Anne Hyslop On What NYT No Child Left Behind Story Missed – Updated

Guest post by Anne Hyslop:

In 12 years of No Child Left Behind there is probably not a better example of the discord between how school accountability policies are perceived and how they actually work than this weekend’s New York Times story about Lakeridge Elementary School, just outside of Seattle, WA. In interviews with teachers, administrators, and parents, Motoko Rich gives a vivid picture of the on-the-ground reality this year in Washington state. Educators are confused,demoralized, and frustrated with changing accountability targets and strategies now that the state lost its federal waiver and must again fully comply with No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

Yes federal policy is complicated, particularly as NCLB and waiver accountability systems collide in the Evergreen state. But it’s not too much to expect the nation’s premier newspaper to get key features right. So while Rich’s account is worth reading, it needs some important clarifications.

1. Lakeridge wasn’t suddenly “declared a failing school under federal education law” once the waiver expired. First, NCLB doesn’t label schools as “failing”–it labels them as “failing to make Adequate Yearly Progress” (AYP) based on whether certain student groups (for instance minority, low income, special education students, or English Language Learners) met academic targets in reading and math, or made sufficient progress toward those targets based on prior performance (safe harbor). So it’s a fun turn of phrase, but there is no “federal blacklist of failure,” as Rich claims.

Nor is there an “impossible” 100 percent proficiency requirement that schools must meet, and that’s no small detail in how the policy works. NCLB does not require 100 percent of students to be proficient, because of technical features in AYP calculations (e.g. exclusions of special education students, n-size requirements, the application of confidence intervals for test scores results, how many students must be assessed at each school, and more). And because of safe harbor, the deadline for reaching the mythical 100 percent target isn’t even 2014, but rather several years away.

But those are minor problems compared to the fact that, as DFER’s Charlie Barone noted, Lakeridge actually made AYP last year due to safe harbor. I’ll repeat: Lakeridge made AYP. In other words, NCLB worked, in its complicated way, and recognized that the school had made progress since its last NCLB checkup (taken after spring 2011 test scores, before the waiver). Oops.

2. Rich’s article describes Lakeridge’s progress and the hard work of its leadership and staff, spurred by a $3 million federal School Improvement Grant (SIG) in 2011. The school got a new principal, replaced teaching staff, increased instructional time, and began a partnership with the University of Washington’s School of Education to offer their staff richer, research-based professional development. And while there’s no definitive link between the two, test scores at Lakeridge have improved significantly since that last NCLB checkup in 2011. In other words, the SIG program is working, or at least appears to be, with positive changes in the school’s culture and student performance.

3. Rich’s article does not, however, mention that these improvement efforts were reinforced by Lakeridge being named a priority school in 2012-13 and 2013-14 under the state’s NCLB waiver. Lakeridge isn’t one of those schools that was “let off the hook” because its state got a waiver and could now identify fewer low-performing schools. If anything, Lakeridge was under more scrutiny as a priority school (and SIG school) than it was as one of many Title I schools in improvement under NCLB. And the interventions Lakeridge had to implement as a priority school were much more rigorous than those expected by NCLB. Plus, Lakeridge received significant resources to implement these strategies and build its capacity to do so effectively, both through SIG and through the Title I funding flexibility Washington received as a waiver state. In other words, maybe the waiver accountability system was working pretty well too.

In short, the story of Lakeridge shows how complicated the No Child Left Behind policy debate actually is when you get under the rhetoric. In different ways, and to different degrees, the school was helped by policies of both President Bush and President Obama.

So why did Rich single out this school as the poster child for all of NCLB’s absurdities? Probably because Lakeridge only made AYP for one year (it missed AYP based on 2011 tests, but made it based on 2014 tests)–and the school needs to make AYP for two years before fully exiting improvement status according to NCLB rules. So Lakeridge remains in corrective action, its pre-waiver status, and must set-aside 20 percent of its Title I funds to support school choice and tutoring programs this year instead of using that money to continue its waiver turnaround activities. Reasonable people can disagree on the efficacy of that tradeoff based on the mixed evidence on turnarounds, public school choice, and tutoring, but there’s no doubt that local educators are frustrated both by the school’s new label and their loss of control over Lakeridge’s improvement plan and Title I funding.

Somehow being labeled “failing” by NCLB is much worse than being a priority school under waivers, even though the priority label is reserved for only 5 percent of Title I schools and comes with comprehensive turnaround efforts (similar to those Lakeridge adopted). On the other hand NCLB’s , most severe penalty includes a loophole that allows schools to dodge significant restructuring. The key difference is that waivers trust districts–and low-performing schools–to set the terms of their improvement and allow them to align and leverage federal dollars to support that plan. Some of this trust was misplaced (take a look at the waiver monitoring reports from various states, and the numerous issues flagged with priority schools). But in some places with strong local leadership and commitment, it appears to not only produce a more friendly accountability system, but also one that produces results.

So, no, Lakeridge isn’t a “failing” school, even by NCLB’s “impossible” benchmarks (when we pretend those things are not a fiction). But for the educators at the school its return to its NCLB status surely still feels like a punishment for two years of hard work. There is a lot of nuance in all this, but Rich’s take merely, and wrongly, reinforces NCLB’s reputation as a much more severe form of accountability than any required by waivers.

I get the desire for a clean break from NCLB’s bad reputation and the ever-changing, ever-more-complicated NCLB waivers. And it’s easy to see how Rich went in with some preconceived notions based on all the rhetoric. But before we rush to adopt a “new accountability,” let’s first make sure we understand the policies we have. For all the talk about unreasonable standards, that hardly seems one.

Anne Hyslop is a senior policy analyst at Bellwether Education.

Update: Editors note. The Times updates the story with a correction per some of the issues above but persists with the “failing label” language. When you talk about NCLB the difference between “failing” and “needs improvement” is not a small one or semantics.

4 thoughts on “Anne Hyslop On What NYT No Child Left Behind Story Missed – Updated

  1. Bruce William Smith

    This level of policy detail is not particularly useful to educators working in schools. Perhaps the claim here is that Lakeside’s principal is wrong when she and her district are sending out letters informing their neighbours that their school has been “failing to make Adequate Yearly Progress”, and that therefore they have a right to tutoring or to transfer their children to a better school; but since that’s the policy directive of the federal education department, that claim seems far-fetched. Perhaps she’s been wasting her time explaining to the neighbourhood that the school really hasn’t been failing, and that parents should still have some confidence in sending their children to her school; but without the federal accountability letters NCLB and ED insist on, those conversations wouldn’t be so urgent, and she might actually be able to spend her time, energy, and money on educating the children she has, rather than on recruiting efforts to retain pupils being chased away by a menacing, bumbling federal government thousands of miles away on the other, managerial, excuse-laden coast.

  2. Eric Fry

    A law that is too complicated to understand is not a good law. Even granting Hyslop’s points, there are many aspects of NCLB that are foolish in so many different ways. Of course the public and media will believe that failing to achieve something is to fail.

  3. Paul Manna

    Anne raises some good points here, but the loose use of the word “failure” isn’t just an artifact of poor media coverage or of NCLB critics trying to hammer the law. Arne Duncan himself uses this language repeatedly, as well. For example, see: http://www.ed.gov/news/press-releases/duncan-says-82-percent-americas-schools-could-fail-under-nclb-year. If the man at the top of ED says that schools are failing under NCLB, it’s not unreasonable to think that broader discussions of the law’s impact would use that language as well.

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