws to tie teachers’ evaluations to students’ test scores.  Pushing back that wave of legislation will require months and years of effort by advocates across the states.

But John King’s confirmation hearing has now been scheduled in the Senate on this coming Thursday afternoon, February 25.  So who is John King?

Carol Burris was an award-winning New York high school principal when John King was New York state’s Commissioner of Education.  Burris, now a retired educator and currently serving as the Executive Director of the Network for Public Education, summarizes some of the milestones of John King’s career: “John King was a teacher for a total of three years—first in a private school and then in a charter.  For a brief time, he served as a co-director of Roxbury Prep (he was never a principal as he claims) a Boston charter middle school that had about 200 students when King was there.  He left to become Managing Director of the Uncommon Schools charter chain, which is regularly criticized for its high rates of student suspension.  While a doctoral student at Teachers College, King met classmate and Board of Regents member, Merryl Tisch.  In April of 2009, Tisch became the Chancellor of the Board of Regents.  In September 2009, John King was appointed deputy commissioner.  Two years later he was appointed commissioner… King was appointed senior adviser to Arne Duncan in 2014, and Acting Secretary of Education when Duncan left in December of 2015.”

Burris recounts what has become the well-known story of King’s mishandling of the roll-out of much harder Common Core tests in New York at the same time King and Governor Andrew Cuomo pushed New York’s legislature to enact evaluation of teachers by their students’ test scores: “By October of 2013, opposition to the Common Core and testing had grown so strong that King was encouraged by the State PTA to hold forums, the first of which took place in Poughkeepsie, New York.  King lectured for an hour and a half.  By the last half hour of the evening, the audience was both boisterous and impassioned, angered because there was limited opportunity to speak.  King then cancelled the rest of the scheduled forums… After continued pressure, some forums were re-scheduled; however, there were restrictions placed on who could attend, and the format was tightly controlled.”  Burris shares an assessment from the Lower Hudson Journal News characterizing John King as “tone deaf.”

During King’s tenure as New York’s deputy commissioner and his time as New York’s education commissioner, New York spent over $28,000,000 to develop its Common Core curriculum—and used its federal Race to the Top grant for this purpose. Burris, a high school principal during the roll-out of the new curriculum, is scathing in her criticism: “(T)he curriculum was a ‘breakout flop.’  Teaching strategies, often presented as scripts, were confusing. The time allotted for each lesson was longer than the instructional time allotted by most districts, resulting in rushed pacing…  Romeo and Juliet, which has been a classic part of ninth-grade English curriculum in most high schools, was reduced to excerpted readings in the modules, crowded out by non-fiction, which included Wizard of Lies: the Life of Bernie Madoff.”

King launched Common Core testing across the state before the curriculum had been fully rolled out, and to make matters worse, cut scores were set too high. Predictably test scores plummeted everywhere. Burris adds: “Perhaps the most reckless error made by the NYSED (NY State Education Department) under King, however, was setting the graduation standard on the Common Core math and English tests so high that the graduation rate, based on historical data, would have plummeted to about 35% when it was imposed.  In response to growing public resistance to the Common Core and its tests, the Board of Regents put off the unrealistic graduation standard from 2017-2022.”

As he heads toward a confirmation hearing and the rest of this year leading the U.S. Department of Education, John King is reported by the Washington Post‘s Emma Brown to be “trying to repair the Obama administration’s frayed relationship with teachers.”  “In one of his first major speeches as acting U.S. secretary of education, John King apologized to teachers for the role that the federal government has played in creating a climate in which teachers feel ‘attacked and unfairly blamed.'”

Brown, however, also interviews Lily Eskelsen Garcia, President of the National Education Association, who declares that officials at the Department of Education need to listen to teachers as they develop rules that will implement the new Every Student Succeeds Act.  Whether the Department consults professional educators will matter more than the acting secretary’s words of apology: “If policymakers truly listen to teachers in classrooms… then they will craft policies to teach and nurture the whole child—not just lift test scores.”

School Funding, Residual Budgeting, and Kansas

If you live in Ohio, and if you were paying attention during the 1990s, the decade of decisions and appeals of the DeRolph school funding case, you understand the concept of residual budgeting.  School funding in Ohio, the plaintiff’s attorneys explained again and again, is a mere budgetary residual. The legislators calculate the pot of tax money available this year; then they look at what they spent on education last year; then they divide available revenue  up across all the functions of government including education—usually making sure they don’t spend too much less on education than last year unless there is a budgetary emergency.  Any year’s state budget allocation doesn’t necessarily reflect what services are really needed, nor does it demonstrate an investigation of what different programs cost. In fact, because last year’s funding is usually the baseline, and because last year’s funding was likely way too low, the school funding formula is likely over time to become way out of kilter relative to the rising cost of services.  Although legislators may allocate something extra to support school districts serving a lot of children in poverty, nobody ever really measures what it would take to make our poorest rural and urban schools operate as schools do in wealthy communities.

At the federal level, the most visible case of residual budgeting is for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.  When Congress passed the IDEA in 1975, Congress said the federal government would pay 40 percent of the costs, but in 2014, Congress paid for only 16 percent. Local school districts are simply expected to pick up the expenses of what is known to be a huge unfunded mandate.  Similarly, Title I was created in 1965 as the centerpiece of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to assist schools serving a large number or high concentration of children in poverty, but Title I has never been funded at a level to support the education of all the children who qualify. Neither has it sufficiently compensated for school funding inequity across the states.

