You can read summaries of the latest No Child Left Behind (NCLB) reauthorization attempt, Sen. Tom Harkin’s Strengthening America’s Schools Act at Politics K-12 or New America, but here are 11 key takeaways from the bill:
1. Some Good Common Sense: If you wait 11 years (and counting) between reauthorization, there are going to be some common sense fixes that nearly everyone agrees with. This version includes things like closing the comparability loophole so low-income schools get more federal dollars, increasing the set-aside for state departments of education to handle additional responsibilities, and limiting class-size dollars to focus only on areas where research shows it works. (This bill would limit class-size funds to early grades but does not emphasize reducing class sizes under 17 students.)
2. Mandate School Growth for Accountability Decisions: The federal growth model pilot opened for the first two states eight years ago in 2005-06. When the Bush administration left office, 15 states had been approved to use growth calculations. Again, this is what happens when we don’t have reauthorization on a regular basis: How crazy is it that not all states are using growth measures yet? More on this point later.
3. No Push for the Common Core: The bill does not require or even provide incentives for common standards or assessments. Even under the portion devoted to federal grants that support state assessments, it does not mandate or encourage states to be part of consortia.
4. Delay Implementation: The current assessment consortia and the 37 states granted comprehensive waivers from NCLB are all shooting for new assessments in 2014-15. This bill takes a stance on the question of whether we should delay that implementation and would not require states to have new assessments online until one year later, the 2015-16 school year.
5. Weakest Goals Imaginable: During the last attempt at reauthorization, there was a lot of debate about whether states should be required to set proficiency goals for students and schools. This bill does include performance goals, but they are pretty much the weakest requirement you could imagine. It doesn’t specify a time period or the required rate of student progress on those goals, other than making some annual progress over a “reasonable time period.”
6. Weakest Interventions Imaginable: The bill preserves the concepts of “priority schools,” the bottom 5 percent of schools in the state, and “focus schools,” the 10 percent of schools with the largest achievement gaps, first introduced in the Obama administration’s waivers to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). The interventions in those schools are weaker but generally in line with what were required under the waiver initiative.
But what about other schools? Michael Petrilli tweeted that the provision known as Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) is alive and well. But read the proposed replacement yourself:
Beginning in the 2015–2016 school year, each local educational agency…shall (A) identify each school that, after 2 consecutive years, has not met the same performance target…for the same subgroup.… and (B) ensure that such school, in collaboration with the local educational agency, develops and implements a locally designed intervention to improve student achievement in each such subgroup.
District-designed interventions after two years? This is the tough “federal micromanagement” that Petrilli is worried about? If schools still fail to improve, they must “work with the State educational agency to implement a State-approved intervention based on established best practices within State.” Comparing this provision to AYP is laughable.
7. A “Plan” Is Not a Plan: To paraphrase Kevin Carey, making states write long, detailed narrative plans is not a credible policy solution. And as a new Education Sector report points out, when left to their own devices, states produce wildly different results. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what the Harkin bill relies on, requiring lengthy state plans that must include, among other things, a description of “how the State educational agency will plan for pregnant and parenting students to be enrolled, attend, and succeed in school.”
Similarly, the bill would require detailed report cards that include some good things (like college-going and college remediation rates) and some less useful things (like graduation rates for pregnant and parenting students). I’m all for more data collection and disaggregation, but there’s no enforcement mechanism here; and do we really want a state government identifying which women are pregnant in order to determine their graduation rates? What would someone do with that information?
8. Teacher and Principal Evaluations: Even though it doesn’t use the word “evaluation,” the bill would require state and districts to develop teacher and principal “professional growth and development systems” that would require “meaningful differentiation” on “multiple” performance levels and that must be based, in significant part, on evidence of improved student academic achievement. Those systems would not have to be in place until 2015-16, and the bill does not require districts to make any personnel decisions based on the results other than professional development.
9. Hypocrisy on Parent Right-To-Know: This would be funny if it wasn’t so hypocritical. One portion of the bill prohibits states and districts from releasing any information that would personally identify a teacher or principal, such as their evaluation results. In another section, it mandates that districts inform parents on things like “the baccalaureate degree major of the teacher and any other graduate certification or degree held by the teacher, and the field of discipline of the certification or degree.” In other words, parents can find out their child’s teacher’s college major, but they can’t find out anything about how well they actually teach. This is exactly the wrong balance, giving out private information that is mostly irrelevant to how well the teacher can do her job while simultaneously trying to block actual results.
10. Reauthorization Auto-Pilot: This is the best piece of the bill. As I’ve written before, and as the above points make clear, 11 years is too long to go between reauthorization. Congress should look for solutions that automatically help deal with some of the small, important issues that will inevitably develop over time. They’ve included a version of my proposal that would require states to re-submit accountability plans every four years. State plans would be peer-reviewed initially, but they could update their plans whenever they chose and be required to re-submit at least every four years. Those renewals would only need the secretary’s approval but would build a continuous improvement expectation into federal law.
11. Who Wants This Bill?: Other than Sen. Harkin, who really loves this bill and wants to see it pass? It’s good that all of the other Democrats on the Senate HELP Committee signed on to the bill, but are any of them actually passionate about it? The Obama education agenda is fragile and he would prefer to have some of his policies enshrined in law. This bill is closer to the Obama Blueprint than the 2011 version, but it’s unclear if it is strong enough to get the president’s full backing. Civil rights groups and the teachers unions issued tepid statements, and the state chiefs would prefer it didn’t force teacher evaluations onto states, but again, no one seems to be ready to fight for it. There’s broad consensus on the need for reauthorization—and eventually ESEA will be renewed—but there’s quite a bit of divergence about what that bill should look like.
Photo Credit: Politico