How Now, Sacred Cows!

Not unexpectedly, the Department of Education has green-lighted a few more states to try growth models under NCLB. AFTie Beth notes miserably that so far this pilot hasn’t meant fewer schools identified as needing improvement. But that that wasn’t really the point of this law-stretching initiative was it? If the goal is just to lower the number of schools not making “adequate yearly progress” (AYP) that could have been accomplished with a lot less effort through regulatory nips and tucks. And, if you want to see what schools we’re talking about under various models you can just run the numbers under different criteria and get the lay of the land, you don’t need a federal pilot program. That’s a research question not a policy one. Rather, the more important part of the federal pilot is the behavioral aspect, what effect, if any, does the alternative accountability scheme have on schools, districts, and states. That’s where the action is from an analytic point of view.

Besides, the issue of schools not making AYP really hinges on whether or not we’re going to have real accountability or not. Low-achievement for minorities and other subgroups is not just an urban problem, it’s the old “these kids do go to school somewhere problem.” In a country where half of all minority students don’t finish high school on time, minority students trail white students – on average — by four grade levels in achievement by high school, etc…you’re going to have a lot of schools that don’t meet accountability standards under any sort of meaningful system.

But this is all less interesting than the other dimension: What happens to schools that are not making AYP? All the attention to the measurement issue is distracting from the more fundamental problems, which are that (a) the backend timelines don’t work for the number of schools we’re talking about (meaning there are more schools needing help than can be helped in a real way) (b) no one really knows exactly what to do for a lot of them anyway and (c) the states are not chomping at the bit to do much at all. That argues for a policy that is at once stricter on the really bad actors, more flexible but still completely transparent* around schools that just genuinely need to improve some, and doesn’t create so many loopholes for the states. It also argues for more attention to the “how” of the law. Everyone likes to say that we know what works, money, class size, choice, private management, etc…but that’s BS. “Turn-arounds” are complicated and hit or miss and that’s not all that surprising, it’s a human endeavor.** Still, the feds can do a lot more on the how. And how to do that is an interesting conversation.

*Part of the push to change NCLB’s accountability provisions is all about public relations, namely whether it’s fair say that a school that is doing well overall but not with specific groups of students “needs improvement.” Your answer to that question probably depends on “fair to whom”…

**That’s perhaps the most compelling argument for the “supply side” approach to urban ed reform.

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