Concern for Equity Merely Buried in New Darling-Hammond Policy Brief: But It’s Still There

Congress is talking about reauthorizing the federal testing law—the law whose recent version we call No Child Left Behind (NCLB)  but that originated in 1965 as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), passed as part of the War on Poverty.  The debate in Congress seems to be slowly falling apart because of deep partisan disagreement about the role of the federal government in education policy. The Congressional debate does, however, provide an important opportunity to explore some of the issues in the law as it stands currently.

Here are two quotes that encapsulate two of my greatest concerns.  The first is from Gary Orfield, the political scientist and demographer who leads the Civil Rights Project at UCLA.  In a forward to a 2009 Civil Rights Project analysis of No Child Left Behind, Orfield worried that, “the law raises the pressure for schools, by themselves, to produce equal outcomes while other social policies bearing on the lives of poor children have been cut back.  The dominant rhetoric has ignored the reality—reflected in countless studies over the past four decades—that poverty, low parent education, poor health, and inferior segregated schools all contribute powerfully to unequal outcomes, and that those conditions can only partially be addressed inside the schools… Blaming schools and their teachers takes the pressure off political leaders (and privileged communities) to play a serious role in solving the problems in a society that tolerates a level of child poverty higher than any other nation of similar stature.”  Orfield worries that No Child Left Behind holds schools accountable for factors that schools cannot control and then blames schools and teachers in poor communities.  He points out that many such schools support their students and help them learn, but they cannot post students’ test scores in aggregate that match the scores of children in more privileged communities in a society that is increasingly segregated not only by race but also by family economics.

The education historian  Diane Ravitch, in a short piece last month on How to Fix No Child Left Behind, names a second and closely related concern: “Any genuine fix to NCLB would recognize that the administration of President George W. Bush took a wrong turn by changing ESEA from a law devoted to equity to a law devoted to testing and accountability.  The switch from ESEA to NCLB was a substitution of punishment and sanctions for direct federal aid to the neediest districts.  ESEA and the federal aid it supplied were supposed to help poor children, not convert their schools into test-prep factories or close them or privatize them… Restore the original purpose of the ESEA: equity for poor children and the schools they attend.  These schools need more money for smaller classes, social workers, nurses, and librarians, not more testing.  Designate federal aid for reducing class size, for intensive tutoring by certified teachers and for other interventions that are known to be effective.”

For a long time Linda Darling-Hammond, an education professor at Stanford University, has been an advocate for expanding the opportunity to learn for poor children by increasing society’s investment in their schools.  I was therefore surprised the other day to receive a joint policy brief by Darling-Hammond and the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education in collaboration with Paul Hill and the Center on Reinventing Public Education.  The two organizations are generally diametrically opposed on school policy, but this brief is titled Accountability and the Federal Role: A Third Way on ESEA.  While I am not a fan of NCLB’s requirement for annual testing, Darling-Hammond and Hill agree that No Child Left Behind’s annual testing should continue, though it should include broader measures: “Parents and the public need to know whether children are learning what they need to graduate high school, enter and complete four-year college, or get a rewarding, career-ladder job.  Student test scores can provide valuable information but they should be used in combination with other valid evidence of school effectiveness…. Assessments of schools should focus on meaningful learning, not just on what is easiest to test… Because a students’ level and pace of learning in any one year depends in part on what was learned previously and on the efforts of many professionals working together, the consequences of high and low performance should attach to whole schools, rather than to individual educators.”

Darling-Hammond and Hill suggest that while testing ought to continue, the heavy hand of the federal government should be restrained: “School leaders must have sufficient authority, flexibility, and resources to lead their schools and must take affirmative responsibility for fostering school-wide collaboration aimed at continuous improvement in teaching and learning.  States and school districts must have and exercise multiple options when children learn at low rates that threaten their adult opportunities, including remedying resource shortfalls, supporting teacher and leader improvement, changing school staffing, redesigning or replacing chronically ineffective schools, assigning schools to new managers, and allowing families to choose other school options.”  So… even though there should be some flexibility in the punishments for so-called “failing” schools, there ought to be more local flexibility, though sanctions ought to include firing teachers or principals, replacing ineffective schools, or expanded school choice.  But at least there is a small mention of “remedying resource shortfalls.”