In the 1990s, the problem of residual budgeting at the federal level was compounded by outcomes-based demands for accountability.  David Cohen and Susan Moffitt, in their book The Ordeal of Equality, describe how the 1994 and 2001 reauthorizations of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act failed.  These two reauthorizations incorporated an outcomes-based strategy, “profoundly at odds with the unequal conditions of education in the United States.  Neither policy was paired with policies that supported improved employment, better health care, and early education, nor did either make a substantial effort to reduce unequal educational resources among schools within districts, among districts within states, or among states. The two bills addressed public education as though schools could dramatically change their operations quite in isolation from the political, social, and economic sources of educational problems.” (The Ordeal of Equality, p. 191)

The Every Student Succeeds Act, the recent, 2015 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, represents the same sort of denial. In the new law, Congress failed to expand Title I, despite that its own 2013, Equity and Excellence Commission had concluded: “The common situation in America is that schools in poor communities spend less per pupil—and often many thousands of dollars less per pupil—than schools in nearby affluent communities, meaning poor schools can’t compete for the best teaching and principal talent in a local labor market and can’t implement the high-end technology and rigorous academic and enrichment programs needed to enhance student performance. This is arguably the most important equity-related variable in American schooling today. Let’s be honest: We are also an outlier in how many of our children are growing up in poverty… We are also an outlier in how we concentrate those children, isolating them in certain schools—often resource-starved schools—which only magnifies poverty’s impact and makes high achievement that much harder.”

There have been efforts by school finance experts and advocates to get Congress and  legislative bodies across the states to measure equity according to the actual cost of services. The plaintiffs in Ohio’s DeRolph school funding case called expert witnesses who defined a Basket of Essential Learning Resources for the 21st Century (scroll down the left side in the link to find the document). Experts call this an “inputs” approach and urge states to conduct “costing-out studies” to identify what schools must pay for the services they are expected to provide.  Legislators, on the other hand, have preferred an “outcomes” approach that instead measures test scores “produced” by school districts; they have liked to pretend there is no real connection between inputs and outcomes.  The reality, of course, is that because neither the federal government nor most of the states are willing to generate enough tax dollars to cover what would be the real costs, everybody seems to prefer the denial afforded by residual budgeting.  If a formula sends more state dollars to very poor school districts, surely that will improve the test scores, even if that amount can be proven to be inadequate.

This year’s poster child for residual budgeting and a school funding system way out of whack is Kansas, the victim of Governor Sam Brownback’s efforts to reduce the size of the state’s government through tax slashing. We are reminded by a 2014 piece in the NY Times that,  “Kansas’ current constitutional crisis has its genesis in a series of cuts to school funding that began in 2009. The cuts were accelerated by a $1.1 billion tax break, which benefited mostly upper-income Kansans, proposed by Governor Brownback and enacted in 2012.”  The newest report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains: “Another state that has imposed deep funding cuts—Kansas—eliminated its funding formula this year (2015), making impossible direct comparisons to earlier years.  Formula funding in Kansas was down 14.6 percent per student between 2008 and 2014, after adjusting for inflation.”

Last week the Kansas Supreme Court affirmed the trial court decision in Gannon v. State of Kansas, and found the state’s current funding system unconstitutional.  According to the Education Law Center: “In its decision, the Court explained that Article 6 of the Kansas Constitution requires the legislature to ‘make suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state…’ Article 6 contains both adequacy and equity requirements.  It necessitates that the legislature provide enough funds to ensure public school students receive a constitutionally adequate education and that the funds’ distribution does not result in unreasonable wealth-based disparities among districts.”  The Education Law Center continues: “The Court had found an earlier funding system inequitable, and the legislature revised the system and brought it into compliance with the Constitution during its 2014 session.  However, in its 2015 session the legislature reversed itself, and the Gannon plaintiffs returned to the Kansas courts, arguing that the funding system had become unfair (inequitable) and therefore unconstitutional again.”  This time the Kansas Supreme Court says it will shut down the state’s schools if the legislature and governor neglect to find enough money by June 30 to fund schools adequately and to address inequity.

The NY Times reports, “The decision is the latest blow to Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican, and the state Legislature, which will probably have to find tens of millions of dollars in its budget for additional education funding. Kansas is already facing deep fiscal woes in the wake of Mr. Brownback’s decision to cut taxes, which he predicted would help bolster the state economy.  Revenue has fallen short of projections and he and lawmakers are scrambling to fill a roughly $200 million gap before the close of the session.”  As Kansas has discovered, when the size of the state budget pie becomes very small, residual budgeting—making all the pieces of the pie smaller without considering the real price of the services that need to be provided—reduces the state’s allocation for education far below the actual cost of essential programs for children.

Linda Darling-Hammond, the Stanford University professor and education researcher, “wonders what we might accomplish as a nation if we could finally set aside what appears to be our de facto commitment to inequality, so profoundly at odds with our rhetoric of equity, and put the millions of dollars spent continually arguing and litigating into building a high-quality education system for all children.” (The Flat World and Education, p. 164)

Rebel on Ohio State Board of Education Finds a Way to Make His Voice Heard

Ohio is currently one of America’s 23 all-Republican states—Republican House, Republican Senate, Republican Governor.  It even has an elected state supreme court that is dominated by Republicans. Although all the seats on Ohio’s 19-member state board of education are formally designated as non-partisan, 8 seats are held by appointees of the governor, and only 7 seats are currently held by members who identify themselves as Democrats.  If you are a Democrat in such a situation, you need to be creative about getting your voice heard.   

