On Friday, Rep. John Kline (R-MN), Chairman of the Committee on Education and the Workforce, released the final two pieces of House Republicans’ piecemeal strategy to overhaul No Child Left Behind, and reactions to the bills are trickling in. The Committee had already approved legislation relating to school choice, funding flexibility, and program consolidation. While the latter two were approved on a partisan vote in Committee, the choice bill received bipartisan support and was approved on the floor. However, these earlier pieces of legislation did not get to the most significant and controversial issues within ESEA: school accountability and teachers.
By releasing the Student Success Act, Kline revealed a more conservative approach to the accountability issue within ESEA than the approaches advocated in the somewhat-bipartisan Senate bill or the Obama administration’s waiver plan. Local control is definitely a recurring theme in the Student Success Act. States would have near-limitless discretion in designing and implementing accountability and school improvement systems, so much so that Education Week described the bill as “dismantling the federal role in intervening in struggling schools—essentially gutting it.”
Although the emphasis on testing is somewhat diminished by removing requirements for states to adopt science standards and assessments within grade spans, the House draft maintains the requirement that aggregated and disaggregated test results are part of accountability systems (states could choose to add student growth and other valid measures of achievement). But graduation rates are not a required accountability measure, and it will be up to states to determine if there are any serious consequences for schools that fail to improve achievement for disadvantaged subgroups. Of course, states can then design alternative academic standards for students with severe cognitive disabilities and administer alternative assessments to an unlimited number of these students – a slippery slope to go down, in my opinion. Perhaps the most alarming change is that states would not be required to intervene in any set percentage of low-performing schools – a stark contrast with both the Senate and waiver approaches. The School Improvement Grant program would also be eliminated. Taken together, this could mean that far fewer schools – especially low-performing high schools that are less likely to be designated as Title I schools – are part of state school improvement efforts.
However, the second bill released, the Encouraging Innovation and Effective Teachers Act, actually contains some pleasant surprises. First, the bill requires districts to adopt new teacher and principal evaluations that include student achievement as a factor and more than two designations of quality. These evaluations would then need to inform personnel decisions, and information about the evaluation results would appear on school report cards. Just how much evaluations would inform personnel decisions is largely a matter of individual union contracts, however, so the evaluations may be more useful as diagnostic tools for teacher improvement than for making HR decisions in the short-term. Districts would also need to address disparities in the distribution of the most effective teachers, although I can’t find any real consequences for districts if inequitable distribution continues. In a bizarre turn of events, the House proposal appears to align more closely with the Obama administration than the Senate, where Republicans led by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) successfully stripped language from the bill requiring new teacher and principal evaluations.
Another development worth noting: the House would cap the amount of Title II funding spent by districts on class-size reduction at 10%. While I agree that Title II funds could probably be used more effectively on implementing evaluation and support systems for teachers and principals, setting an arbitrary limit doesn’t feel like the wisest approach, especially considering that class-size reduction has traditionally accounted for a large percentage of Title II spending and that this figure has been decreasing steadily in recent years. In fact, since 2002-03, district spending on class-size reduction has decreased from 57% of Title II funding to 38% in 2010-11. Rather than an abrupt cut to 10%, it would be better to allow districts to continue this gradual approach and set a ceiling on the amount that could be used. Even more details about the teacher provisions in Title II can be found in Stephen Sawchuk’s rundown here.
As a public service, I’ve updated our ESEA Reauthorization chart to include both the House and Senate legislation and to address some of the items I did not have space to tackle in this post. While no one seems to have much faith that ESEA will be reauthorized this year given the upcoming presidential election and the reluctance of the Senate to work with a partisan bill from the House, the commonalities and differences between each approach to reauthorization are worth noting, since they are unlikely to change as we head towards the ultimate deadline for NCLB overhaul: 2014.