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.

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Key Issues to Consider as Congress Looks at ESEA This Week

Today the Senate will begin debating a bipartisan bill to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), whose most recent version No Child Left Behind was passed in 2001.  Its five-year reauthorization is long, long overdue.  The House Rules Committee has also scheduled a meeting today to consider whether to resurrect the House version of the bill, which died after the Education and Labor Committee chose not to bring it to the House floor in March when sponsors realized they could not secure enough votes for passage.

Here is my view about what any new reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act should do:

  • address public school inequality by allocating federal resources for equity and pressing states to close opportunity gaps;
  • allocate Title I funds to support schools serving children in poverty through a fair formula, not a competition or any kind of portable voucher;
  • reduce reliance on standardized tests;
  • support and improve, rather than punishing, the public schools in America’s poorest communities;
  • address issues outside school that affect school achievement such as racial segregation, concentrated poverty and the need for pre-school that helps children before they fall behind;
  • reject market-based, technocratic policies that involve school choice and privatization; and instead
  • improve public education as the bedrock of our society and public schools as the anchors of communities.

How close can our current Congress come to these ideals? And why is ESEA so important?

ESEA’s Philosophy:   Beyond its specifics, this omnibus federal education law sets our society’s overall education policy and establishes the philosophy of education that underpins the law’s specific requirements.  The Elementary and Secondary Education Act was originally passed in 1965 as the centerpiece of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty.  As he signed the original ESEA, Johnson declared, “Poverty has many roots, but the taproot is ignorance.”  Title I, a huge formula program that has delivered extra funding to schools and school districts that serve a large number or high concentration of children in poverty, was the centerpiece of the original ESEA.  Later Congress added funding streams to support the education of children with special needs—the Individuals with Disability Education Act, and funding to support the added expense of providing instruction in English for immigrant children.  The philosophy under the original ESEA was expanding opportunity, supporting equity, and compensating schools, especially when their states did not provide an adequate opportunity to learn for children whose needs are greatest.

How did No Child Left Behind change the federal approach to education?   Then in 2001, as the culmination of over a decade’s infatuation with test based accountability, Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act, a version of ESEA with a very different philosophy.  The idea was to test all children every year, compare the scores of all groups of children by race and economics, rank and rate schools according to how quickly they were raising test scores among every group of children, and impose sanctions on the schools and teachers who were not raising scores for all groups of children.  The law originally said it would rank any school as “failing” if it did not bring all children to a standard of proficiency by 2014, but as 2014 got closer, and everybody realized such a utopian goal was impossible, the U.S. Department of Education began offering the chance for states to apply for waivers (from the “failure” label) if they would impose high standards and rate teachers by students’ test scores.  No Child Left Behind abruptly shifted the focus of ESEA away from equalizing opportunity to a new philosophy of equalizing outcomes.  It shifted the demand away from closing opportunity gaps to closing test score achievement gaps, without acknowledging that achievement gaps derive in large part from opportunity gaps. The original ESEA set out to try to ameliorate the ravages of poverty—however inadequately it was funded for such an ambitious goal.  NCLB instead blamed schools and teachers, and its mechanism was sanctions without significant added funding.

How has the Obama administration changed federal education policy?   Then as the Obama administration added its own programs on top of NCLB, the problems got worse.  NCLB’s sanctions became widespread as more and more schools failed to bring all children to proficiency.  Sanctions such as school closure, turnaround—that involved firing the principal and half the teachers, and conversion of public schools to charters—began to be imposed across our poorest big city school districts.  The Obama Department of Education even took some of the money in the Title I formula and turned it into competitive programs in which states—those that would agree to the Department’s requirements that caps on charters be eliminated and teachers ranked and rated by students’ scores—competed for big federal grants.  There were “winner” states and also the losers, even though they also had public schools that serve poor children who lost the benefit of some of their Title I funding—the very opposite the old Title I formula that assisted all school districts serving children in poverty.

What is Congress considering now?   Neither the Senate bill nor the House bill being considered in Congress right now is ideal, though the Senate bill is far better than the House bill.  Both bills, unless they are amended, retain the requirement that states test all children in grades 3-8 and once in high school and report out the scores.  The Senate bill as it was passed out of committee in April would shift responsibility for improving low-scoring schools away from federally prescripted punishments and give states more latitude for setting policy.  For details about what is in the Senate bill, read Monty Neill’s piece (Monty leads the National Center for Fair and Open Testing.) that was printed in Valerie Strauss’s Washington Post column yesterday.

