U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was expressing a broadly shared sentiment when he referred to the landmark No Child Left Behind education law as a slow-motion train wreck. Now lawmakers and the Obama administration are engaged in parallel efforts to reshape the way America teaches and tests its students.
Duncan was alluding to a particularly onerous provision in the Bush-era law that required schools to demonstrate 100 percent proficiency on math and science tests by 2014 or face heavy penalties. Citing Congress' failure to act, President Barack Obama essentially bypassed legislators by announcing a plan to grant waivers exempting states from the requirement if they meet certain conditions. Since then, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., the chair and ranking member of the Senate committee that oversees education, have released a bill to revise the law.
No Child Left Behind's Metrics in Question
I think they both sort of are an acknowledgment that the reform tactics of No Child Left Behind are no longer sustainable in terms of measuring student performance and punishing schools, said David Plank, executive director of the organization Policy Analysis for California Education and a professor of education policy at Stanford University. There's an effort to try to get a little more sophisticated in how we approach reform.
Both the Obama waiver plan and the Harkin-Enzi legislation would relax the federal government's role by allowing states to develop their own methods for measuring student progress. The Obama plan mandates that the new assessments would have to be based on career and college readiness standards and would have state universities certify them. The Harkin-Enzi bill would effectively give states a blank slate in terms of the tests they develop and the benchmarks they set to measure whether students have achieved proficiency.
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Plank noted that Obama's emphasis on college readiness reflects a broader shift towards states adopting a set of curriculum standards known as the common core. The Obama administration has encouraged states to incorporate the new standards, which were designed by state governors and their school chiefs. 46 states have signed on so far, making it likely that even with the broad discretion states would be granted under the Harkin-Enzi bill, many states would model tests on the common core.
It's a shift from one set of standards to another, but the common core standards are far more ambitious and rigorous than the standards prevailing in most states now, Plank said. He added that because the Harkin-Enzi bill would allow states to define what constitutes proficiency, you see real flexibility and at least the potential for fudging the proficiency standards.
Some Argue for 'No Child' Retention
Several advocacy groups assailed the Harkin-Enzi bill for not mandating overarching federal targets for achievement, arguing that it removed an important mechanism for holding schools accountable. Six groups including the Education Trust, the Children's Defense Fund and the National Council of La Raza sent Harkin a letter warning of a significant step backward, according to the New York Times.
I'd like to have federal targets, but that's one of the compromises, Harkin told The Times. I refuse to allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good.
In another compromise that could represent the defining difference between the Harkin-Enzi bill and Obama's approach, Harkin removed a provision requiring states to create teacher evaluations tied to measures of student progress. The question of how to gauge teacher effectiveness has emerged as the most contentious issue in the national debate over school reform. Reform advocates have argued that the current tenure-based system does not allow schools to fire or sanction poor teachers. Teachers' unions have vociferously opposed that stance, contending that test scores are an inaccurate way to judge teachers.
I think that for better or worse teacher accountability has emerged as the central front in the policy conversation about education reform -- how do we do teacher evaluation right, how do we support our teachers and ensure the distribution of teachers responds to the needs of student, Plank said. People are strongly focused on teachers as being the key to improving student performance and people will not walk away casually from that part of the reform agenda. I think Harkin and Enzi have backed down but it will come back with a vengeance as the bill moves forward.
The Harkin-Enzi bill also appears to be more lax when it comes to the lowest performing schools. The Obama waiver plan would require those schools to choose from a menu of options that include replacing teachers and principals, converting into charter schools or extending learning time. The Harkin-Enzi bill would give states and districts more leeway in how they intervene, essentially allowing them to choose how to act.
States could design other innovative school models, and when states do that it could be a high quality model or it could be a low quality model, said Anne Hyslop, a Policy Analyst for the think tank Education Sector. So you're putting a lot more faith in states to implement policies that aren't just continuing the status quo and taking the easy way out.
Major Factor in Achievement Remains: School System's Resources
Many of No Child Left Behind's critics argued that its focus on standardized testing was too rigid and constrained learning by forcing educators to teach to the test. Kevin Welner, a professor of education policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder and director of National Education Policy Center, said both the Harkin-Enzi plan and Obama's blueprint perpetuate what he sees as a discredited strategy.
A sensible objective observer would conclude that measuring achievement through standardized testing and trying to drive reform through accountability measures tied to those results does not work, Welner said. That lesson does not seem to have been learned by the senators or the administration, which is sad.
Welner said that rather than responding to test scores, the government should be deploying resources to narrow the wide disparities in educational opportunities. He pointed to dynamics that precede students entering the classroom, like schools with higher proportions of low-income students or students who speak English as a second language.
Opportunities to learn come from being in an engaging classroom, in a challenging classroom with support for students and teachers, Welner said. It's not as if people arrive at school and say 'I'm not going to try hard because Washington hasn't said I have to try hard today.'
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