The policy brief ends with particular implications for Congress to consider in the discussion about reauthorizing ESEA: Congress should require annual testing of student learning disaggregated by racial, ethnic and economic subgroups.  Testing should include multiple measures, not mere standardized tests.  Congress should neither prescribe the punishments for low-scoring schools “nor require mechanical use of test scores to drive consequences for schools.”  Rather Congress should require states to devise review systems to determine when intervention is needed in particular schools. Congress should make performance agreements with states and provide incentives for states to improve districts and schools and raise graduation rates and should impose consequences when states fail to comply.

And finally—two paragraphs from the end of the six page policy brief, a fifth implication is named: “ESEA should also create incentives for states to recognize and remedy systematic differences in the financial and human resources available for the education of similar students, and for districts to remove internal barriers to funding equity and transparency.”  Ah, what a relief.  I had wondered if  Linda Darling-Hammond had become less-concerned about improving the fiscal capacity of the poorest school districts to serve their children. But the issue of the federal government’s necessary role for resource equity and funding is still there, though  buried deep in the new policy brief.

Through some research I discovered that by publishing a series of peer-reviewed academic papers, Darling-Hammond has been collaborating with colleagues to  “develop a new paradigm” to explain accountability for college and career readiness.  In the paper that introduces this academic project she writes: “Genuine accountability….  should rest on three pillars: a focus on meaningful learning enabled by professionally skilled and committed educators, supported by adequate and appropriate resources.”  The pillars are then diagrammed: Meaningful Learning, Professional Capacity, and Resource Accountability.

Academic papers on education theory are abstract.  Instead of clarifying the issues in something as complicated as reauthorizing the federal education law, such academic papers can be confusing.  By contrast the paper that Darling-Hammond added to the research she is assembling to explain the importance of the third pillar—equity of resources, a paper by David Sciarra and Molly Hunter, attorneys and school finance experts from the Education Law Center, is written in very clear terms:  “Resource accountability is realized by investing sufficient educational resources, equitably distributed to ensure access to quality teaching, a rigorous curriculum, and other essentials for all students, including those in poverty, learning English, and with other special needs. Resource accountability is a prerequisite for meaningful learning enabled by professionally skilled and committed educators, the two other pillars of a comprehensive approach to accountability.”  “Also, the effective use of public school funding is an oft-ignored but crucial step toward ensuring equal educational opportunity for all students.”

We need to insist that the federal government’s role in ameliorating poverty and addressing vast inequality of school resources—the original purpose in 1965 of Title I in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—be neither lost, nor ignored, nor forgotten as Congress debates the law’s reauthorization.

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Advocates and National Organizations Are Questioning Test-and-Punish School Accountability

Suddenly for the first time in years, there is considerable talk about reforming federal policy in education.  Yesterday this blog reviewed the way federal education policy has become stuck and discussed an academic paper that seems to have stimulated new thinking by a number of education advocacy and civil rights organizations.  Today, the blog will share two new policy statements from prominent civil rights and education policy organizations and review growing protests against the standardized testing that has—due to growing federal and state accountability requirements—come to dominate our public schools.

As this blog described yesterday, in an academic paper published in August, Accountability for College and Career Readiness: Developing a New Paradigm, Linda Darling-Hammond and Gene Wilhoit propose that federal law stop merely blaming teachers and punishing the public schools in the poorest communities when, as we all surely know, there is massive inequity of investment by states and wide variance across school districts in their capacity to raise revenue locally.   A just society, Darling-Hammond and Wilhoit suggest, should be reciprocally accountable for investing significantly in the public schools that serve our society’s most vulnerable children– addressing gaps in opportunity as a primary way to address gaps in school achievement.

Darling-Hammond and Wilhoit’s paper seems to have united commitment across national advocacy organizations around the concept of reciprocal accountability.  First eleven of the nation’s most prominent civil rights organizations sent a joint letter to President Obama, Secretary Duncan and Congressional leaders, a letter that echoes the proposals in the paper published by Darling-Hammond and Wilhoit.  Last week this blog covered the new civil rights letter here. The civil rights organizations are Advancement Project, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, League of United Latin American Citizens, Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, National Opportunity to Learn Campaign, National Urban League, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, National Council on Educating Black Children, National Indian Education Association, and Southeast Asia Resource Action Center.  Their statement disdains “overly punitive accountability systems that do not take into account the resources, geography, student population, and needs of specific schools.  In particular, the No Child Left Behind law has not accomplished its intended goals of substantially expanding educational equity or significantly improving educational outcomes.  Racial achievement and opportunity gaps remain large.”  These organizations advocate that accountability should measure resource inputs and support the academic, social, emotional, physical health, and cultural well-being of students.

