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'Chiefs for Change' Serves Up Principles for ESEA Reform

By guest blogger Erik W. Robelen

With efforts once again in full swing to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, a coalition that bills itself as representing "reform"-minded state schools chiefs today unveiled principles for what a revamped law should look like. They put an emphasis on rigorous accountability for "all schools and all students," keeping the mandate for annual assessments, and setting "clear and differentiated" rankings for schools.

In addition, the organization Chiefs for Change suggests that the federal government needs to reduce education aid to those states that fail to take "bold and necessary actions" to improve student performance.

"High standards must be the norm for all students across the nation," the group declares in its principles document. "Congress should ensure states cannot dumb down standards, lower cut scores, or otherwise manipulate accountability."

In an interview Tuesday, Indiana state Superintendent Tony Bennett, a founding member of Chiefs for Change, told me the federal government should "set very high expectations for states, provide the resources and flexibility for the use of those resources, and then, frankly, get out of the way and hold us intensely accountable if we do not meet those standards. In other words, take the money away."

Bennett, a Republican elected in 2008, added: "Knowing my colleagues in this endeavor, I don't think a one of them is afraid of that level of expectation and accountability."

Bennett and Florida Commissioner of Education Eric J. Smith, who also spoke with me about the principles, made clear that they were opposed to the idea some on Capitol Hill have apparently been exploring that the reauthorized ESEA's accountability system should focus primarily on the lowest-performing schools, perhaps those in the bottom 5 to 10 percent.

"I think it would be the wrong direction," said Smith, who is stepping down as Florida's state chief on June 10. "Probably some of our most underserved children are those that are definite minority populations in schools that are dominated by very successful children," he said. "That's a pretty slippery slope to say all we have to do is target our attention to those whole schools that are failing."

Chiefs for Change was formed last fall, brought together by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's organization, the Foundation for Excellence in Education. The coalition currently has 10 members, including member-emeritus Paul G. Pastorek, who recently resigned as the chief in Louisiana. Other members of the group are: Janet Barresi, of Oklahoma; Stephen L. Bowen, of Maine; Christopher Cerf, of New Jersey; Deborah A. Gist, of Rhode Island; Kevin Huffman, of Tennessee; Gerard Robinson, of Virginia; and Hanna Skandara, of New Mexico.

On the issue of accountability, the coalition outlines the following principles for the ESEA:

• All schools, not just the lowest-performing schools, should be held accountable for the academic performance of all students;

• All schools must maintain annual assessments in reading and math to gauge both student and teacher performance;

• Accountability should recognize annual growth or learning gains, in addition to achievement;

• Accountability should reflect the true range of performance, such as grading schools on a scale of A-F, rather than pass or fail;

• Accountability should incorporate tiered interventions based on school performance and progress with students; and

• Schools should continue to disaggregate student achievement data and use that data to inform real-time instruction and interventions.

The group also offers up principles in other areas, including a focus on expanding school choice options (though it makes no mention of vouchers) as well as improving teacher quality, recruitment, and retention. In the area of recruitment and retention, the group calls for the federal government to "encourage and incentivize states and districts to reform their educator hiring, firing, and compensation systems," with an emphasis on tying teacher evaluations and compensation to student learning gains.

Stepping back, Smith said he hopes Congress and the Obama administration can move beyond the partisan divides so dominant in Washington these days to reauthorize the ESEA. Indeed, he said he's encouraged to see evidence that the Democrats and Republicans can work together on the issue. (It's worth noting here that President Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001 with strong backing from both parties, including the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.)

"It's an issue of national security, economic viability, and one that really needs to be removed from the political landscape," Smith said. "I am very hopeful that there is the wisdom among leadership on both sides to understand this work and get it done correctly."

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