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.