A.J. Wagner keeps figuring out how to make people listen.  Wagner was, early in his career, an elementary school teacher, then later a Dayton attorney, and later still a Dayton Municipal Court judge, and the Montgomery County Auditor.  Finally, before retiring from the bench in 2010, Wagner was elected to serve as a judge in Montgomery County Common Pleas Court.

Last summer when the Cleveland Plain Dealer exposed that the Ohio Department of Education had mysteriously omitted the ratings from Ohio’s notorious online charter schools and dropout recovery charters from a new state rating system for authorizers of charter schools, Wagner pressed the State Board of Education to insist on bringing in an outside investigator.  The state board tabled his request, though the press across the state and most notably the Plain Dealer continued to press for transparency. David Hansen, who ran the Department of Education’s charter school office, subsequently resigned.  Eventually Dick Ross, then Ohio’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, retired at the end of 2015.

Now, according to the Columbus, Ohio blog, Plunderbund, Wagner has taken to his Facebook page to publish a personal letter to Ann Whalen, a senior adviser to the U.S. Secretary of Education, to protest the letter she sent recently to all chief state school officers to remind them that No Child Left Behind’s accountability standards will remain in place during 2016. Plunderbund publishes both Whalen’s letter and Wagner’s response.  Whalen’s letter warns state school leaders that they must not let up, despite that No Child Left Behind has now formally been left behind.  Many of the old law’s regulations will, according to Whalen, continue to insert the U.S. Department of Education into regulating education across the states for the rest of this year.

Wagner raises serious concerns with federal education policy—first: “I find some of your language and some of the federal legal requirements conflicting.  For instance, you demand adherence to the rule that 95% of students be tested for English and math from grades 3 to 12.  Yet, the newly passed Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) gives states the authority to affirm parents’ right to opt their children out of tests.”

Then Wagner examines the U.S. Department of Education’s Testing Action Plan—the Department’s administrative rules that Whalen warns will remain in place this year.  Wagner explains that the long-running, U.S. Department of Education-approved, standardized testing program in Ohio has, in his estimation violated the Department’s own rules for some time.  First there is the rule that the tests should be “worth taking”—that test results will be provided in a timely way and “present useful information and questions that push students’ critical thinking skills.”  He responds: “In Ohio we administered the PARCC assessments last year.  We still don’t have the final results of those exams… Even if the results had been provided in a timely manner, there has been no preparation to instruct schools and teachers in how to interpret the results so as to implement changes in areas where they fall short.  The tests are, therefore, useless.”  He adds that, “the tests in question have not been validated.  Further, the standards being tested have not been validated by any scientific measurement that would show their effectiveness and ability to improve education.”

Wagner adds, “The tests for which you require 95% participation and high quality have been used, in Ohio, almost exclusively to measure the success of teachers, principals, and school districts.  At every step of this process, careers are on the line with the outcome of these tests.  To suggest a cap on test preparation (as the U.S. Department of Education has asked states to do)… is sound advice unless you’re the teacher, principal, or superintendent who will be evaluated by the result.”

Then Wagner examines fairness—covered in the Department’s Rule 4 in the context of children with physical disabilities and language barriers. Wagner inquires about the role of poverty: “Poverty brings its own barriers to the classroom.  Stress, hunger, poor health, emotional trauma, and lack of intellectual stimulation in the early years handicap most of our poorest children… You only require standards they cannot meet while unvalidated tests discourage them from even trying.”

Wagner wonders how Ohio can comply with a requirement that states effectively communicate the meaning of test scores to parents: “As it is, we give them the scores (which we do with our own nomenclature so as to hide the true meaning of them), give teachers the scores, and do so in an extremely untimely manner.”

He concludes: “Because your threats to school chiefs were widely distributed, I will post this letter on social media as a response.  Please do not interpret this as a lack of sincerity on my part.  These are serious and important concerns and I hope to obtain answers that reflect the importance of our shared interest in our children.”

You may scoff at Wagner’s letter as though it is a mere stunt.  I think it is significant that a person of his experience and stature—a former teacher, an attorney, a county auditor, and a judge—is raising such questions about test-and-punish school accountability.  I admire elected officials who persistently confront the narrative about test-and-punish accountability that is usually accepted unquestioned—as received wisdom.  A lot of people, including the Congress that kept the test-and-punish philosophy while devolving its enforcement to the states in the new law, can’t remember any other way to think about education.

Education Writer Alfie Kohn on Leaving Behind No Child Left Behind Behind

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.

Extra: Valerie Strauss’s Clear, Sensible Description of Bush and Obama Education Policies

Now that Congress has passed and President Obama signed a new reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, there have been many explanations of what has gone wrong since No Child Left Behind, the previous version, was signed into law in January of 2002.

This morning in the Washington Post, Valerie Strauss summarizes much of that history in Don’t Blame George W. Bush for What President Obama Did to Public Schools.

Her piece is short and lucid.  I urge you to read it.