Title I Portability:   Although the Senate bill maintains the Title I formula, the far more conservative House bill includes a damaging proposal called “Title I portability.” This provision would undermine the original purpose of the federal role in education: to add compensatory funding in schools and school districts where family poverty is highly concentrated but where no state is doing enough to equalize opportunity.  Under the House bill poor children would receive federal Title I funds to support their education, but they could carry that funding to any public school they might attend.  If a poor family moved, for example, from a poor urban school district to an apartment in a wealthy suburban district, the student would bring along a flat, per-child, Title I amount.  The problem with Title I portability is that in districts where poverty is concentrated, the poverty of the mass of children challenges the capacity of schools to provide adequate supports and services.  Title I portability would undermine targeting built into the Title I formula that weights support according to the school’s concentration of poverty.  Here is how Washington Post reporter Lindsey Layton described the effect last February: “For example, Phoenix public schools have a poverty rate of 61.4 percent.  The school system receives $8.5 million in federal Title I funds.  Under the House committee plan, the school district would receive $3.8 million less, a nearly 45 percent drop in federal funds, according to the U.S. Department of Education.”  Many people worry that passage of public school Title I portability would eventually lead to Title I vouchers that children could carry to private schools.

Will the Senate bill, as proposed, be improved during floor debate?   It is assumed that there will be significant amendments from the floor in the Senate.  One is likely to be from Jon Tester (D-Montana) to substitute grade-span testing—once in elementary school, once in middle school, and once in high school—for the annual standardized testing requirement in the bill that came out of Committee.  Although a large group of civil rights organizations has demanded the continuation of annual standardized testing because they consider it the only way to hold schools accountable, three civil rights leaders earlier this month—John Jackson, President of the Schott Foundation, Judith Browne Dianis co-director of Advancement Project, and Pedro Noguera, the New York University educational sociologist—published an important piece in The Hill to demand a reconsideration of the need for annual testing: “Moreover, of all the topics that could be addressed as No Child Left behind (NCLB) is considered for reauthorization, why defend a policy that has proven ineffective in advancing the educational interest of children of color and disadvantaged children generally?  Schools serving poor children and children of color remain under-funded and have been labeled ‘failing’ while little has been done at the local, state or federal level to effectively intervene and provide support.  In the face of clear evidence that children of color are more likely to be subjected to over-testing and a narrowing of curriculum in the name of test preparation, it is perplexing that D.C. based civil rights groups are promoting annual tests.”

One hopes there will be an effort in the Senate to move the philosophy of ESEA closer to its roots with a shift toward closing resource opportunity gaps.  Earlier this spring,  the Washington Post reported that the National Education Association has been pressing the Senate to amend the law to address the inequities between high-poverty public schools and those in more affluent communities by demanding that a new ESEA would require schools to, “publish an ‘opportunity dashboard’ that would disclose how much each school spends on teacher salaries, the number of experienced teachers and counselors they employ, access to Advanced Placement and honors courses and other indicators, so that disparity between schools is transparent.” NEA officials recently reported they are pressing Congress to include at least one measure of resource opportunity (along with the test score data required today) in the disaggregated data by which school districts and schools are evaluated. The goal: to shift the paradigm away from the test-score-based evaluation scheme embedded in No Child Left Behind to a new framework that exposes inequity across each state’s school districts. Problems are acute in states known to have regressive school funding formulas that fail to direct extra state dollars to help overcome disparities in local resources from school district to school district.

Can the House bill be improved?  Will it be voted on?  There remain serious questions about the House version of the reauthorization.  Will it come out of committee onto the floor?  Will Title I portability remain a key part of the House version?  Will the Club for Growth and Heritage Action continue to limit what the House will consider?  These two organizations’ lobbying efforts to make the bill far more conservative are said to have blocked its passage in March.

And then there is the question about whether Senate and House versions could be reconciled in conference committee, even if they were to pass in their respective chambers.

Congress Debates NCLB Reauthorization; Lucid Policy Memo Clarifies Concerns

Congress is in the midst of considering a long overdue reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, whose most recent 2002 version is called No Child Left Behind (NCLB).  In the Senate, Lamar Alexander, the chair of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and Patty Murray, the ranking Democrat, recently announced they would put aside Alexander’s Republican version of a bill and start over to create a bipartisan draft.

Last week in the House, the Education and the Workforce Committee, chaired by John Kline (R, Minn) marked up and passed a bill that, Kline says, will be debated on the House floor at the end of February.  This House version, HR 5, is similar to a partisan re-write passed a couple of years ago that died when Congress could not agree on a reauthorization.  The House bill, dubbed the Student Success Act, includes Title I portability and thereby undermines the original purpose of the federal role in education by reducing targeting of federal funds to schools in communities where family poverty is highly concentrated.

