Growth Industry

Surprise! Ed Week’s Olson tells us in this week’s issue that lots of states want the chance ($) to participate in the “growth model” accountability experiment that U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings wants to have. Wow, didn’t see that coming…a chance to lower-standards for your low-performing schools and put off the day of reckoning about dealing with them a little longer…who would’ve thunk that states would be so excited to participate in that?

Problem is, not that many states yet meet the letter or even spirit of the parameters that Spellings laid out for participation. This, of course, was the concern voiced by critics like the Citizens Commission on Civil Rights at the time and there are also some technical and equity concerns about this approach more generally. And, because it’s no secret that few states are where they need to be on this so it begs the question of why have a pilot of up to ten rather than fewer.

Basically, right now NCLB requires states to set performance targets for schools and hold them accountable for not only meeting those targets in the aggregate but also for ensuring that subgroups of students, like minorities, also meet them. Right now a lot of these state plans are not yet all that rigorous and more than a few only require that around half of the students in a school be passing the state test for the school to make “adequate yearly progress” or “AYP” right now. Over time the targets rise and become more rigorous for schools as they move toward a goal of having almost all students passing their state tests by 2014. Many state plans, however, delay that pain for as long as possible by designing their performance goals to essentially look like a “balloon mortgage” as Checker Finn has characterized it.

Incorporating “growth” into these plans basically means that even if schools don’t reach the targets, they get credit for doing so if they meet some less rigorous benchmark but are still making progress. Fair enough except it begs the question of when a state should take action. NCLB has a modest growth mechanism now that rewards schools for making progress even if they fall short of the targets, but critics want a lot more.

Thing is, the states know that 2014 goal will shift over time and so the game right now is to put off serious consequences for schools as long as you can because who knows what sort of changes might happen! It’s like deferring income taxes into the future as much as you can, it’s usually the sensible thing to do. But what about the kids stuck in low-performing schools you say? Well, worry not, their interests are not completely ignored, but they do come after generally making sure all the adults from the state political chain down to the school level are taken care of first. Displacing adult interests in education is really tough because they have interest groups to represent them and make the politics difficult. This is why, for example, many states happily lay accountability requirements on kids like exit exams and graduation requirements but still have essentially no accountability for the adults running schools.

Now in theory under these growth models the 2014 deadline will hold and so while low-performing schools might get a little breathing room now through temporarily lower standards they won’t escape accountability (in eight more years but still…). But that’s probably not going to happen because something else will come along, or the law will be changed, etc…

Consequently, it falls to Ed Secretary Margaret Spellings to hold the line (and under some very stringent guidelines it would be possible to incorporate “growth” into AYP without walking away from kids in low-performing schools. But, make no mistake, right now the NCLB standards are not that tough and growth models are a postponement of them. Whether it’s a temporary postponement that’s sensible and helps schools that are working hard to get better or an evasion of accountability remains to be seen.

And while Ed Secretary Spellings might indeed be an “anal retentive chowderhead”* at home, it’s so far an open question about whether she will be similarly hard on DC’s insatiable education special interest groups. And, there is a body of literature about how the implementation process of a law is merely the continuation of the political debate that gave rise to it in the first place. In other words the players try to re-litigate their losses in a different venue. That’s what is generally happening here with NCLB and things like this growth model experiment are worth watching as indicators of the degree.

*For an edublogger that WaPo profile of Spellings is a gift that just keeps on giving…

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