The essential dynamic of federal education policymaking circa 2011 is that the two most powerful forces at work are (A) anti-federalist Tea Partiers who object to all federal education policy (including money) on general principle / aversion to paying taxes and (B) interest groups representing states, school boards, principals and teachers who object to all federal education policy (excluding money) on the grounds that they would rather not have federal policymakers judge them or tell them what to do in exchange for money. In order to get an education bill like ESEA reauthorization through Congress, therefore, you have to appease both sides and as such write a bad bill. Today, Senators Tom Harkin and Mike Enzi announced a bipartisan deal for exactly such a piece of legislation.
As Anne Hyslop and others have been writing on this blog for the last week, the version of the bill first floated last week included a major roll-back of the accountability provisions at the heart of No Child Left Behind. The Big Switch that has been proposed for years now seems inevitable: instead of giving states total discretion to set academic standards and tests while narrowly prescribing mechanisms for using test data to hold schools accountable for performance, this loose/tight policy will become tight/loose: all states will have to have legitimate college- and career-ready standards and tests, but will be able to hold schools accountable for test results more or less as they see fit.
Now, this puts an enormous amount of weight on on the Common Core standards. Basically, all federal K-12 policy now depends on them. Whether the Big Switch actually works will depend entirely on the fidelity of implementation, the good faith of state and local leaders, and the diligence and wherewithal of the U.S. Department of Education. “Adopting” standards can mean a great number of things, some profound, some meaningless. The same forces of badness noted above will be working hard to make it the latter.
But last week’s bill did have the advantage of real progress on the critical issues of teacher evaluation and teacher equity. States would have had to implement some kind of legitimate multiple-measure process for evaluating teacher effectiveness. Then they would have had to make sure that low-income and minority students weren’t (as is currently the case) disproportionately taught by ineffective teachers, as identified by the evaluation system. When you read about the Republican strategist suburban mom waging a morally reprehensible campaign to increase class size for low-income students in Fairfax County, you see how teacher resource equity is at the heart of educational justice for the disadvantaged. Without strong federal policy to prevent this discrimination, the most vulnerable students will continue to be shortchanged.
Sadly, today’s revised Harkin-Enzi bill gutted those provisions (while also weakening the little amount of actual policy, related to growth models, on the accountability side). Teacher evaluation is no longer required, and states no longer have to evaluate teacher equity based on actual effectiveness in helping students learn. As Anne notes, this is exactly what the school boards, principals and teachers demanded.
So now we’re left with (Maybe Standards) + (No Accountability) + (Continued Teacher Injustice). No bill is better than this bill.