New Education Law Returns Education Policy to States, Ignores Equity as Federal Priority

Yesterday the Senate passed the Every Student Succeeds Act, the newest example of pretending that reality will match a bill title’s rhetoric.  We have turned the corner from the negative No Child Left Behind to the positive Every Student Succeeds, but what Congress just passed will definitely not ensure that every student succeeds.

The new law passed after years’ and years’ of trying (Reauthorizations were attempted without any consensus reached in 2007, 2010, and 2013.) leaves the machinery of test-and-punish pretty much in place. The bill keeps the testing, and it says that states must do something to “turnaround” the bottom-scoring schools.  What to do is left up to the states. One positive is that there is no longer a federal mandate to rank and rate teachers using students’ test scores.

Last week after the House vote to affirm the Every Child Succeeds Act, Jeff Bryant at the Educational Opportunity Network wrote, Go Ahead, Pass Every Student Succeeds Act, But Don’t Celebrate It.  That sums things up pretty well.

Here is a very quick, broad-stroke summary of what this over-a-thousand-page bill will do.  In it Congress mandates that schools test students in grades 3-8 and once in high school.  States are still required to disaggregate the data and rate and rank schools based on students’ test scores.  States are required to consider other factors beyond test scores in their ratings, but test scores must remain the most important factor.  States are required to identify the lowest-scoring 5 percent of schools or those that don’t graduate more than 2/3 of their students and to intervene in some way they choose.  States must continue to adopt high standards, but the U.S. Secretary of Education cannot play a role in determining those standards.  In fact the law bars the Secretary of Education not only from suggesting standards but also from prescribing assessments, accountability and improvement. And states must address in a very proactive way any schools or school districts that don’t improve after four years.

The No Child Left Behind punishments that have already been swept under the carpet by the waivers Arne Duncan’s Department has been providing since 2011—the provision that some Title I funds be diverted to helping  students in “failing” schools transfer out—the provision that some Title I funds be used for Supplemental Education Services (tutoring by private providers)—and the Adequate Yearly Progress provision that schools must raise test scores higher every year until in 2014, when all students are proficient—all those things will now disappear entirely.  Until now those widely discredited policies have been operating only in the handful of states without the waivers.  In fact, with the new law, the waivers themselves will be moot on August 1, 2016.

Probably the most positive thing about the new law is that it decouples—in federal law—the evaluation and rating and ranking of teachers from the performance of their students as measured by standardized tests.  Arne Duncan’s Department of Education made the states use, as a condition for applying for a No Child Left Behind waiver, students’ test scores as a significant part of teachers’ evaluations.  States can continue to depend on standardized test scores as what many of us believe is a flawed measure of teacher quality, but the federal government isn’t any longer going to force them to do so.

Here is the comment of Peter Greene, a Pennsylvania school teacher and blogger: “The ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act) doesn’t settle anything. It doesn’t solve anything.  Every argument and battle… will still be fought—the difference is that now those arguments will be held in state capitols instead of Washington, D.C.”

Congress, through conference committee negotiations, did abandon one terrible provision that the House had threatened in the version it passed last July: Title I Portability.  This is the idea that each poor child could carry a little Title I voucher to any school district to which the child moved.  Many of us had opposed Title I Portability because it would likely have watered down what Congress intended back in 1965— the targeting of Title I to school districts serving the highest number or highest concentration of very poor children.  Thankfully this is not in the bill that passed Congress yesterday.

The tragedy of the Every Student Succeeds Act is what Congress left out.  Title I, the centerpiece of the original 1965, Elementary and Secondary Education Act, was designed as Lyndon Johnson’s compensatory education program, intended to help equalize resources for school districts, because school districts that serve children living in poverty also tend to lack local property wealth that can be taxed. In the bill that passed yesterday, Congress failed to address opportunity by significantly expanding Title I.  Congress ignored its own 2013, Equity and Excellence Commission that concluded:

“The common situation in America is that schools in poor communities spend less per pupil—and often many thousands of dollars less per pupil—than schools in nearby affluent communities, meaning poor schools can’t compete for the best teaching and principal talent in a local labor market and can’t implement the high-end technology and rigorous academic and enrichment programs needed to enhance student performance. This is arguably the most important equity-related variable in American schooling today.  Let’s be honest: We are also an outlier in how many of our children are growing up in poverty… We are also an outlier in how we concentrate those children, isolating them in certain schools—often resource-starved schools—which only magnifies poverty’s impact and makes high achievement that much harder.”

School funding formulas across the states persistently ignore shocking inequality in the capacities of local school districts to raise revenue.  Wealthy suburbs provide the latest in offerings and equipment and staff-student ratios, while city school districts cannot afford enough college counselors to assist students who desperately need guidance about post-secondary options.  It is a sad reflection on our democracy that, in this most recent reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Congress neglected to address educational equity in the one federal law that was intended by its 1965 sponsors for that very purpose.

U.S. House of Representatives Passes Reauthorization of NCLB, Bill Moves to Senate

Just after 7:00 PM tonight, in a simple, five-minute, up or down vote, the U.S. House of Representatives agreed to the conference committee report on the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, whose most recent previous version, signed into law in 2002, was called No Child Left Behind.

The House vote on what has been named the Every Student Succeeds Act was 359 in the affirmative and 64 opposed.

Lyndsey Layton of the Washington Post summarizes the bipartisan conference committee version that has passed the House. The Senate will take up the same bill next week.