Then seventeen national organizations—including some of the same civil rights groups along with a number of national educational organizations released New Accountability: A New Social Compact for American Education, a document that supports the idea of reciprocal accountability.  Sponsors are American Association of School Administrators, American Federation of Teachers, American Youth Policy Forum, Albert Shanker Institute, Alliance for Quality Education, Committee for Economic Development, Center for Teaching Quality, Education Law Center, Institute for Educational Leadership/Coalition for Community Schools, League of United Latin American Citizens, National Association for Bilingual Education, National Association of Secondary School Principals, National Education Association, National Opportunity to Learn Campaign, National School Boards Association, Partnership for 21st Century Skills, and Southeast Asia Resource Action Center.  The new “social compact” declares: “Accountability in American education must focus both on gathering complete information on the performance of students, educators, schools and districts, and on providing the feedback, resources and supports necessary for their improvement.  A fundamental paradigm shift in our accountability regime will be required, as the failed approach of ‘test and punish‘ is replaced with a strategy of ‘support and improve.'” “Genuine accountability rests on shared responsibility for educational outcomes.  All of the institutions participating in American education—from the federal government, state governments and higher education to school boards, school districts and schools—must be accountable for the contributions each must make to ensure high-quality learning opportunities for every child. Government must be accountable for equitably allocating adequate resources—dollars, curriculum and learning tools, well-qualified educators, and safe healthy environments for learning—to meet student needs and support meaningful learning.”  You are invited to join the authors of the Social Compact for American Education by signing on.

Finally, there is growing conversation about the tests themselves.  Darling-Hammond and Wilhoit’s academic paper also addresses this issue at length and declares: “If meaningful learning for all students is the focus of an accountability system, the system should use a range of measures that encourage and reflect such learning, and it should use those measures in ways that improve, rather than limit, educational opportunities for students.  This means we need both much better assessments of learning—representing much more authentically the skills and abilities we want students to develop—and multiple measures of how students, educators, schools, districts, and states are performing.”

The problem is not merely the quality of the tests, however.  An enormous concern is the amount and frequency of testing.  Sixteen superintendents of large, county-wide school districts recommend that the U.S. Department of Education, even in the waivers it is offering from NCLB’s failed policies, reduce the time and energy being devoted in America’s classrooms to testing by substituting grade-span testing instead of annual testing.  They are suggesting that federally required standardized tests be reduced from seven (grades 3-8 and once in high school) to three times (once in elementary school, once in middle school, and once in high school).

Last week Monty Neill, executive director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing was featured as a guest columnist by Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post: “Across the nation, resistance to test overuse and misuse reached unprecedented heights in the spring of 2014.  The rapidly growing movement built on significant test opposition unleashed in 2013.  This year, resistance erupted in more states with far more participants, and it won notable victories such as ending, lessening or postponing graduation exams in at least eight states and easing or ending grade promotion tests.”  He describes a growing opt-out movement among parents and adds, “School boards are also resisting test overkill.  In New York, about 20 districts refused to administer tests used for the sole purpose of trying out items for next year’s state exams.”

Neill remains sober about the amount of work still needed to grow such actions, however.  “The ultimate goals of the movement are to dramatically reduce the amount of testing, end high stakes uses, and implement educationally sound assessments.  Progress has been made, but much more must be done.  To succeed, the movement must keep rapidly expanding while uniting across lines of race, class and where possible, politically ideology.  And it must turn its growing strength into greater victories.”

Defining School Accountability: Test-and-Punish or Support-and-Improve?

Suddenly for the first time in years, there is considerable talk about reforming federal policy in education.  Today this blog will review the way federal education policy has become stuck and an academic paper that seems to have stimulated new thinking by a number of education advocacy and civil rights organizations.  Tomorrow, the blog will share two new policy statements from prominent civil rights and education policy organizations as well as reviewing  growing protests against the standardized testing that has—due to growing federal and state accountability requirements—come to dominate our public schools.

