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Essay Question: Will Next ESEA Be Harder or Easier on Schools?

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I spoke (via Skype) to a class for future teachers at the University of Tennessee. My main point was that the federal government has gradually increased the amount of testing and prescription over the past 20 years.

In 1988, the ESEA mandated testingrequired districts for the first time to define the test scores they expected of Chapter 1 (now Title I) students, but didn't prescribe interventions. In 1994, the law required states to assess all students three times (once in elementary, once in middle, and once in high school) and to measure schools were making adequate yearly progress toward Title I students being proficient. But the law didn't set a deadline for reaching that goal, and once again was silent on how to hold schools accountable for reaching it.

Then NCLB added annual testing in grades 3-8 and once in high school, the goal that all students be on track to be proficient by the 2013-14 school year, and prescriptions such as school choice and tutoring for schools that fail to meet AYP goal based on that deadline.

The following questions dawn on me: What will Congress do next? Will it let up on what it requires of schools or will it add more?

Just this week, we've heard arguments from both sides. Randi Weingarten argued for a retrenchment. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings praised the law's accountability measures like a revivalist preacher. Urban superintendents told a House committee to be more aggressive on accountability and to embrace national standards.

Here's an essay question for anyone willing to answer: Which way do you think Congress will go? Comments welcome (and if you're from Lynn Woolsey's class at the University of Tennessee, please identify yourself).

UPDATE: See corrections in the second paragraph. Thanks to former Ed Week writer Bob Rothman for setting me straight.

11 Comments

It's hard to imagine continued funding without continued accountability. The current presidential candidates have been making noises about increased funding, which suggests to me that we will likely get no more than tweaking on the accountability issues. This might take the form of and extended timeline for schools that have been able to demonstrate movement in the right direction, funds to selectively improve teacher salaries (in urban schools or key content areas, perhaps). From the D side, more emphasis on "whole child," which might look like languages, the arts, phys ed and alternate means of assessment. From the R side, perhaps a movement towards national standards.

Hi there. Tiffany Murray here from Lynn Woolsey's class. As far as NCLB is concerned I do feel like with the next presedential administration will come increased funding. Whether or not that increase is enough to overcome the law's faults will remain to be seen. Given that most reform movements occur in cycles, I feel like it is inevitable that the next major shift we see in the law will be toward lessening the requirements placed upon schools in areas of both testing and accountability. I wouldn't attempt to make any guess as to when such a shift might happen but I do feel like that it is only a matter of time before we see a reversal of views.

Identifying Self: My name is Sarah Swauger and I am one of Dr. Woosley's students at the University of Tennessee.

I firmly believe the answer to this question relies on who wins the presidential election. If McCain wins we can count on more accountability with insufficient funding and bogus goals (such as 100% proficiency by 20013/14). If Obama wins I have more hope that we, specifically teachers, will find more support and better ideas than accountability resting on standardized testing and graduation rates. I think accountability is a good thing, however, one cannot asses teacher performance solely on standardized tests. This method proves to the education world exactly how naive our leaders actually are. Those who do not practice should not direct!

Chad Hensley, University of Tennessee Graduate Student
As much as I do not want to admit it, NCLB will not be going anywhere anytime soon. While Mrs. Weingarten has some wonderful ideas, she still has the issue of funding looming over her shoulder like a storm cloud. It is very important to remember that politicians are politicians. Candidates can tell the pubic how much they “care about the children” until they are blue in the face, but any citizen with an ounce of intellect should know that the almighty vote is really where their hearts lie (pun intended). Any attempt, at this point, to completely restructure the system would cost much more than the minuscule amount of money that the federal government is already unwilling to donate. The last thing the Baby Boomers want to hear is increased spending. Simply mention the word “tax” and Baby Boomers start to head for the hills. Endorsing this idea would be the political equivalent to shooting oneself in the foot. I’m also afraid that advocating for a more holistic measurement of student achievement will bring the same type of reaction. While it would be a much more accurate method of measuring student progress and teacher effectiveness, it is simply too labor intensive. Is it possible? Of course. Will it happen any time soon? No. All that we can realistically hope for is progressive change (innocuous baby steps)—national standards, better distribution of funding, more flexibility, less accountability. Slowly chop away at the giant and, one day, he might just fall. The face of NCLB will be around for a long time to come and I doubt that it really matters which candidate takes the presidency. To quote The Who, “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” I just hope that we don’t get fooled again.

