Monthly Archives: July 2012

New Perspective! Don’t Let The Plight Of Students Blind You To The Real Victims In The Ed Story!

Maybe we’ve been looking at this whole No Child Left Behind and accountability thing from the wrong angle?  In Nevada, for instance, the high school graduation rate is 56 percent according to federal data.  On the National Assessment of Educational Progress just 17 percent of low-income students are proficient or higher in reading by in reading by 8th-grade (and just 16 percent of Hispanic students, too). But let’s not lose sight of who really suffers in an educational environment like that.  One former Nevada reporter writes in relation to the No Child law and the new waivers:

It was literally a painful experience to have to write, year after year, about how many local schools would be labeled as “failing” despite making every logical attempt at improvement. Under the original parameters of NCLB it doesn’t take much for a school to fall short. Failing to have 95 percent of eligible students present for testing will do it. Low performance by just one or two students in a particular subgroup can also lead to a failing grade.

Of course, a kid or two can’t actually make you miss AYP, it’s not how it works in practice even under the “original parameters” and certainly not now with all the flexibility states have built in with new student growth models and waivers.  Meanwhile, the law doesn’t label schools “failing,” it labels them needing improvement.  But those misunderstood policy details clearly have blinded us to the real victims here: Nevada’s life-crushing student outcomes are not the tragedy, it’s the reporters forced to write about it…

Coming soon…Is covering “adequate yearly progress” more emotionally stressful than covering Syria?

Update:  Emily Richmond responds here.  Two thoughts on her response: First, if schools were being “perceived” as failing when they were not it seems like a great opportunity for the media to help explain how the law actually works and why some schools that are good overall can still have issues with some groups of students that require improvement – especially in an education context like Nevada’s.  Second, she argues that Nevada’s accountability system was poorly designed. Fair enough. But, this raises a question about No Child’s accountability rules that has not received as much attention as it should in the rush to jettison federal requirements: Was the law too loose on its accountability requirements allowing states to make some bad decisions (for instance designating subgroup sizes that were too small)? In the past several years states have adopted all manner of safeguards so this is less of an issue now but initially some states were arguably too granular. Should things be more prescriptive to head off bad decisions?

On the other hand, outside of the requirement that schools assess 95 percent of students – an obvious rule to prevent schools from skipping kids not likely to do well – when people say the accountability rules mean you can miss making AYP by a single student it isn’t quite right.  The law – from the beginning – included “safe harbor” rules so that schools making progress but not hitting the targets could still make AYP.  (This paper Erin Dillon and I did gets into all that and gives an idea of what the performance targets looked like a few years ago.) Now states do a variety of additional things to address this. So when someone makes this claim what they’re really saying is ‘the school missed by a few kids the target that was set for for schools that missed the original targets.‘ In other words, the second chance targets. Like the difference between “failing” and “needs improvement” it’s an important distinction and one the media should make clear when reporting on this.

Friday Fish Porn – Partnerships Edition

OK, it’s not exactly fish porn. There is no fish.  But check out this picture of Michael Robbins’ son getting a casting lesson from the legendary Bob Jacklin.  This is kind of like your kid deciding they want to play cello and Yo-Yo Ma takes them under his wing.

For his part Robbins works at the Department of Education where he is Senior Advisor for Nonprofit Partnerships. Among other previous roles he was with the SEED school and the Shriver Center.

All your past fish porn – most with fish – via this link.

Customization, Good For Kids But Also Good For Public Education Politics?

Friday’s David Brooks column and Sunday’s single-gender article from AP both share a theme – customization.  It’s vital given different student needs and different parental desires.  To a large extent those with means can find customization if they want it through choice of where to live, choice of schools, or even options like homeschooling.  And they tend to become fiercely loyal to their choice as a result.  So why wouldn’t we want to (a) give lower-income parents the same options via the public sector and in the process (b) build their loyalty toward the public system so they want to support it politically when it comes to questions of funding and so forth?

No Child Left Behind – The Problem Is Not The Policy, It’s Us

Everyone not chattering about the job numbers is chattering about this morning’s New York Times article on No Child Left Behind and the waivers that are increasingly freeing states from its requirements.  In general some waivers were necessary – and some were issued during the Bush Administration, too – because the law was supposed to be reauthorized in 2007 and 2012 is now half over.

But when you read stuff like this line in The Times story, you can’t help but wonder how much of all this is “everybody knows” and how much is based in facts:

“[No Child Left Behind] has been derided for what some regard as an obsessive focus on test results, which has led to some notorious cheating scandals.

Perhaps, but were there cheating scandals before No Child?  Yes.  In fact, it’s been a problem since the beginning of efforts to increase accountability in education. Before we get to that, here’s a quick primer on how the law actually works:

First, states have to establish standards – that was a requirement of President Clinton’s 1994 version of the law.  Some standards are good and useful for educators while others are vague, too voluminous, or an exercise in trivial pursuit.  States then have to test students annual in grades 3-8 and at least once in high school. Again, some tests are good, some aren’t.  But – and this is key – what the law requires is that an increasing percentage of students reach the “proficient” level on those tests.  What it means to be proficient varies by state and is often not rigorous at all (pdf).

What the law does not require is that 100 percent of students are proficient.  It doesn’t even have a hard deadline of 2014 because of all the various provisions to give schools credit for making progress.  And all students don’t have to take the tests – there are provisions for the normal absenteeism that occurs, students with serious disabilities, English language learners and so forth.

So what the law actually requires is that – over a 16 year timespan since 2001 – about 92 percent of students achieve the “proficient” level on their state tests in order for their schools to make what’s called “adequate yearly progress.” And the law’s big policy shift was requiring that same level of performance for minority, poor, and other traditionally under-served student groups so schools couldn’t hide behind averages that masked persistent low-performance for some students. Whether the tests have any consequence for students is a state by state decision, the federal law is silent on that.  And the law doesn’t use the term failing.  Schools not making progress are deemed ‘needing improvement.’ That little detail makes it all look a little different given that even average or good schools can need improvement on some measures.

More than a decade after the law’s passage there are a bunch of things that I think should be changed or refined.  When the law was passed states did not have the data systems they do now, for instance.  But here’s the more basic question: When have we ever had a widespread increase in accountability in education without it being a three-ring circus, policymakers walking back from the brink, and a general bemoaning of things?  And how much of all that owes to specifics of policy and how much to broader capacity problems in the system?

Maybe underneath the ins and outs of the waivers the real problem here is that our political system really doesn’t have the tensile strength to sustain a push for accountability over time and our political leaders don’t have the stomach for it or bold enough expectations for our schools.  None of the people cheering or jeering today’s article would put up for a moment with having their own kids in schools that couldn’t generally meet the proficiency bars states have established. That’s something they quietly agree on. This is about other people’s children and what’s good enough for them. And that, rather than any one feature of the policy, is probably the root of the problem.

Programming Note

I’ve written about the education challenges facing adjudicated youngsters on this blog and in some columns. Big and often overlooked issue. DC’s New Beginnings will be featured in a segment about the issue on Brian Williams’ Rock Center tonight. 10 pm on NBC.