This blog covered negotiations of the House-Senate conference committee here, here, and here.

Congress Is Likely to Reauthorize Education Law. How Will We Undo Arne Duncan’s Damage?

Seven years ago today—on November 30, 2008—I picked up my Sunday Cleveland Plain Dealer to see a story above the fold on the front page, a story whose headline screamed: Good Teachers Are Key to Student Achievement, but Bad Ones Are Hard to Fire.  The story itself purported to be a news analysis, part of a series, “a Plain Dealer project reporting on the state of teaching.”  But then there was the photo, of a truck parked in front of the National Education Association’s building in Washington, D.C.  It was one of those trucks that pulls nothing but a sign, and this one—with a picture of a wormy apple—said: “Vote for the Worst Unionized Teachers Who Can’t Be Fired.”  Whatever the content of the article, the message that Sunday morning came from the sign the truck was pulling along—“worst unionized teachers who can’t be fired.”

Then a few days later came David Brooks’ NY Times column about newly elected President Barack Obama’s pending decision about a Secretary of Education.  The new president had appointed Linda Darling-Hammond, a Stanford University professor of education to head his education transition team, but there was enormous pressure from New York’s mayor Michael Bloomberg for Obama to choose Joel Klein, who was at that time serving as Bloomberg’s appointed chancellor of the NYC public schools.

On December 5, 2008, Brooks, a school “reformer” through and through, framed what had already become a polarized battle—“reformers” vs. teachers’ unions: “On the one hand, there are the reformers like Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee, who support merit pay for good teachers, charter schools and tough accountability standards.  On the other hand, there are the teachers’ unions and the members of the Ed School establishment, who emphasize greater funding, smaller class sizes and superficial reforms.  During the presidential race, Barack Obama straddled the two camps.  One campaign adviser, John Schnur, represented the reform view in the internal discussions.  Another, Linda Darling-Hammond, was more likely to represent the establishment view… Each camp was secretly convinced that at the end of the day, Obama would come down on their side… Obama never had to pick a side.  That is, until now.  There is only one education secretary, and if you hang around these circles, the air is thick with speculation…   (O)ne morning a few weeks ago, I got a flurry of phone calls from reform leaders nervous that Obama was about to side against them…  (T)he union lobbying efforts are relentless and in the past week prospects for a reforming education secretary are thought to have dimmed… The candidates before Obama apparently include: Joel Klein, the highly successful New York chancellor who has, nonetheless, been blackballed by the unions; Arne Duncan, the reforming Chicago head who is less controversial; Darling-Hammond herself; and some former governor to be named later, with Darling-Hammond as the deputy secretary.  In some sense the final option would be the biggest setback for reform.  Education is one of those areas where implementation and the details are more important than grand pronouncements.  If the deputies and assistants in the secretary’s office are not true reformers, nothing will get done.  The stakes are huge.  For the first time in decades, there is real momentum for reform.”

The wave of articles that surfaced that week was noticeable, and in my office in the United Church of Christ’s justice ministries, I felt compelled to trade turns with someone else in the rota of staff who wrote the little Witness for Justice columns each week.  On December 15 that year, I described my fear: “(A)s I write, there is an attack on public school teachers by advocates who seek a Secretary who would base pay on test scores, deny tenure, intensify the test-and-punish mechanisms of No Child Left Behind, and rely far more on charter schools.  These critics deride public school improvement as mere ‘weak, status-quo’ reform.”

Fast-forward seven years, and here we are at the end of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s tenure. Duncan’s policies have been so widely disliked in their implementation that there seems to be bipartisan Congressional consensus, unheard of these days, to undo the damage everybody has come to believe happened due to Bush’s No Child Left Behind and Obama and Duncan’s Race to the Top, School Improvement Grants and No Child Left Behind waivers.  Duncan has resigned as of the end of 2015, and will be replaced by John King, an acting secretary as a placeholder for the last year of President Obama’s term.

And if Congress acts this week finally (after several previous tries) to reauthorize the federal education law called the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, we may find ourselves without the version we’ve been living with now for 14 years—No Child Left Behind.

While some of the “punishments” promoted by Duncan for so-called failing schools were originally outlined in 2002 in the original test-and-punish No Child Left Behind Act, Duncan and his Department were the ones who worked out how the “turnaround” plans that fired teachers and principals and closed or charterized schools would be imposed on our nation’s poorest schools.  While the problems in the economy were evident by December of 2008, nobody could have imagined the competitive grant programs that Duncan’s Department of Education created as part of the 2009 federal stimulus package.  These were the programs by which states applied for federal grants and eventually waivers from No Child Left Behind’s “Adequate Yearly Progress” system that had begun to attach the label of “failing” to far too many public schools in every state.  Duncan’s Department developed hoops states had to jump through even to apply for these federal grants—remove any state statutory caps on the number of charter schools that can be launched in any one year—intensify Value Added, econometric evaluations of school teachers based on their students’ test scores—embrace college-and-career-ready standards for all students.  Because the Department of Education cannot by federal law prescribe curricula, the Department merely incentivized states to adopt “more rigorous” standards, which in practical terms meant joining one of the two Common Core Curriculum consortia—PARCC or Smarter Balanced.