The Committee for Education Funding, a coalition of 115 national education associations and institutions has released a statement highly critical of federal funding freezes embedded in HR 5: “While CEF as a coalition is not taking a position on the policy issues in HR 5, we oppose the authorization levels because they would freeze funding in the aggregate for programs authorized in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) through the 2021-22 school year.  HR 5 freezes the aggregate ESEA authorization level for Fiscal Year (FY) 2016 and for each of the succeeding five years at the aggregate FY 2016 appropriated level of $23.30 billion.  Not only will this prevent needed investments for critical programs for the next six years, but it cuts funding below the FY 2012 pre-sequester level of $24.11 billion (a cut of 3.36 percent)… Since the National Center for Education Statistics projects that public school enrollment will increase by more than 2.2 million students in this period and the Congressional Budget Office projects an aggregate increase in the CPI of 14.2 percent between 2015 and 2021, such a freeze would severely erode the purchasing power of these programs and significantly reduce services to students… These cuts have come at a time when enrollments have increased, more children are living in poverty and schools and students have endured deep state and local budget cuts.”

In the context of the Congressional debate about the possible reauthorization of NCLB, Kevin Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) at the University of Colorado and Bill Mathis, the managing director of the center, have released a lucid and nuanced evaluation of NCLB: “Today’s 21-year-olds were in third grade in 2002, when the No Child Left Behind act became law… The federal government entrusted their educations to an unproven but ambitious belief that if we test children and hold educators responsible for improving test scores, we would have almost everyone scoring as ‘proficient’ by 2014.  Thus, we would achieve ‘equality.’ This approach has not worked.” “The broad consensus among researchers is that this system is at best ineffective and at worst counterproductive.  The issues now being debated in Washington largely ignore these facts about the failure of test-based educational reform, and the proposals now on the table simply gild, rather than transform, a strategy with little or no promise.”

The policy memo was posted on Friday by Valerie Strauss at the website of the Washington Post.  An annotated version is posted at the NEPC website. I urge you to read it carefully.  Welner and Mathis examine a a set of complicated policy issues elegantly, simply and logically.  It is the best short evaluation I’ve seen of NCLB’s impact along with a consideration of several key issues being discussed in the Congressional debate about reauthorizing the federal education law.

Welner and Mathis acknowledge the argument from Civil Rights groups that NCLB and the disaggregated reporting of standardized test scores have shined a bright light on achievement gaps, but they add: “The hope was that this greater attention would be followed by greater resources and greater opportunities… It is important to note that achievement gaps were well known prior to NCLB.  The disaggregation of NAEP test results has provided clear documentation of achievement gaps for many decades.  What NCLB and related policies added was a set of punitive interventions, not a guiding knowledge of the gaps and not a set of strategies and resources to close the gaps.”

“If we as a nation are to continue asking our schools to somehow counteract the effects of poverty and other societal ills, we will need to provide children in resource-starved communities with extraordinarily enriching opportunities within those schools.  Looking to the adequacy studies across the nation, each economically deprived child should receive between 40 and 100 percent greater funding than the average student, while they actually receive about 19 percent greater funding.  In fact, by one measure, urban districts serving our most needy children have only 89 percent of the national average in revenues.  The original language of ESEA’s Title I program provided that each child living in poverty would receive an additional 40 percent of the state’s average spending.  Neither the federal government nor the states have ever appropriated sums of this magnitude.  The current discussion in Congress similarly ignores this promise and this need.  In fact, one proposal is to make Title I funds ‘portable,’ which would have the effect of moving even more funds away from schools with the greatest needs.”

What will happen in the future if Congress persists in reauthorizing the federal education law along the lines of the 2002 NCLB?  “The above-described pattern of ever-increasing social needs and educational needs, as well as fewer or stagnant resources, will inevitably lead to larger—not smaller—opportunity gaps and achievement gaps.  Testing will document this, but it will do nothing to change it.  Instead, the gaps will only close with sustained investment and improvement based on proven strategies that directly increase children’s opportunities to learn.”

2014: The Year All Children Shall Officially Be Above Average

George Wood, superintendent of schools in rural Federal Hocking, Ohio,  executive director of the Forum for Education and Democracy and board chair of the Coalition of Essential Schools has written a short, inspiring essay for the fiftieth anniversary of the declaration of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty.  One of the foundations of the War on Poverty was the law passed a year later, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act: “Johnson struck a clever bargain with Southern lawmakers: they’d get federal money for their public schools, as long as those schools followed federal civil rights laws.”

The 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) was a civil rights law.  “The irony is that what was billed as an anti-poverty, pro-desegregation law,” writes Wood, “today seems silent on all of these issues.  NCLB (No Child Left Behind—the current version of ESEA) was passed more than a decade ago amid much fanfare about holding all children to the same expectations.  Fourteen years later, childhood poverty has increased, minority achievement in schools continues to falter, and schools are as racially segregated as ever.”

Noting that 2014 is the No Child Left Behind Act’s crowning moment, “the target date by which all children were to be proficient in reading and math,” and at the same time an important anniversary of the War on Poverty, Wood suggests “that those of us who believe in public education as a fundamental tool for equality in a democratic society use this odd convergence of NCLB and the War on Poverty to shape our own agenda for the next school reform campaign. Let’s stop tinkering around the edges with parsing test scores and creating more charter schools.”

