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What's Worth Keeping in NCLB?

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This week, Jack Schneider and former Massachusetts Secretary of Education Paul Reville discuss the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, paying particular attention to how it might be improved from its current incarnation as "No Child Left Behind."

Schneider: It looks like we might actually see some movement on the long-overdue renewal of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) this year. The last reauthorization of ESEA, well over a decade ago, was No Child Left Behind. And a wide range of proposals are currently being floated.  

If you could throw some weight around in Congress, what would you push for in an ESEA renewal? What would you like to see cut from the old law? What would you like to see preserved?

Reville: ESEA reauthorization is a huge and complex challenge. If I were lucky enough to be able to steer the process, I'd reassert the role of states in setting standards and building their own accountability systems. I'd preserve the federal annual testing requirement so that each state has data on each child in order to serve as the basis for the state's accountability system. Stakes based on performance would be determined at the state rather than federal level, but states would be required to have consequential accountability systems. I'd have ESEA call for accountability performance indicators that go beyond academic tests to include attendance, school climate, student well-being, and other factors including discipline and family engagement. I'd want to provide incentives for states to begin to develop indicators, curricula, and measurement instruments to assess students' social and emotional development. 

I'd also increase funding for ESEA, incentivize community partnerships, full-service schools and other approaches to wrap-around services for children. I'd ensure that ESEA would help schools mitigate health, mental health, and other problems that arise in students' lives outside of school. I'd set aside and protect funding for after-school and summer enrichment for economically disadvantaged students. I'd offer incentives for K-12 systems to offer high quality early childhood education and to establish career pathways for secondary students.

What I've described is already a big agenda and, of course, the devil is in the details. In general, I see this as a time when the federal government should be increasing its support for education, broadening the conventional boundaries of K-12 education, correcting the excesses of NCLB, and returning prerogatives to the states while insisting on, rather than prescribing, equity-based accountability systems.

Schneider: Why insist that states have consequential accountability systems? I ask because you also maintain that ESEA reauthorization should correct "the excesses of NCLB." Yet it seems to me that many of those excesses were related to consequential accountability. What, for instance, is gained from punishing low-performing schools by requiring them to redirect their Title I funds away from the core mission of educating children?

In place of "consequential accountability," why not emphasize capacity-building? Why not promote transparency and support?

My second question is about what you think characterizes effective reform at the federal level. Because, while I'm on board with incentivizing community partnerships, for instance, I'm not sure I can envision a large-scale policy that would actually work at scale across 10,000 school districts. Because the issue is just so context-specific. And the same goes for mitigating physical and mental health problems, and for establishing career pathways for high school students. These are highly complex problems to address, and outside of handing over unrestricted funds to address themsomething Congress would never go forI'm not sure adequate flexibility can be built into policy.

Reville: I support consequential accountability systems because I believe that one of the purposes of measuring progress is to incentivize improvement. You seem to equate "consequential accountability" with punishment. While there are punitive accountability systems, the first consequence of any quality accountability process ought to be giving the identified under-performer the extra helpthe capacity-building needed to achieve the desired goal. In the case of a student, this consequence of accountability, the extra help, continues indefinitely. In the case of educators, they should get lots of extra help, time for improvement second and third chances to achieve the goals. If under-performance becomes chronic with a school employee, then the system is not only justified, but obligated to protect children by implementing more severe consequences including replacing a persistently ineffective teacher, leader or school.

On the federal role, I generally think less is better. While I'm eager to see the federal government provide support for local schools, I agree that the work of education is fundamentally local and shaped by context. The federal government and its leaders can use the bully pulpit and targeted funding to legitimize new directions in education, to clear the political and cultural space for innovations. The federal government, for example, has historically led the way on pushing districts to attend more directly to the needs of economically disadvantaged youngsters or students with disabilities. Federal policy cleared the way for major breakthroughs in these areas. I'd like to see these kinds of initiatives continue, so, for example,  the feds could incentivize the expansion of high quality early education services to poor children, make community college free, or aid districts in creating new career pathways for high school students. The federal government will never play a lead role in funding schools, but it has unique power in setting a direction and providing leadership, especially for historically underserved children.

Schneider: You mention "consequential accountability" with regard to students and teachers. But the clearest form of accountability under No Child Left Behind has been for the school as a whole. So yes, I agree with you that ineffective educators should eventually be moved out of the classroom. But I'm not sure that school-level accountability is an effective approach to policy, particularly if you're already taking action at the teacher level.

I think the trick, then, is to wield federal influence in a manner that encourages districts to build robust systems and structures—for managing personnel, for measuring student performance, etc. Of course, there's a very thin line between encouraging and ordering. As you note, the feds can provide important direction and leadership around issues like equity. But the real work is fundamentally local and shaped by context.

Lost in the shuffle, I think, is the issue of teacher professional growth. I'd like to see ESEA reauthorization address this. Maybe in our next conversation we can talk about what federal support can do to help bolster teaching as a profession.

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