David Brooks’ words from December 2008 were prophetic: “Education is one of those areas where implementation and the details are more important than grand pronouncements.  If the deputies and assistants in the secretary’s office are not true reformers, nothing will get done.”  As Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan was never one for grand pronouncements, but his Department’s actions have utterly transformed education policy across the fifty states.  State legislatures changed state laws to try for Race to the Top grants and to secure their waivers.  States removed caps on the launch of new charters, and then vastly expanded the number of charters with help from billions of dollars in federal Charter School Program grants. But nobody in the federal government imposed any oversight and only in the most careful states has there been regulation to protect children and taxpayers from unscrupulous profiteers.  Schools have been closed as a “turnaround” policy in many cities as children have been forced to relocate via public transportation in many cases, with some crossing dangerous gang boundaries. The American Statistical Association and now the American Educational Research Association have condemned the use of Value Added Measure algorithms for evaluating teachers because the formulas are unstable and fail to measure many of the qualities of a good teacher.

There is wide agreement that the bipartisan Congressional consensus that seems to have been reached on a plan to reauthorize No Child Left Behind is primarily a repudiation of Arne Duncan’s tenure and policies.

In a profound article, School Reform Fails the Test: How Can Our Schools Get Better When We’ve Made Our Teachers the Problem and Not the Solution?, Mike Rose the writer and UCLA professor of education wonders: “What if reform had begun with the assumption that at least some of the answers for improvement were in the public schools themselves, that significant unrealized capacity exists in the teaching force, that even poorly performing schools employ teachers who work to the point of exhaustion to benefit their students?  Imagine, then, what could happen if the astronomical amount of money and human resources that went into the past decade’s vast machinery of high states testing… had gone into a high-quality, widely distributed program of professional development.  I don’t mean the quick-hit, half-day events that teachers endure, but serious, extended engagement of the kind offered by the National Science Foundation and the National Writing Project…. Imagine as well that school reform acknowledged poverty as a formidable barrier to academic success.  All low-income schools would be staffed with a nurse and a social worker and have a direct link to local health and service agencies… Extra tutoring would be provided… Schools would be funded to stay open late, providing academic and recreational activities for their students.”

Assuming that in the next week or so both houses of Congress affirm the agreement, passed the week before Thanksgiving by a Senate/House conference committee, to reauthorize the federal education law, the question will be where do we go from here?  Mike Rose’s vision describes where many of us would like education policy to go.  But Arne Duncan has ensured that Congress cannot just undo the explosive growth of charters or quickly take back the unworkable schemes for evaluating teachers that state legislatures have passed to qualify for federal No Child Left Behind waivers (even though the waivers themselves will be rendered unnecessary once No Child Left Behind is gone), or help states improve their curricula and avoid the ugly politics around the Common Core for which they have already signed up and invested millions of dollars. These policies have now been enacted into the laws of the fifty states. Amending or eliminating these policies will have to be accomplished one state legislature at a time and will require concerted state-by-state advocacy.

Cliches come to mind. The cats are out of the bag. Pandora’s box has been opened. It’s hard to put the toothpaste back in the tube.

Congressional Compromise to Reauthorize Federal Education Law Rebukes Arne Duncan

Arne Duncan will leave at the end of December, turning over the leadership of the U.S. Department of Education to John King, an acting superintendent whose name will not even be submitted to Congress for confirmation as secretary.  King will likely be a caretaker through the end of the Obama administration.  The Obama Department of Education has accomplished its work.  So why is Congress taking the trouble to try to pass a reauthorization of the federal education law with a laser focus on diminishing the role of the department and its secretary?  There are many things the compromise Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) proposal will not do; refocusing on the law’s original 1965 purpose of driving equity in school opportunity, for example, isn’t being considered.

But reducing the power of the Secretary of Education is front and center.  Lyndsey Layton of the Washington Post explains: “The deal would significantly reduce the U.S. Department of Education’s authority, prohibiting the secretary from influencing state academic standards and assessments, requiring teacher evaluations or using grant programs to influence state education policy.”  Think about that.  The law will prohibit the Secretary of Education from using departmental rules to press states to buy into college and career-ready standards (a requirement of Race to the Top and receiving a No Child Left Behind waiver), which means, in practical terms, prohibiting the Department from creating incentives to adopt the Common Core; from requiring states to demand that teachers be evaluated by their students’ test scores (a condition for applying for Race to the Top and receiving a No Child Left Behind Waiver); and from using grant programs to influence state policy (requiring states to meet particular federally prescribed conditions before the states can even apply for Race to the Top and School Improvement Grants).  In other words, Congress plans to ensure that the power over local school policy that Arne Duncan seized from the states will be nullified.  It is, of course, true that some conservative, states-rights-believing members of Congress have always wanted to get rid of the U.S. Department of Education because it has been involved with dismantling segregation, and other members of Congress, government employees all, advocate for cutting government itself for budgetary reasons.  But what is happening in Congress this week is much more specifically targeted toward Arne Duncan’s Department of Education.

Two reports released by the Department of Education last week help explain what has happened.  Not only have programs like the teacher evaluations mandated through the waivers been unworkable and inaccurate in their judgements on teachers (See the new statement from the American Education Research Association warning about use of Value-Added Model algorithms for evaluating teachers.) and not only have the Common Core Standards and the associated standardized tests created a firestorm of protests, but also, according to critiques of these new reports, core policies of the Obama Department of Education—Race to the Top, and School Improvement Grants—have cost a lot of money, and they haven’t significantly expanded opportunity for the students who have been left behind.

