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.

Everyone Should Learn About, Care About, and Strongly Oppose Title I Portability

The conversation in Congress about a possible reauthorization of the federal education law—called No Child Left Behind in 2002 when the most recent version was signed into law—-may seem really “in the weeds,” too wonky really to take in.  And it’s an even more baffling conversation because the politics seem all confused with the Democratic administration of Barack Obama supporting the annual high stakes testing that was brought to us originally by a Republican, George W. Bush.

But there is one aspect of this discussion that is urgently important as a matter of justice, and it is playing out along party lines.  The subject is Title I Portablity — something that Republicans have introduced into their proposed bills in both the Senate and House.

Here is some history: the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was first passed as part of the War on Poverty in 1965.  Title I, the centerpiece of that law, was designed to provide what was called “compensatory” funding to schools and school districts that serve either a large number or large concentration of children in poverty.  It was designed to try to protect the rights of very poor children in states that were not spending nearly enough on the education of children living in poverty.  Proposals for something called  Title I Portability in both Republican proposals being discussed right now in the Senate and the House of Representatives would destroy how the Title I formula works to protect the rights and meet the needs of our nation’s poorest children.

In both Senate and House proposed bills, a flat amount of money would be allocated for each poor child, and the child would carry that funding to whatever public school the child attends.  There would no longer be a formula that weights the federal Title I amount—with additional money following children who attend school in districts with concentrated poverty.

Here is how the National Coalition for Public Education (NCPE), an organization of 50 education, civic, civil rights and religious organizations, explains the purpose of the Title I formula and the threat posed by Title I Portability: “Congress adopted Title I in 1965 to ensure that districts and schools serving large concentrations of students in poverty received a greater portion of federal funds to address the compounded impact of poverty on student learning.  High-poverty school districts and schools benefit from increased federal investment by taking advantage of ‘economies of scale’ to combine resources for school-wide services and whole school reforms targeted at economically and academically needy groups of students.”

Members of NCPE oppose Republican proposals to “provide states the option of making Title I funding ‘portable’ by allowing  the money to follow the child to a public school. This proposal would undermine Title I’s fundamental purpose of assisting public schools with high concentrations of poverty and high-need students.” “Under current law, districts make local decisions about how to best use their Title I funding.  This allows them to ‘pool’ Title I funds so that the highest poverty schools in the district receive the funds. For decades, districts have also chosen to invest their Title I funds primarily in their highest poverty elementary schools because addressing student learning needs at the earliest age possible produces the greatest return on investment.  Districts, working with principals and school leaders, can also further target their federal dollars toward specific students within a school based on their economic needs.  Portablity would divest local school districts, principals, and other school leaders of this important decision making authority….”

The Center on American Progress (CAP) has also published a brief opposing Title I Portability. According to CAP, letting the money follow the poor child—the definition of Title I Portability—“ignores the long-known fact that socioeconomic isolation has a devastating impact on student learning and achievement outcomes. Simply put the challenges that low-income students face are significantly greater when the majority of their classmates are also low income.”  CAP estimates that, on average, school districts with highly concentrated family poverty would lose $85 per student while more affluent school districts would gain, on average, $290 per student. Funding would be less targeted, its impact diluted. Chicago would lose $64 million, CAP estimates, and the Los Angeles Unified School District $75 million.

CAP calls the idea of Title I Portability “Robin Hood in Reverse”—“taking from the poor and giving to the rest.”