If you haven’t read President Obama’s blueprint for reforming the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), it’s available for download here. All in all, it’s a pretty good outline and contains elements for everyone, but ultimately it should be seen as a reasonable compromise document on a contentious law. It doesn’t solve any of the meaty, technical details, but that’s a job for Congress anyway. For some contrast, consider that it’s more descriptive than anything the Administration has put out on health care. Things to note:
1. The proposal specifically brings important research into the conversation on two occasions. One is on the importance of quality teachers in the classroom. This should surprise no one. The other appeared in a section providing background for Obama’s push for “college- and career-ready” students and was a bit more surprising in proposals for a K-12 education law. It reads, “four of every 10 new college students, including half of those at 2-year institutions, take remedial courses…”
How will states be held accountable for this? They,
may either choose to upgrade their existing standards, working with their 4-year public university system to certify that mastery of the standards ensures that a student will not need to take remedial coursework upon admission to a postsecondary institution in the system; or work with other states to create state-developed common standards that build towards college- and career-readiness.
As a check against this requirement, states would be required to report data including graduation rates, college enrollment rates, and the rate of college enrollment without need for remediation. All of these must be disaggregated by race, gender, ethnicity, disability status, English Learner status, and family income. This is a great idea, and a necessary real-world check on state progress towards college- and career-ready high school graduates.
2. The proposal would create three new tiers of schools. At one end would be “Reward” schools, schools that were successful in meeting performance benchmarks, raising student achievement, or closing gaps. These schools would be granted greater flexibility and may receive financial rewards as well. On the other end would be “Challenge” schools, schools that the state would select as being in the bottom 5 percent of performance. Challenge schools would be subject to one of four reform options (transformational, turnaround, restart, or closure) already in use for School Improvement Grants. Another five percent of schools will be slotted into a warning category that would allow states and districts flexibility on improvement strategies.
To be perfectly clear, this is a step back from No Child Left Behind. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean that large swathes of schools could no longer be labeled failing. NCLB made it clear that all schools would be held to raising students to a basic level of proficiency. Obama’s blueprint specifically prioritizes the bottom five percent of low-performing schools for reform and, to a lesser extent, the next lowest five percent. It does not have the same standards-based language targeted to all schools that NCLB had. One could reasonably argue that it’s an appropriate for the federal government to step back and realize its limitations, or you could defend the strong standards set by NCLB.
3. No longer would federal law require only measurement of where students scored in a single year. Instead, students would be assessed on both their status and their year-to-year growth. 15 out of the 50 states used some form of growth in their accountability models in 2009 under a Department of Education pilot program, and it’s commonly accepted that growth will be part of any reauthorization. Yet, it’s unclear exactly what that will look like. Is one year of growth sufficient, even for students well behind their peers, or must students be on pace to meet some objective in a certain amount of years? The blueprint is silent on these details.
4.The Obama Administration has been a strong advocate for charter schools, but has not advocated school choice in and of itself. That trend continues. The blueprint would end the transfer provision included in NCLB that allowed students from failing schools to transfer to other schools in their district. The option was implemented poorly, and few students exercised this right. Obama would axe the provision altogether while simultaneously supporting the creation and reproduction of high-performing charter schools. This stance is a strong vote for charter schools in and of themselves and against any market-based, vote-with-your-feet type justification for them.
5. Much like the stimulus funds for education, the blueprint calls for states to develop definitions for “highly effective” teachers based, at least in part, on student achievement scores. This is interesting only insofar as it codifies for all states what was part of optional programs. What’s even more interesting is that the Administration’s proposal would also require states to develop a similar definition for “highly effective” principals on the basis of student growth and other factors.
In addition to defining those terms, teachers and principals are considered together in several important spots: Teacher and principal preparation programs must be evaluated for the quality of their graduates, based on the above definitions; evaluations of teachers and principals must be differentiated on at least three levels, the summary results must be made public, and they must include student growth; states must ensure equitable distribution of “effective” teachers and principals; and states must issue report cards every two years on teacher and principal qualifications, effectiveness, the number hired from high-performing preparation programs, retention rates by performance level, their years of service, and teacher and principal attendance rates. These are new and important requirements.
6. The blueprint further expands the use of competitive grant programs. It uses the word “competitive” in reference to twice as many programs as it does “formula.”
7. Most of the blueprint is careful to point out that states could continue to use their own standards and assessments, so long as they certified them as “college- and career-ready.” Note the language I’ve highlighted above that specifically allows an individual state to work with its four-year colleges and universities to set its own definition for what this means. I caught one instance, however, when the blueprint would clearly punish states for not participating in the Common Core Standards Initiatives that would define college- and career-ready standards that would be common to all member states. It reads, “Beginning in 2015, formula funds will be available only to states that are implementing assessments based on college- and career-ready standards that are common to a significant number of states.” This language appears in a section on assessments, and it appears like states opting to go their own way would not be eligible for formula funds for assessment development beginning in 2015. This could be the long-term lever that begins to compel states to participate.
Overall, it’s a pretty smart first step that tries to seek a consensus on a number of issues. Remember that this is one of the more detailed policy documents the Administration has put out on any issue. It doesn’t solve everything, but that’s Congress’ difficult job in the weeks and months ahead.