The Aspens Speak

There will be lots of commentary and back and forth on the Aspen Institute’s No Child Left Behind Commission report (pdf) that was just released and people will pull out their favorite thing to love or hate and jump up and down about that. Bottom line: It’s an important piece of the NCLB reauthorization debate, even more because of the seriousness and level of detail the commission brought to its task.

Those that just want to “fix” NCLB won’t love it because it doesn’t provide much cover for gutting the law, in fact in some subtle ways it draws a harder line on accountability than the administration does right now. And, there will be complaints that the emphasis on accountability and results means low-performing schools continue to be “punished.” Meanwhile, Mike Petrilli hates the report because it’s not radical enough and that will become the line du jour from various circles, it’s hip to think big. But, the 1994 Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization and the 2001 version were pretty radical. Forcing states to develop standards, and forcing them to get serious about measurement and accountability, sea changes and we shouldn’t lose sight of that. Now the challenge is getting all the secondary policies that undergird the big changes right. This report offers some sensible ideas about how. And, considering the macro stakes, I think it’s pretty noteworthy that a commission with this composition* didn’t call for decelerating on the NCLB policy. That’s the story.

In fact, my biggest complaints are less some of what is in it than what’s not. For instance, it’s no secret that I favor a big federal new schools strategy to help open new public schools in underserved communities. Likewise, though it points some new directions on quality and effectiveness, this plan does not attack the human capital problem (teachers and leadership) nearly as aggressively as I’d like.

But, it’s got plenty of small actionable ideas to improve some the NCLB policy. Starting to move toward measuring teacher effectiveness more empirically is a step in the right direction, albeit a complicated one. I’m no great fan of the SES program but the steps the commission recommends are sound. It should spark a serious discussion about timelines and support for school restructuring. And on AYP, it’s a serious and grounded set of ideas rather than the rhetoric that mostly passes for discussion of that issue.

But, all of those things are policy ideas in evolution. A decade from now I suspect we’ll be talking about the same themes but very different ideas and policy decisions. Yet one thing the commission put forward would, if enacted, radically alter education accountability. That idea is providing real recourse for citizens to hold schools accountable:

…we recommend that parents and other concerned parties have the right to hold districts, states and the U.S. DOE accountable for faithfully implementing the requirements of NCLB through enhanced enforcement options with the state and the U.S. DOE.

Basically, the commission lays out a set of ideas for legal recourse in cases where states, school districts, or schools are failing to meet the terms of the law. You can imagine the potential force of class actions around teacher quality, public school choice, or school restructuring. If enacted, this would further change the producer – consumer equilibrium in American education and likely force a new seriousness around enforcement of federal education laws outside of special education.

*Only one and hardly unreasonable dissenting view.

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