A quick review of the history of the No Child Left Behind Act:  For a long time there has been a hopeless feeling among people who care about the children and teachers in public schools, because it has been clear that not much was going to happen to change the failed policies of the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB)—the federal law designed to hold schools accountable for the academic achievement of their students.  NCLB was supposed to address accountability with annual standardized testing (in grades 3-8 and once in high school) and then create negative incentives (various punishments) for the schools and teachers unable to raise the test scores of all groups of children.  The punishments were for the so-called “failing” schools, but because the law set utopian and impossible benchmarks, the “failing school” label came to be applied to virtually all of our nation’s public schools—except that Arne Duncan and his Department of Education have created waivers from the “failure” label and a couple of other parts of NCLB that were unworkable. But the waivers came with more tests and very harsh punishments for schools scoring in the lowest 5 percent—close the school, privatize the school, fire the principal, fire the teachers. And even though the federal education law is supposed to be reauthorized every five years, there hasn’t been a reauthorization since 2002, when NCLB was signed into law by President George W. Bush.

Today, while it is widely agreed that  NCLB was a failure—and that the waivers aren’t working well either, and while it is a truth universally acknowledged that a school with low test scores must be in want of improvement, there has been agreement neither about who ought to be accountable to whom when it comes to school improvement nor about how accountability ought to be defined.  In fact there hasn’t really been much agreement about what such school improvement ought to look like.  Bills to reauthorize NCLB have been proposed here and there in the Senate and the House, but there has been no progress toward consensus.

Suddenly in recent weeks, however, there has been increasing talk about how public school accountability ought to work.  Because this week’s election will change at least a few of the players at the federal and state levels, advocates are positioning themselves to push hard for reform in case a political opportunity might open.

In late August, Linda Darling-Hammond of the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education and Gene Wilhoit and Linda Pittenger of the National Center for Innovation in Education at the University of Kentucky published a paper, Accountability for College and Career Readiness: Developing a New Paradigm.  Darling-Hammond—who was seriously considered by President Obama for the job of Secretary of Education, and Wilhoit—formerly executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers—are well respected among academic researchers and among policy makers.

Darling-Hammond and Wilhoit’s paper covers many issues, but it is most significant because it reframes the concept of accountability.  Darling-Hammond and Wilhoit propose a system of reciprocal accountability—that includes holding society responsible for providing for all schools inputs—school funding and other necessary resources—as well as holding schools and teachers responsible for educational outcomes. “Genuine accountability must both raise the bar of expectations for learning—for children, adults and the system as a whole—and trigger the intelligent investments and change strategies that make it possible to achieve these expectations.  It must involve communities, along with professional educators and governments, in establishing goals and contributing to their attainment… Thus, a new paradigm for accountability should rest on three pillars: a focus on meaningful learning, enabled by professionally skilled and committed educators, supported by adequate and appropriate resources… Such a system should be: reciprocal and comprehensive, focused on capacity-building, performance-based, and embedded in a multiple-measures system… A comprehensive system must attend to the inputs, processes, and outcomes that produce student learning: In other words, it must build capacity to offer high quality education, while holding educators accountable for providing such education.” (emphasis in the original)

There is quite a bit of rhetoric and theory here.  What does it mean in practice?  Darling-Hammond and Wilhoit are proposing that federal law stop merely blaming teachers and punishing the public schools in the poorest communities when, as we all surely know, there is massive inequity of investment by states and wide variance across school districts in their capacity to raise revenue locally.   A just society, Darling-Hamond and Wilhoit suggest, should be expected to invest significantly in the public schools that serve our society’s most vulnerable children—the public schools in our cites where poverty is concentrated, the public schools that remain grossly under-funded while the demands on them from federal and state policy have continued to increase.  Reciprocal accountability would address gaps in opportunity as a primary way to address gaps in school achievement.

The idea of reciprocal accountability isn’t new.  Congressman Chaka Fattah (PA 2) introduced—into every session of Congress during the tenure of President George W. Bush—a Student Bill of Rights Act that incorporated the principle of reciprocal accountability.  And the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign has been pushing to close opportunity gaps—not just achievement gaps—-for several years.  What is new is that a a growing number of academics and national organizations seem to be coordinating their efforts to advocate for reciprocal accountability.

I urge you to read Darling-Hammond and Wilhoit’s paper, for it explores many additional serious issues around accountability for teaching and learning as well as discussion of better assessments using multiple measures.  Tomorrow this blog will explore how the idea of reciprocal accountability has been seeping into recent policy statements by civil rights and national education policy organizations at the same time there is a growing backlash against the standardized testing that has increasingly dominated students’ lives.