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Sen. Alexander's Draft NCLB Bill: Cheat Sheet

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate education committee, put out his opening bid for reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind Act earlier this week.

And so far, all the interesting discussion has been about testing, testing, and more testing. But there's a lot more to the draft.

What would it actually do?

Testing is up in the air, right? Right. Two options floated to spark conversation. Option A: Let states choose their own testing adventure, including annual tests, portfolios, grade-span tests (a policy the National Education Association hearts), formative assessments, competency-based education, the whole shebang. Districts could also cook up their own assessment systems to use instead, with permission from their states.

The language here seems to have been crafted just to show the edu-world that absolutely everything is on the table. But lots of anti-testing groups, including Parents Across America, are jumping for joy just to see it enshrined in real live legislative language.

Option B: The current NCLB testing regime, which calls for reading and math tests in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school. But there's a big twist. Under this option, districts could also go their own way on assessments, with the permission of their states.

The district route in both options is similar to what the Council of Chief State School Officers asked for in its NCLB recommendations. The key difference between the two: Under the draft, the feds would get absolutely no role in approving these local systems. They would in CCSSO's proposal.

What would happen to accountability? States would have way more control over what their systems look like than they do under NCLB Classic, or under the Obama administration's NCLB waivers. Unsurprisingly, the sections on Adequate Yearly Progress, the yardstick at the heart of the NCLB law, are totally cut, and the NCLB sanctions like tutoring and public school choice are out the window. That's not such a big deal because the waivers pretty much made AYP moot anyway, at least in most states.

Instead, the bill would let states come up with their own accountability methods, within certain parameters. State systems would have to consider student achievement, but measuring year-to-year student-growth would be optional. And states would have to consider the performance of student subgroups (like students in special education and English-language learners), and use a four-year graduation rate. There don't seem to be major requirements beyond that.

Do states and districts still have to identify low-performing schools? Yep. States would have to single out low-performing schools—but the draft doesn't say that it would have to be a particular percentage of schools, or that certain kinds of struggling schools—such as those with big achievement gaps or low grad rates—would have to be in the mix. 

That's a key difference from the waivers, which require states to single out the lowest-performing 5 percent "priority" schools for dramatic interventions (involving things like extending the day or getting rid of half the staff), and another 10 percent of "focus" schools with big achievement gaps or other problems, for more targeted help.

So what happens to these low-performing schools? Pretty much whatever districts think would work, although states would be allowed to come up with interventions too, and have districts carry them out, as long as that's in line with state law.

Meanwhile, the administration's School Improvement Grant models would be toast, a move that everyone saw coming a gazillion miles away. In fact, the language authorizing the original SIG program in the law would be kaput, too. And, unlike an earlier Alexander bill, states wouldn't have to identify a particular percentage of schools for serious turnaround efforts.

Instead, states would be permitted to reserve 8 percent of their Title I money for school improvement purposes. (Current law requires that 4 percent be set aside.) Ninety-five percent of this money would have to be passed on to districts, though.  But, crucially, there are no "musts"; a state could simply choose not to reserve this cash.

It's easy to imagine civil rights groups raising some big concerns here, because states and districts wouldn't be required to try out bold actions to fix schools that aren't making any progress. On the other hand, it's not clear that lots of specificity on turnarounds has actually helped schools get any better.

What happens with Title I plans? This is perhaps one of the only levers left for the department under the bill, and it's a pretty flimsy one. As under current law, states would have to submit plans to the feds for using their Title I money to help educate disadvantaged kids. Those would have to include the accountability plans described above. And the department would get to scrutinize them, through a "peer review" process.

The peer-review team would have to be made up of people with lots of practical experience in education. In fact, they'd have to have been employed by a district or state education agency in the past five years. And the peer reviewers wouldn't have long to dither (or probe). If they don't make a decision within 45 days, the plans would be considered "approved" (current law is 120 days).

If the feds want to reject a state's plan, the onus would be on them to support that decision with research showing it wouldn't work. States wouldn't have to gin up the research themselves. (More in this smart blog post from my colleague, Sarah Sparks.) A blog from Bellwether Education Partners, a consulting group, critiques the whole Title I plan policy here—mock state request and all.                                                                                                                                         

What about teacher quality? Unsurprisingly, the draft wouldn't require states to develop teacher-evaluation systems based on student outcomes, which may be the school reform strategy nearest and dearest to the Obama administration's heart. (It's certainly the piece of waiver policy it has pushed hardest on.)

Instead, states would get a lot of leeway over how they spend federal teacher-quality money. They could use it for teacher evaluations, if they want, or for professional development, pre-service teacher prep, or pretty much anything teacher-y.