Instead, suggests Wood, we should stop practices that segregate our schools by race, class or gender; fund schools equally; make teaching a well prepared and supported profession; and restore “the vision of a free, high-quality, public education for all children.  Rather than pushing competitions like Race to the Top that only some schools can win, we need an agenda that ensures that every single school is a great public school.”   I urge you to read this thoughtful and inspiring article.

Valerie Strauss Examines Value of School Improvement Grant Program

The School Improvement Grant (SIG) program is one of the grant competitions by which the U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan is awarding Title I money to schools.  This particular program is for schools that score in the bottom 5 percent nationwide, the schools deemed failing.  The majority of these schools are located in the poorest neighborhoods of our big cities, places where poverty is highly concentrated.

There have been a number of criticisms of the SIG program. First, it is a grant program that provides money for a limited period.  It is easy for a school district to use the money for consultants or for programs to train teachers, but it is difficult to use it for reducing class size by hiring more teachers, or hiring counselors or music and art enrichment teachers because the money will eventually run out.  School districts without adequate state and local funding would have to eliminate any ongoing programs at the end of the federal grant period.

Second, it is a competitive program with winners and losers.  The Title I formula program, by contrast, is a program that awards funds to all schools that serve a large number or high concentration of children living in poverty.  The Title I formula program was launched in 1965 as a civil rights program by which the federal government compensates (to a very modest degree) for inadequate and unequal spending across the states.  In programs like SIG, while some applicants win, districts in other states lose and students there have no access to federal assistance.

Today in her Washington Post column, Valerie Strauss examines troubling results in the formal evaluation of the School Improvement Grant program.  Those conducting formal evaluations of the program have speculated for some years now that SIG is not accomplishing its goals and that the money might be better invested.  The results of the latest evaluation are being re-examined.  In upcoming months we should pay attention to the conclusions of those who are revising the most recent formal evaluation of SIG.

A New Name in the Tired, Old No Child Left Behind Debate

I urge you to read This Is Only A Test,  Jonathan Kozol’s review in yesterday’s NY Times of Diane Ravitch’s new book, Reign of Error, and then, of course, I encourage you to read (and master the information in) Ravitch’s excellent book.

But having recently read his excellent book review, I am thinking today about Jonathan Kozol, the writer who has again and again created a lens to help us see the plight of America’s children.  Kozol brought us “savage inequalities” and “apartheid schooling in America,” for example, terms that have been adopted into common parlance to depict our society’s growing inequality and racial segregation.

In yesterday’s review, Kozol coined a new phrase that stopped me cold.  He begins the second paragraph of his book review with this simple declaration: “The pressure intensified in 2002 with the enactment of the federal testing law No Child Left Behind…”

Most of us who write about public education, anxious to be scrupulously precise about the historical facts, have described, “No Child Left Behind, the most recent reauthorization of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act.”  I have recently forced myself to feel comfortable shortening it to, “the current version of the federal education law, No Child Left Behind.”

But of course, as I realized when I read Kozol’s book review, No Child Left Behind has very little to do with education.  How thoughtless of me to have called it an education law.

Kozol’s new name—the federal testing law No Child Left Behind—has given me a whole new way of seeing.  Notice that calling it “the federal testing law” leaves no way to confuse the law with real school accountability or school reform or any kind of civil rights.  It is about massive standardized testing piled on top of more testing.  “The federal testing law” describes what the law does: prescribe annual standardized testing for all children in grades 3-8 and once in high school—and then prescribe outrageous consequences for school teachers and school districts and particular schools if scores don’t rise quickly.

The new name also keeps our minds from wandering to the hopeless logjam in Congress.  If we call No Child Left Behind “the federal testing law” instead of “the most recent reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act,” we are less likely to think about  the seeming impossibility and hopelessness of a reauthorization that has been languishing since 2007.  More direct possibilities  for protest and organizing come to mind.  Throw Out the Federal Testing Law.  Overturn the Federal Testing Law.  I Opted My Child Out of the Federal Testing Law.  The Secretary of Education could not possibly defame anyone with such a bumper sticker as a “defender of the status quo.”

Of course it is also important to understand why all the testing has been such a dismal failure.  For a pithy review of the issues, I recommend Bob Shaeffer’s piece last week in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Flawed Exams Support Phony School Accountability.  Bob works with Monty Neill at FairTest, which helped sponsor a national resolution against high stakes testing.  If you are a parent, FairTest would urge you to become part of the movement to opt your child out of the federal testing law No Child Left Behind.

I plan to take a very simple step to intensify my protest: I will be adopting Jonathan Kozol’s phrase, “the federal testing law No Child Left Behind” whenever I refer to this law.  I challenge you to do the same.