Betsy here, also a graduate student from the University of Tennessee. I too feel that NCLB will be staying out for quite some time. We have been building up to the components of the act for at least 20 years now and knowing that change will occur eventually it may phase out in another twenty. I do know that its immediate fate is going to rely on the upcoming presidential elections and education secretary appointment. I feel that both candidates will attempt to increase educational funding. However, McCain seems to want more control while Obama will promote a more professional responsibility for teachers. Who knows what they will really do though once they are in office. As my colleagues have pointed out, change swings like a pendulum in education and is bound for change. I am very interested in seeing and being involved in what is to come!

I wouldn't hold my breath for additional funding. And remember that 90+% comes from state and local, and a lot of localities are getting clobbered.

Neither do I believe that the accountability hawks are winning. NCLB I wouldn't have been so bad if a) educators had followed the normal pattern of yes, yes, (wink, wink,) we believe in accountability and not let it override our professional judgments and consciences, and b)we had honest and/or balanced political leadership. Had we been free to say that NCLB is a "work in progress" and that the goals are are aspirational not realistic. The potential up side would have been reduced, by we would not have had so many people chasing silver bullets that wasted so much money and produced harm as well as good.

I think we can get a much better deal now. We can get back to reality, with some lip-service to accountability as well as some sincere accountability efforts, and a normal amount of teacher bashing. I think we will get honesty from President Obama, but mostly we will get compromise. He'll attempt to split the difference between the Broader, Bolder Challenge and accountability. As the recent New Yorker shows, Obama personifies a leader with inspiring goals but accepts reality as he makes incremental changes. But that will be a huge improvement over the last six years of ideology over reality. (remember when Bush's advisor said that reality was the "old paradigm?" I'm looking forward to deja vu all over again.)

As with FDR, Obama will get pressur on the Left to following the social engineering approach. And as with FDR and the New Deal, real world local politics will undercut the push for utopia.

The real test will be the way NCLB II is interpreted in states and local districts. I was surprised when so many central offices conformed to NCLB, and I'd be stunned if it happened again. Most of us who actually were in classrooms and schools were cautiausly supportive of NCLB, but we won't get fooled again. I doubt many of us believe any of the data coming out of the puzzle palaces. By the way, a week after the latest miracle in Maryland, the press is already printed the true story. How long before the numbers in Washington D.C. and NYC get such scrutiny?

Under Obama, we will be challenged to use accountability as a tool to assist student learning. We have some PR- driven accountability, and we'll probably make some improvements in real accountability. (with all the digital miracles of today, we ought to get some benefits from test data even if its just by accident.) That is a far cry from the accountbility of NCLB I. We will have much less new money. Some places may see a decline. But I'd expect better results.

In the real world, its OK to tithe a certain percent of your efforts to CYA, in order to have the freedom to serve children. I expect we'll get back to that imperfect reality.

We have squadered the opportunity for data-driven decision-making by polluting our accountability systems with "garbage in garbage out." I don't believe we will continue the educational malpractice of wasting so much of the miracles of 21st centruy tecnology on an expensive blame game. Business has moved from the primitive use of numbers to beat people down to a more practical way of using computers to enhance people's effectivenss. Why can't educators?

The simple answer, of course, is fear. It was the panic that NCLB caused, much more than the letter of the law, that did so much harm. I don't see that fear and loathing in an Obama administration.

In a McCain administration, I'll take early retirement and backpack around the world and then try to make sense of it all.

David,

A slight correction in your brief history lesson. Title I has required testing since its inception in 1965. The 1988 law for the first time required districts to develop "desired outcomes" for then-Chapter 1 programs, although the law did not define what those outcomes should be, and required districts to develop program improvements when test scores did not rise. The 1994 law was significant in that it required Title I students to take the same tests as all other students and thus set requirements for all schools. Although, as you state, it did not set deadlines for improvement or define adequate yearly progress. NCLB did those things, as you note.

Bob--your corrections are helpful in understanding the nudge-nudge-wink-wink approach to accountability that John Thompson describes--a sort of a "this too shall pass," kind of attitude.

Without some sense that it would matter whether you did, or did not follow the expectations that came with the bucks, states and districts pretty much did as they chose. As a parent, I really want something more than nudge-nudge-wink-wink for my kids. I want to know that they are learning and that their learning will stack up well against that being nurtured in other districts and schools.

As the parent of one student with special needs, I used to knew far less about how his learning did stack up. He was less likely to be tested (on either state or district assessments) and I was less likely to have anything other than the school's assurance that he--and other students similarly situated--was really making good progress. As it turns out, there were some schools that were doing really poor jobs of educating their special populations--and they were the special schools that were supposed to be offering the most intensive help for the kids who needed it most. I have watched those schools turn around. One pre-NCLB change came following a lawsuit charging that the school was physically abusing its students. As a result the nudge-nudge-wink-wink alcoholic principal was fired, and some resources (therapy, art, music, physical education) moved in. That lasted for awhile. When reporting and AYP kicked in, they still had a ways to go. Humane treatment is one thing, actual teaching and learning are something else.