The draft would ditch the NCLB's law's "highly qualified" teacher provisions. (States would still have to ensure teachers meet state licensure requirements, though.)  

The draft would also enshrine in law the Teacher Incentive Fund, which doles out grants to districts to create alternative pay programs. The program was inserted into a 2006 spending bill and has gotten hundreds of millions in federal dollars over the years. But believe it or not, it has never actually been officially blessed in legislation.   

What about teacher distribution? The original NCLB law called for states to ensure kids in high-poverty schools have access to as many qualified teachers as kids in wealthier schools. But it's been a really tough area of policy for the feds. Instead, under the draft, states would just have to provide some sort of assurance that low-income kids get good teachers and school leaders, and strong instructional programs. That's more doable, but again, no way to be sure states follow through. 

How much money is on the table? The most important program in ESEA—Title I—is authorized at $14.9 billion for the next five years. That's roughly the same level as current spending. An authorization—which is sort of Congress-speak for "wish list"—doesn't matter that much in the long run; lawmakers blow past, or fail to reach, these spending limits all the time. But they send an important signal about the direction Congress wants to take on funding. In fact, under the draft, most programs would stay frozen at current levels.

What about school choice? There are no vouchers in the bill (yet). But states that are really into school choice could decide to have Title I money for disadvantaged kids follow students to the public school of their choice, to the tune of about $1,300 per child. This is another provision almost certain to provoke the ire of school groups, which might otherwise throw a parade for Alexander if he is able to get rid of testing. Why don't they like it? See AASA, the School Superintendents Association's argument here.

What about all that wonky (but important!) funding-related stuff? The bill eliminates "maintenance of effort," which calls for districts to keep their own education spending up to a certain level in order to tap federal funds. That does not make advocates for local districts, including the AASA and the National School Boards Association, very happy. They're worried, obviously, that getting rid of this provision would open the door to state and local cuts. 

But the bill doesn't appear to get rid of the "supplement not supplant" requirement, which says, essentially, that federal funds can't replace local dollars. The details of supplement-not-supplant would change quite a bit though, something David DeSchryver of Whiteboard Advisors, an education policy shop, explained really well here.

The draft would also make a key change to the Title I program. Right now, schools have to target their Title I dollars to at-risk kids. They can't operate programs for the whole school, unless at least 40 percent of the kids are in poverty. But under the draft, any school that gets Title I money could use it run a program that benefits all children. That's either welcome flexibility or a big civil rights rollback, depending on your perspective. 

And there are no changes to salary comparability—even though overhauling it has been a big priority for civil rights groups and Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., a member of the Senate education panel in past Congresses. What is salary comparability, you ask? Explainer here.

Would states have more say over federal dollars? Yup. Like previous Republican ESEA rewrite legislation, the bill is all about making it easier to shift around funding for maximum flexibility. For instance, states would be able to move 100 percent of their funding (as opposed to 50 percent under current law) between Title II (the big state teacher-quality grants) and Title IV (grants for Safe and Healthy Students.)  And the Safe and Healthy Students program would essentially become a big block grant targeting school climate, violence prevention, and mental health.

Did any programs get eliminated? The draft eliminates a whole slew of programs, including SIG, Transition to Teaching, School Leadership, the 21 Century Community Learning Centers (which is for after-school programs), Advanced Placement, Elementary and Secondary School Counseling, Arts in Education (sorry Kennedy family!) And programs that haven't gotten funding in a long time, including state grants for education technology, are also out.

Plus, the Obama administration's favorite competitive grant programs—Race to the Top, Investing in Innovation, Promise Neighborhoods—are nowhere to be found. (Something everyone saw coming anyway.)

What happens to Education Secretary Arne Duncan and anyone else to take the helm at 400 Maryland Ave? If this bill passes, the U.S. Secretary of Education would be like the Maytag washing machine repair man in those old commercials—a very bored, lonely cabinet official. In fact, the draft includes a laundary list of things the Secretary couldn't do, including directing states when it comes to tests, standards, accountability, or teacher evaluations. (That's pretty much everything that states and the department have been negotiating under waivers.)

It's a far, far cry from what Alexander said when Duncan he first arrived on the scene. (The senator called the Chicago schools chief Obama's best cabinet pick.) More limitations on the Secretary's authority in this analysis, again from Bellwether Education Partners.

I'm almost to the bottom of your blog item and you didn't say a single thing Common Core! What about standards? Well, you won't find the words "common core" anywhere in the draft either. It calls on states to set "challenging" academic standards aligned to higher education system requirements. That's pretty much it.

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