Lyndsey Layton and Emma Brown of the Washington Post add up the cost over several years—$7 billion for School Improvement Grants and $4 billion for Race to the Top.  Layton and Brown sum up one of the problems with Race to the Top: “Any school accepting a grant had to agree to adopt one of four strategies: Replace the principal and at least 50 percent of the staff; close the school and enroll students in another, better-performing school; close the school and reopen it as a charter school; or transform the school through new instructional strategies and other techniques.  The vast majority chose the last option; it was the least disruptive.  The U.S. Department of Education did not track how the money was spent, other than to note which of the four strategies schools chose.”

The Department’s report on Race to the Top covers only first-year, 2010, competition winners, including 11 states and the District of Columbia. Although the report is glowing, critics have quickly pointed out what the contractor hired to evaluate the program, Synergy Enterprises, left out.  The report begins: “Race to the Top represented an unprecedented approach to competitive grant-making by giving states and districts the opportunity to build on their successes and innovate across their schools to improve outcomes and expand opportunities for millions of students… The goal of the program was ambitious: to bring together leaders from every level of school governance… to develop plans that would help prepare students for success in an information-and innovation-driven job market…. Race to the Top invited state leaders to put forward plans to improve not one or two isolated elements of their schools but to develop and implement comprehensive statewide plans to improve entire systems… Race to the Top empowered visionary leaders to put forward bold plans for change…. While the greatest change was expected to occur in states that were awarded funds, the competition encouraged broad-based, systemic, educational improvements even in states that did not win Race to the Top funding.  States across the country saw an extraordinary surge of legislative activity aimed at improving education.”  What this last statement means is that even to earn the right to submit a proposal for the competition, states had to change their laws to reflect the the Department’s conditions for application.  For example states were required to pass laws to remove caps on the launch of new charter schools in any one year.

The report on Race to the Top brags about consistent but modest increases in the high school graduation rates in Race to the Top-winning states and some improvement in college-going rates, though it is difficult to be sure such changes happened because of the state’s receipt of a Race to the Top grant.  It also alleges that Race to the Top grants changed the culture within state departments of education: “State leaders and superintendents forged an unprecedented and wide range of partnerships with principals, teachers, local officials, nonprofits and other stakeholders… State education agencies (SEAs)… moved beyond their traditional role of monitoring district compliance to driving comprehensive and systemic changes to improve teaching and learning across the state… States and districts are working with teachers and leaders to implement and refine new evaluation and support systems designed to, among other things, provide meaningful feedback to improve teaching and learning—and guide efforts to retain and reward effective teachers and principals.”

Cutting through the rhetoric, Andrew Ujifusa, writing for Education Week, is clear and concrete in his estimation of the report and what it leaves out: “(N)early all of the Race to the Top states struggled with crafting teacher evaluations that took into account student outcomes.  And many experienced serious political blowback to the (Common Core) standards, in some cases with major consequences for state leaders… The Education Department sunk $360 million into two (Common Core) testing consortia, Smarter Balanced and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.  Although PARCC and Smarter Balanced weren’t part of the Race to the Top grants discussed in the new report, they were funded through a separate Race to the Top grant, and are tightly linked to the work the states in question did with respect to standards… (I)t’s worth stressing that (teacher) evaluations were perhaps the biggest conflict many states have faced, both internally and with the Education Department. Many have argued that tying student test scores to teacher evaluations at the same time that states were shifting to new standards and assessments was misguided…  The report does acknowledge ‘significant challenges’ posed by these new evaluations systems, as well as the more general remark that some states were ‘not initially well positioned to make rapid changes.”

What about the other report the Department released last week about another competitive grant program, School Improvement Grants? School Improvement Grants were intended to improve school achievement in the lowest scoring 5 percent of the nation’s schools. The report explains that like Race to the Top, the School Improvement Grant program required school districts to “turnaround” schools by using one of the four prescribed methods:  turnaround— replace the principal and at least half of the staff;  closure—close the school and enroll students in another, better-performing school;  restart—close the school and reopen it as a charter school;  or transformation—transform the school through new instructional strategies and other techniques. Lyndsey Layton and Emma Brown explain that the biggest problem with the new report on the School Improvement Grant program is that it tracks only about half of the schools that received School Improvement Grants: “Almost 1,400 schools received grants from 2010 to 2013, but the report does not include data from about half of those schools.  Federal officials blamed the gap on several factors, including the fact that some states switched to new tests during the study period, making it impossible to compare student test scores over time.  Meanwhile, the analysis does not include performance statistics from the two most recent school years.”  According to the new report, test scores in reading and math have increased modestly with the earliest schools in the program improving math scores most and those recently undergoing the prescribed reforms initially lagging in test scores.  Reading scores have increased modestly but less than math scores, and grown the most in the schools whose turnarounds were imposed several years ago.  The graduation rates in School Improvement Grant  schools have improved more rapidly than the average national rate of growth in graduation rates, but graduation rates in these schools remain very low compared to the national average.

