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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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.

Congress Ought to Do Something Radical, Take ESEA Back to Its Original Purpose: Equity

In a news blast last week, the Education Law Center challenged Congress to “compel states to fund schools fairly” in any legislation it might pass to reauthorize the federal education law that we currently call No Child Left Behind (NCLB).  Supposedly aides in the relevant House and Senate committees are working on a compromise between very different House and Senate versions passed earlier this year of a new Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).  Whether any kind of compromise can be moved forward in the current Congress remains a question.

In pushing Congress to address equity in the reauthorization, the Education Law Center proposes that Congress add an element to the compromise that neither Senate nor House included in the very different bills passed by the two chambers—an element so unthinkable these days that it hasn’t even been part of the conversation.  This is, of course, ironic, as the 1965, Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)  (of which NCLB is merely the latest reauthorization) was originally designed as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty.  The purpose of its largest program, Title I, was to infuse federal funds into schools that serve either a large number or a high percentage of students living in poverty.

Writing of this year’s ESEA reauthorization debate, the Education Law Center points out: “Conspicuously absent from the debate is the critical need for federal policy to motivate the States to fairly fund their public schools. Federal funding accounts for only about 10% of preK-12 funding.  The states, through their finance systems, determine the lion’s share of school funding, how it’s distributed, and the mix of state and local revenue.  Only a handful of states provide sufficient levels of funding and distribute that funding fairly to address student need as documented in Is School Funding Fair? A National Report Card.  Many states have been unable or unwilling to make their funding systems more equitable and adequate.  It is crucial that federal education policies pressure states to improve funding fairness.”

The Education Law Center references the report of the Equity and Excellence Commission chartered by Congress itself in 2013, a document that charges: “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.”

The version of the ESEA reauthorization that the House passed earlier this year contains a dangerous provision, Title I portability—a public school Title I voucher a poor child could carry to any public school to which she or he might move. Title I portability would actually increase school funding inequity by rendering Title I less effective to address what is a rapidly growing trend in many cities—the concentration of very poor children in particular neighborhoods and schools. Title I was designed to drive additional federal funds to schools where poverty is concentrated.  If Congress were to enact Title I portability, a poor student whose family moved to a wealthier school would instead carry the funding away from the school in the poorer neighborhood where many poor children remain concentrated. Many also worry that a public Title I portability voucher program could easily be the  top of a slippery slope toward Title I private school vouchers that would further drain funding from poor urban school districts.

The Education Law Center adds that while neither House nor Senate version of the ESEA reauthorization increases overall funding for Title I, both propose damaging changes in the distribution of an already far too small pot of money: “This year, the Senate passed a version of the ESEA that would allocate more Title I funds to southern and western states at the expense of northern and eastern states. The House passed a version that would allocate Title I funds away from large cities in favor of smaller school districts… The ESEA reauthorization bill recently passed by the Senate changes Title I by taking away a built-in reward to states that exhibit high “effort” in school funding. “Effort” measures state spending on education relative to state fiscal capacity. If this change to Title I is accepted by the conference committee, states would lose an important incentive to adequately fund their schools.”

The Education Law Center’s news blast concludes: “Under Title I, about $14.5 billion is provided annually to school districts, an amount that has remained flat for several years… What’s needed is a commitment from the President and leaders in Congress to take up the deep and longstanding inequities that inhibit educational progress in most states.”

In recent speeches Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association, is also advocating for equity, though NEA’s request is even more humble: get funding fairness at least into the conversation.  Eskelsen Garcia and the NEA are asking Congress to include more reporting on disparities in the opportunity to learn by mandating a national “opportunity dashboard” that would expose inequity.  Patrick O’Donnell interviewed Eskelsen Garcia for the Cleveland Plain Dealer: “She said the worst failure of No Child Left Behind is that it expected all students to meet test score targets, without paying any attention to how poverty affects how much kids learn.  Expecting scores to rise without solving underlying socioeconomic issues was never realistic, she said. Garcia wants the federal government to report things like student access to Advanced Placement classes, kindergarten, nurses and arts or foreign language classes, along with test results.  The dashboard would also list attendance and graduation rates, data on teacher qualifications, class sizes and the availability of libraries and technology. ‘What we are asking for is a very powerful advocacy tool that will give us data. We will be able to use that information to call out what needs to be called out.'”

Congress certainly needs to increase the Title I allocation, keep the formula fair, and report data on access to opportunity as well as data on test scores. But during the Obama administration the U.S. Department of Education has also demonstrated that the federal government has an additional tool.  Arne Duncan has created huge grant competitions that have conditioned application for federal funds on states’ incorporating federal priorities into their own laws and rules.  As conditions for Race to the Top money, states were required to remove caps on the number of new charter schools that could be opened.  To get a waiver from the most onerous penalties of NCLB, states accepted a federal requirement that they tie teachers’ evaluations to their students’ test scores.  States have been receiving federal money on the condition that they agree to close or charterize so-called “failing” schools.  As part of the ESEA reauthorization, Congress could just as easily create incentives for states to close opportunity gaps by equalizing their state school funding formulas.

In her 2010 book, The Flat World and Education, Stanford University’s Linda Darling-Hammond describes the kind of school funding reform Congress ought to be considering as its members reauthorize the federal education law: “It is exhausting even to recount the struggles for equitable funding in American schools, much less to be engaged in the struggles, year after year, or—more debilitating—to be a parent or student who is subject day-by-day, week-by-week to the aggressive neglect often fostered in dysfunctional, under-resourced schools.  One 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….” (p.164)

Or go back to Jonathan Kozol’s 1991 classic, Savage Inequalities, as timely today as when it was published a quarter century ago: “‘In a country where there is no distinction of class,’ Lord Acton wrote of the United States 130 years ago, ‘a child is not born to the station of its parents, but with an indefinite claim to all the prizes that can be won by thought and labor. It is in conformity with the theory of equality… to give as near as possible to every youth an equal state in life.’  Americans, he said, ‘are unwilling that any should be deprived in childhood of the means of competition.’  It is hard to read these words today without a sense of irony and sadness.” (p. 83)