Yesterday, Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) released a long-awaited bill to reauthorize No Child Left Behind. After a series of Republican bills in the House and Senate as well as the Obama administration’s ESEA Waiver plan, the draft legislation represents the first bipartisan effort to rewrite NCLB in this Congress and is the product of months of compromise between Harkin and the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee’s ranking member, Senator Michael Enzi (R-WY). The bill (all 860 pages of it) is scheduled for a Committee mark-up on October 18. I’ll defer to Education Week for a run-down of the key provisions, but here is where I’m excited and concerned with the Harkin bill. (See a quick rundown of the pros/cons in the chart below. UPDATE: There’s a new version.)
The Good. AYP is finished. By 2013-2014, states would transition to new school accountability systems based on the expectation of “continuous improvement” rather than an unattainable target like 100% proficiency by 2014. The Bad. There is no new accountability yardstick in its place. The only proficiency target is in the bill’s definition of Adequate Student Growth: a rate of growth that allows a student to be on-track for college and career readiness in 3 years, or if a student is already on-track, one year’s worth of progress. But, states are not required to use growth to make school accountability determinations. Contrast this to the waiver plan, where states are required to establish annual measurable objectives for schools, like reducing by half the percentage of students and subgroups who are not proficient within six years.
The Good. Each year, an accountability report card would be produced for states, districts, and schools that includes student achievement data, data on students’ progress towards English language proficiency, and the percentage of students not tested or tested using alternative assessments. For high schools, data must also include graduation rates, college enrollment, and college remediation rates – one change Education Sector has supported. Another key addition? Statewide NAEP results in 4th and 8th grade, which prevents states from designing accountability systems that paint an inaccurate and self-serving picture of school performance. The Bad. I want more data, especially when it comes to linking K-12 and postsecondary outcomes.
STANDARDS and ASSESSMENTS
The Good. States will be required to adopt academic standards in reading and math that are aligned with college-level expectations – meaning students would not need remediation at public, in-state colleges. The standards also need to be aligned with the state’s career and technical education standards and career skills. The Bad. There is very little federal accountability for states in these provisions; I’m not surprised the Department of Education is prohibited from verifying standards’ rigor, but it doesn’t appear that public institutions of higher education will need to “sign off” on the college- and career-ready standards either. However, this shortcoming isn’t a unique feature to the Harkin bill.
The Good. States will continue to test students in reading and math annually from 3rd-8th grade and once in high school, but states could choose whether to use one summative assessment or a series of tests throughout the school year. Results would continue to be disaggregated among student subgroups, but would be used to measure individual student achievement and individual student growth. The Bad. States would not be required to use individual student growth as an indicator in their accountability systems, it’s only an option. In contrast, the ESEA waiver package requires states to use growth in their school accountability systems once they have appropriate assessments in place. In the Harkin bill, state accountability systems could continue to be based entirely on test scores and graduation rates. States have discretion to choose other valid measures, but no encouragement to do so.
The Good. States would identify 5% of high schools and 5% of other schools with the largest performance gaps between student subgroups as Achievement Gap Schools. Schools would have 3 years to improve or lose their competitive preference for grant programs under ESEA, like the new Pathways to College program, Race to the Top, Promise Neighborhoods, and Investing in Innovation (3 Obama initiatives that would be codified in the law). The Bad. There is no accountability for states to support non-identified schools that need significant help, and no identified strategies for supporting the Achievement Gap Schools.
The Good. States would also identify 5% of high schools and 5% of all other schools as Persistently Low-Achieving Schools. This 5-year designation would target schools with low academic achievement or growth and low graduation rates. So including the Achievement Gap Schools, states would be required to support and intervene in 10% of schools (contrasted to 15% in the waiver plan). The Bad. Persistently Low-Achieving Schools would choose from a menu of options similar to SIG: Transformation, Strategic Staffing, Turnaround, Whole School Reform, Restart, and School Closure. Strategic Staffing is basically a modified version of Transformation, but the Whole School Reform option is baffling. It creates an entire new profession of “strategy developer” to implement a turnaround plan based on “a moderate level of evidence” that it will improve student outcomes (this is of course based on experimental and quasi-experimental studies). This just feels like too much of an “other” to me, and I’m not sure districts have the capacity to determine exactly what a moderate level of evidence or a well-designed study means.
The Good. The “Blue Ribbon Schools” designation becomes more meaningful as it is now a designation for the top 5% of schools in each state (in terms of student achievement, graduation rates, or student growth). This is similar to the 5% reward schools in the waiver plan, but utilizes the existing Blue Ribbon designation instead of a new one. The Bad. It’s not clear states would be required to reward these schools meaningfully. Possible incentives – like additional autonomy, funding flexibility, and additional funding – are options.
The Good. A new Pathways to College competitive grant program would award five year, matching grants to districts (and partners from the nonprofit or higher ed world) to improve low-achieving high schools and middle schools that are not identified as Persistently Low-Achieving or Achievement Gap Schools. These schools would implement reform strategies like Early Warning Indicator Systems, Career Academies, and Early College High Schools to increase college and career readiness, improve graduation rates, and support dropout and credit recovery. The Bad. I really like this idea, but am hesitant of getting too attached to a new program at this point in the legislative process.
The Good. States’ assessments must produce data that could inform determinations of teacher and principal effectiveness. Within 5 years, teacher and principal evaluations must be implemented so that they provide at least 4 levels of quality, include both student achievement data and classroom observations, and would be used to inform professional development. States will also be asked to report the distribution of teachers based on their effectiveness and required to ensure that high poverty and high minority schools receive an equitable distribution of the most effective educators. Title II funding can be spent to help meet this goal. States will also be required to link teacher preparation program data with the student performance data of its program’s graduates. The Bad. There’s a lot to like here, especially compared to the Senate Republican bill which doesn’t require states to develop better evaluation systems. The bill defers to states and districts whether their evaluation systems would be used in high-stakes personnel decisions (unlike the waivers, which requires they inform personnel decisions). Still, a huge question is whether states and districts will have the ability to redistribute teachers based on effectiveness.
The Good. The comparability loophole would be shut. Districts would have to show that state and local per pupil funding – including teacher salaries – in Title I schools is no less than state and local per pupil expenditures in non-Title I schools. The Bad. Given the overall budget outlook and no sizable increase in Title I funding in sight, a large proportion of Title I will continue to be spent on the Basic Grant formula that does very little to funnel additional federal dollars to districts with the highest concentrations of poverty.
The Good. We have a bipartisan bill that is very similar to the Senate Republican bill and to the administration’s waiver plan. It seems like a good place to start negotiations. The Bad. I just can’t see the bill making it to President Obama’s desk. First of all, groups that typically support Democrats on education have already come out in opposition, including the Education Trust, the National Council of La Raza, the National Center for Learning Disabilities, The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, and the Center for American Progress Action Fund. They don’t much like the Senate Republican’s version either. Secretary Duncan’s supportive comments also suggest that the Harkin bill would be spun as a victory for the President – a win House Republicans will never give the President. Even though we’ve waited months (years?) for a bipartisan reauthorization bill, this one – despite its merits – probably isn’t going anywhere.
The Quick and the ED will continue to analyze the bill and offer more commentary throughout the week.