Writing for Education Week, Alyson Klein reviews the data in the new report: “Only a little more than half of the schools that received a third round of the newly revamped SIG grants… improved, while the other half saw stagnant student achievement, or actually slid backward.  That’s not as strong a showing as the first two years of the Obama administration’s revamped SIG program, which saw gains on state math and reading tests among about two-thirds of the schools that got three-year turnaround grants…. Still, the latest results from SIG schools are consistent with those from other public schools nationally, over the same time period.  About 54 percent of SIG schools that got grants in the 2012-2013 school year saw gains in their first year of turnaround, compared to about 45 percent for all schools across the country…. And about 46 percent of SIG schools stayed in the same place, or slid backward, compared to about 56 percent nationally.”

Klein continues: “Experts are divided on whether SIG… has helped or not.  But nearly everyone who has studied the program points to big limitations in the department’s data.  States, districts, and schools need far more specific information from the feds about what worked for turnaround schools and what didn’t…. ”  She adds that the Education Department’s Institute for Education Sciences will release a more comprehensive report next year.

In the meantime, if Congress passes the compromise Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization its members have begun considering, the role of the U.S. Department of Education will be much diminished.

ESEA Compromise Lacks Attention to Equity, Will Move to Conference Committee This Week

It looks as though, before the end of 2015, Congress will try to vote on a reauthorization of the federal education law we now call No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Alyson Klein, reports for Education Week, “It’s official: Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., Reps. John Kline, R-Minn., and Bobby Scott, D-VA., on Friday announced that they have a framework for moving forward on a long-stalled rewrite of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.  The next step: a conference committee which could kick off in coming days. The goal is to pass a bill to revise the ESEA—the current verson of which is the No Child Left Behind Act—for the first time in 15 years, by the end of 2015.”

Klein reports that action will begin immediately: “Expect the conference to kick off next Tuesday night (tomorrow) and conclude by Thursday. And expect the bill to be on the floor of both chambers after Thanksgiving recess.  That will give enough time for rank-and-file lawmakers to read it and make sure they understand what’s in it before they have to vote on it.”

The compromise, according to Klein’s report for Education Week, will prohibit “the education secretary from interfering with state prerogatives on teacher evaluation, testing, standards, school turnarounds, and more.  That part of the bill seems to be a direct rebuke to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who has used waivers to push big changes, especially when it comes to teacher evaluation.”

Klein explains the details of the Senate-House compromise that will be presented to a joint conference committee this week. Annual testing of all children in grades 3-8 and once in high school in reading and math will continue to be required along with disaggregating and reporting the scores.  States will also be required to identify their bottom-scoring 5 percent of schools along with schools that graduate less than two-thirds of their students in four years. However, the compromise bill requires the states themselves to decide what to do: “States would also have to identify and take action in schools that aren’t closing the achievement gap between poor and minority students and their peers. But importantly, the bill doesn’t say how many of those schools states would have to pinpoint, or what they would have to do to ensure that they are closing the gaps—the bill allows state leaders to figure all that out.”

The bill consolidates a number of federal education programs into block grants, continues the 21st Century Learning Center after school program, adds more investment in early childhood education (though these programs would be housed at the Department of Human Services), and keeps some commitment to full service, wraparound Community Schools.

The bill does not increase the role of Title I, the centerpiece of the original 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, a key program of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, and the program designed to drive federal funds to schools serving a high number or high percentage of children living in poverty. Neither does the compromise bill change the distribution formula for Title I. Congress’s goal in establishing Title I was to try to compensate for vastly unequal investment in public education from state to state and school district to school district.   Fortunately, omitted from the compromise is the Title I portability provision that was included in the House version of a reauthorization.  The Title I portability provision would have allowed a poor child to carry her Title I funds with her as a public school voucher if she left a school district where poverty was concentrated and moved to a wealthier school district.  Title I portablity would have further undermined the federal government’s capacity to address what is a rapidly growing trend in many cities—the concentration of very poor children in particular neighborhoods and schools. Many had also worried that public Title I portability vouchers would have been the top of a slippery slope toward Title I private school vouchers that would have further drained funding from poor urban school districts.

But beyond avoiding Title I portability, Congress will neither incentivize states to fund schools more fairly nor expand federal programs to ensure opportunities for children whose schools have been persistently under-resourced.  As this blog pointed out a week ago, the Education Law Center recently challenged Congress to consult a 2013 report of the Equity and Excellence Commission that Congress itself chartered, a report that declared, “The common situation in America is that schools in poor communities spend less per pupil—and often many thousands of dollars less per pupil—than schools in nearby affluent communities, meaning poor schools can’t compete for the best teaching and principal talent in a local labor market and can’t implement the high-end technology and rigorous academic and enrichment programs needed to enhance student performance. This is arguably the most important equity-related variable in American schooling today.  Let’s be honest: We are also an outlier in how many of our children are growing up in poverty… We are also an outlier in how we concentrate those children, isolating them in certain schools—often resource-starved schools—which only magnifies poverty’s impact and makes high achievement that much harder.”

While some have tried to frame No Child Left Behind’s accountability measures—annual standardized testing and reporting of disaggregated scores—as a civil rights initiative because test scores expose achievement gaps, NCLB has never significantly helped school districts overcome vast opportunity gaps that derive from three interwoven realities: racial segregation; increasing economic segregation and concentration of poverty; and unequally distributed and inadequate school funding dictated by policies across the states.  The ESEA compromise that Congress will begin considering this week fails to address the tragic reality posed by these conditions for our poorest children, their teachers and their schools.