A Jeb Blooms In The WaPo…And, Why Is George Killing Jeb’s Priorities?

Sunday’s WaPo op-ed by Florida Governor and first brother Jeb Bush and New York Mayor and Michael Bloomberg is sort of mystifying the Eduwonk. Sure, they are big names, but the op-ed is vapid. It would be like some big name foreign policy type penning an op-ed saying that the problem in the Middle East is that people just don’t seem to get along with each other. Would the WaPo publish that?

Anyway, Bush and Bloomberg lay out four big think reforms for No Child Left Behind. If this is what passes for big think in the Republican Party right now then Democrats have no excuses for not eating the Rs lunch on this issue in 2008. Bush and Bloomberg want to:

  • Make standards meaningful by making the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) the default standards;
  • Encourage student gains;
  • Recognize degrees of progress; and
  • Reward and retain high-quality teachers.

It all sounds plausible enough, until you scratch below the surface. The NAEP is a useful barometer of educational progress but not well suited to becoming either a national test or default curriculum. And, for any national standard to have resonance it must have buy-in from the states and imposing the NAEP on them is no way to accomplish that. Besides, right now the NCLB bottom line is that the feds can’t get the states to enforce their own standards, why are they going to enforce an external set, on behalf of the feds?

Encouraging student gains is one of those facile things that falls in the category of supporting chocolate tasting good. The more serious question is how to design growth or value-added models in a way that doesn’t pull the rug out from under disadvantaged kids politically and also passes muster technically. As the most recent GAO report (pdf) on the issue shows, states have a long way to go on the technical side and that’s before we start really considering the feasibility of value-added models in practice with adverse consequences attached to them. So while, Bloomberg and Bush are correct in their assertion that, “When the law was written five years ago, Congress didn’t think it was possible to follow an individual student’s performance from year to year” Congress would still be right in thinking that it’s not possible in almost every state. That’s why only two states got approved for the recent Department of Education growth model pilot. Policymaking starts with what is desirable but ends with what is possible, something lost on most breathless boosters of value-added and growth models. And, politically, does anyone seriously trust the states to set rigorous targets for low-income and minority kids without some sort of external benchmarks? In other words, once you get the technical issues worked out, the potential for all kinds of political mischief still remains.

But it’s the latter two ideas, recognizing degrees of progress and reward and retaining high-quality teachers that really show the problem here. First, Jeb Bush would be on much firmer ground arguing for more differentiation if Florida’s accountability system took racial and ethnic subgroups into account in the first place. That’s the source of the conflict here between Florida’s letter grades and the federal “adequate yearly progress” (pdf) requirements that the state is trying to fuzzy over. Under Florida’s system a school can still get an A or a B even if most or all of its minority students are lagging far behind. Moreover, under No Child Left Behind, this year only 51 percent of students at a school (and unfortunately for Florida that means 51 percent of the minority kids, too!) need to pass Florida’s state tests to make adequate yearly progress in the first place (pdf). That’s up from only 44 percent last year when the state really started moaning in earnest about this. How low does Jeb Bush want to set the bar for progress? And, it is worth pointing out that under No Child nothing prevents states from using a variety of strategies to reward progress and the law gives states a lot of leeway in tailoring various interventions toward schools. The federal bottom line is merely that ultimately an increasing percentage of students need to pass state tests. Over time that requirement is going to need to be reworked but that time is not when states like Florida only need to have half the students at a school passing state tests to make adequate yearly progress.

Rewarding and retaining teachers falls much in the same boat. I’m all for having the feds do more on that front but nothing is preventing states from doing it now except inertia and politics.* Are Republicans now saying that it’s the feds not the states who are the innovators? And if Jeb Bush is so concerned about this issue he might have tried to persuade his brother, the not-insignificant President of the United States, not to cave on the Teacher Incentive Fund so that it’s only a $100 million initiative, 20 percent of what the Administration had originally sought. (*To his credit, Jeb has tried to move the ball on that issue a little in FL but a lot more to do).

Otherwise, great op-ed!

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