The accountability system at the heart of the No Child Left Behind Act would be completely reinvented under a draft reauthorization proposal released today by U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.
The measure, which is already being decried by civil rights groups as a giant step backwards when it comes to accountability for poor and minority children, would scrap the 10-year-old law's signature yardstick, known as Adequate Yearly Progress or AYP. Instead, states would have to ensure that all students are making "continuous improvement" in student outcomes.
There would be no specific achievement targets, either for entire groups of students, or for particular subgroups, such as minority students, English-language learners, or students with disabilities. In the vast majority of cases, states would decide how—and whether—to intervene in schools.
The long-awaited bill also would:
- Codify the Race to Top, Investing in Innovation, and Promise Neighborhood programs, all top Obama administration reform initiatives.
- Require states to set college- and career-readiness standards, either with other states or alone.
- Largely keep the law's testing system in place, but eliminate the 2013-14 deadline for bringing all students to proficiency in math and reading.
- Require states to develop new teacher evaluation systems.
States also would be required to identify the 5 percent of lowest-performing high schools, as well as elementary and middle schools. There would be more intensive interventions for those schools, as well as for so-called "dropout factories"—high schools with graduation rates below 60 percent.
Sen. Harkin said he would have liked to have had achievement targets in the bill, but scrapped them in part to keep the measure bipartisan. He has been negotiating on the measure with Sen. Michael B. Enzi, the top GOP lawmaker on the committee, for months.
"That was one of the compromises," Sen. Harkin told reporters today. He said the moment is right for a move away from achievement targets in part because nearly all states have signed onto the Common Core State Standards Initiative, which were developed by the Council of Chief State Schools Officers and the National Governors Association. That means that all states will be striving to hit a high bar, he said.
Sen. Harkin also said he was comfortable with leaving achievement targets out of the bill in part because CCSSO has committed to adopt "performance goals" in their statement of principles for next-generation accountability systems.
"There's a subtle shift here," Sen. Harkin. "We are moving into a partnership role with the states." Sen. Harkin said the strength of the bill was that it "focuses on teaching and learning, not testing and sanctioning."
The legislation comes less than a month after the Obama administration released a package of waivers to give states flexibility under the current NCLB law if they are willing to embrace certain reform priorities. The administration said the waiver package was put in place in part because Congress could not reach agreement on reauthorization.
Sen. Harkin said the proposed legislation would work better than waivers, because all states would have the same expectations, rather than being offered flexibility on a case-by-case basis.
The draft would keep in place the law's requirement that states continue to report information on specific subgroups of students. And the law's testing schedule for reading and math—grades 3 through 8 and once in high school—would remain the same.
But the draft would permit states to use either one comprehensive test at the end of the year, or interim assessments to measure progress. That would be a shift from current law, under which states generally use just one test each for reading and math.
States also would have to identify the 5 percent of schools with the biggest achievement gaps between subgroup students and other students, and develop a plan for addressing the problem. Districts with achievement gap schools that aren't able to close their gaps would lose the ability to get a leg-up in federal funding competitions.
Schools identified in the bottom 5 percent would be subject to intensive interventions similar to the four options spelled out it in the regulations for the School Improvement Grant program. But there would be some changes and some additional options. For instance, under the strategy known as "turnaround" schools could keep 65 percent of their teachers on the job (right now, it's 50 percent). And under the "restart" option, a school could choose to convert to a charter school (as under current law) or become a magnet school (that's a new option.)
Schools also would be permitted to employ a "whole school" turnaround. They would have to partner with an organization that has a proven track record of success, as demonstrated by rigorous research, according to a committee aide.
Or they could employ a "strategic staffing" model, similar to a strategy used in the Charlotte-Mecklenberg, N.C., school district, in which principals were permitted to bring in a certain number of staff members they thought could help change the climate of a school.
Schools that aren't able to turn around within five years would have to switch to one of the more dramatic models (either close down or restart).
The legislation also would direct states to develop teacher and principal evaluation systems based on multiple factors, including student achievement and classroom observations.
Evaluations would not need to incorporate "value-added" testing, but states would need to have at least four levels of ratings.
Schools would have to use the evaluations to inform professional development, but not necessarily to help make personnel decisions. That would be a shift from the administration's waiver package, which specifies that evaluations have to be used for personnel purposes, although the waiver guidance is silent about whether that would specifically entail hiring, firing, and pay bonuses.
Sen. Enzi continues to work with Sen. Harkin and is expecting a bipartisan markup of the ESEA language on Oct. 18. It was unclear, however, whether other Senate GOP lawmakers will vote for the proposal.
A separate ESEA reauthorization bill introduced by Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., would let teacher evaluations be a state and local decision. The National Education Association, a 3.2 million member union, praised that move in a letter sent to Sen. Alexander's office.
Behind the scenes, some Republicans were quick to dismiss the legislation.
"The only reason anyone other than Enzi would support the bill is to get it out of committee and on the floor and away from [Sen.] Tom Harkin," said a senior Republican aide. "Every little itch has been scratched on the Democratic side of the aisle. ... This bill is worse than NCLB. It's different and it's worse."
The Republican aide criticized language in the proposal would require states to strive for "continuous improvement in student progress" for all schools in the state. States would have to submit their accountability plans to the U.S. Secretary of Education. Those plans would have to address both achievement-gap schools and the lowest-performing schools.
That would "essentially keep the federal model, 'We're in charge of all your schools,'" the aide said. "They shouldn't have to send their goals and plans to Washington to get them approved by [civil rights organizations] and [Secretary of Education] Arne Duncan."
The aide added that the Harkin bill would no longer require schools to offer public choice or tutoring, which would mean "getting rid of the only sanctions [under current law] that work."
Civil Rights Groups Concerned
Civil rights advocates are also unhappy with the legislation.
"Clearly NCLB was a kind of high-water mark as far as accountability [for all students]. ... I think we're moving in the reverse direction," said Raul Gonzalez, the director of legislative affairs for the National Council of La Raza, which advocates for students of Hispanic descent and English-language learners. Without strong accountability, "we'll have two education systems, one for poor and minority kids" and one for others.
In fact, a group of civil rights and disabilities organizations sent a letter to Harkin and Enzi expressing their concerns about the bill's impact on subgroup students. Read the whole thing here.
And one civil rights advocate said that children in subgroups—such as ELLs and students with disabilities—would actually be better off under the administration's waiver package, which calls for more specific actions on the part of states when it comes to closing the achievement gap.
But the measure won good early reviews from some senior committee members. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., helped draft language that would create a comprehensive literacy program, as well as sections of the bill that deal with career pathways for high-school students.
"This legislation builds on what is working in our schools, and it gives states and districts the tools and flexibility they need to offer every student the opportunity to get the education and skills they need to fill the jobs of the 21st century," she said in a statement.
Sen. Murray is planning push for amendments that would improve data collection for at-risk populations, as well as language that would retool provisions for early-childhood education and homeless students.
Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., considered the administration's closest ally on K-12 issues, helped put in place language that would require districts to take teachers' salaries into account when determining Title I allocations for high-poverty schools. He's planning to offer amendments to give states the option of revamping their teacher-education programs, and to help prepare turnaround principals, among others.
And Secretary Duncan gave the draft an early thumbs-up.
"A bipartisan bill will not have everything that everyone wants, but it must build on our common interests: high standards; flexibility for states, school districts and schools; and a more focused federal role that promotes equity, accountability and reform," he said in a statement. "This bill is a very positive step toward a reauthorization that will provide our students and teachers with the support they need, and I salute Senators Harkin and Enzi for their good work and their bipartisan approach."