I would love to believe that without sanctions everyone will do the right things--but this has not been my experience. Perhaps the unwillingness to do the right things has indeed carried over to the spinning of test scores and other ways to game the system. It's certainly too bad, because it really looks to me like the sanctions are pretty much the right ones. Start by providing bandaids in the form of SES and school transfers and initiate a planning process for improvement. Change curriculum. Lengthen the school day or year. Eliminate teachers or administrators if they are determined to be standing in the way of improvement. Keep parents informed. Start over with a completely fresh approach.

These are not (or oughtn't be) terribly frightening things. Where does the hysteria come from? I wish I had 5-7 years just once for a career-changing workplace alteration that I couldn't live with. I think the terror comes from having believed for so long that nudge-nudge-wink-wink was all that we could hope to provide to certain groups of kids, and that anything more or different would somehow be damaging to them.

I think before the NCLF, the Department of Education should focus on the NTLB: No Teacher Left Behind. I think before the NCLF, the Department of Education should focus on the NTLB: No Teacher Left Behind. Unfortunately, today many teachers are trained/educated so poorly that they don't even know how to use, for example, performance descriptors in correlation with the State goals and standards. Many teachers don't even know the difference between formal and informal assessments. Teaching other subjects doesn't make a teacher "highly qualified." Shouldn't make! If a teacher sees, for example, direct instruction as the only modification for his/her students with different disabilities, then this teacher is not even "qualified" rather "left behind." So, when the word "child" in NCLB is changed to "teacher" as in No Teacher Left Behind, and RIGOROUS TEACHER TRAINING/EDUCATION is promoted (even mandated),the quality of general and special education will dramatically change within five years. We won't even need such a law because "no child will be left behind." Unfortunately, today many teachers are trained/educated so poorly that they don't even know how to use, for example, performance descriptors in correlation with the State goals and standards. Many teachers don't even know the difference between formal and informal assessments. Teaching other subjects doesn't make a teacher "highly qualified." Shouldn't make! If a teacher sees, for example, direct instruction as the only modification for his/her students with different disabilities, then this teacher is not even "qualified" rather "left behind." So, when the word "child" in NCLB is changed to "teacher" as in No Teacher Left Behind, and RIGOROUS TEACHER TRAINING/EDUCATION is promoted (even mandated),the quality of general and special education will dramatically change within five years. We won't even need such a law because "no child will be left behind."

A major stumbling block for NCLB has been and still is the mandated "accountability" concept. The problem stems from the instrument of accountability, the standardized test. Testing in this form does little to enlighten educators as to their effectiveness. Tests administered to 11th grade students, for instance do not clearly reflect the effectiveness of the school or the 11th grade teacher. Quiute simply put, the secondary school and 11th grade teacher are the recipients of students from several possible middle schools and teachers that have certainly had some effect prior to the year these students enter 11th grade. The same could be argued for any particular school at any particular grade level. The result is a form of passing the buck back to kidergarten and from there back to the early childhood experiences of the individual child.
Even if scores are compared over time, in aneffort to determine possible increases in learning at one or two grade levels as opposed to later grade levels, it is till not a clear picture of the effectiveness of the teacher or the school because there is simply not enough data to make an accurate determination. There is no quality control or measure of input. There is only a measure of output, the actual test scores. The tests themselves have no more credibility than teacher created and administered tests and tasks.

Bob:

Credibility is the in eye of the beholder, I would judge. I would hold that the standardized tests do have a much higher level of reliability and validity than teacher created and administered tests and tasks--not that these things have no value, within the context of the classroom.

It is true, the standardized tests can not identify who is to blame, or who should be celebrated. What they can do, in at least a very approximate and large grain size way, is give an idea of whether a kid, or particularly a population of kids, has learned a specified set of content and skills.

From a planning standpoint, it is helpful to identify at what point learning was interrupted, or did not occur, so that the problem can be rectified. This is a finer grain size issue--and this is a piece of evaluation that rightly falls to the district, schools and teachers to tease out. And this requires a systemic point of view--looking at the linkages between middle and high school, the curriculum coverage, the needs of incoming kindergarten students, supports present or absent to meet the needs. And from an immediate point of view, all this understanding is completely aside from recognizing that an 11th grader is in trouble and needs some immediate help to master the content.

Or, we can lobby to stop the standardized testing and hope that the problems just go away.

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