NCLB: Public Relationists V. Achievement Realists

Kevin Carey has a long post about the NCLB draft. Beyond what I already wrote about, a few more thoughts. Though it’s awfully early in the process, you essentially have two pressures working against each other here. Some people see the accountability and performance issue as a public relations one. That’s why you hear a lot of complaints about “labeling” schools. In other words, the argument goes, there are some problems sure, but overall things are pretty good and any accountability system that says otherwise threatens support for the public schools. Call these folks the Public Relationists. It’s not an entirely unreasonable position, that the public schools are under a lot of criticism so now isn’t the time to point the guns inward, it’s just not one I share.

Other people, let’s call them the Achievement Realists, say that given the grim outcomes for a lot of kids (50 percent on-time high school completion rates for minority kids, low rates of college-completion, substantial gaps, multiple grade-levels, in achievement between white an minority students, etc…) any reasonable accountability system is going to identify a lot of schools as needing to do better. That’s what, for all its problems, No Child Left Behind has done to date and I think we’d be in a different place if more people in the education media had been able to get their heads around the actual policy, which isn’t about “failing schools,” the law never uses the term, but about schools that need improvement. That’s why an overall “good” school or school system can fail to meet the AYP targets because one or two groups of students are at the wrong end of achievement gaps. The Achievement Realists tend to believe that the best way to really help the public schools is to make them better and doing that might require some bad news and tough facts.

That said, there is a reasonable political and substantive middle ground between the Public Relationsists and the Achievement Realists and this discussion draft takes a stab at trying to reach it. Politically, there does have to be a way to delineate between genuinely lousy schools and ones that aren’t doing as well as they should be with some groups of students. And substantively different things should happen to those schools (the law allows for that now but it’s not really happening because of widespread evasion around really dealing with low performing schools). What the Achievement Realists can’t budge on, however, is real transparency about performance so that this doesn’t turn into what Leafy Mike Petrilli considers the “Suburban Schools Relief Act of 2007.”

So, within those broad parameters there is room for some multiple indicators beyond math and reading and graduation rates as long as they are statewide, valid, reliable, and consequently comparable. And encouraging states to develop accountability systems that measure achievement in other subjects and introduce more stretch into the systems for high performers, in a real way, by including those measures in federal accountability makes sense. But, in my view and this is why I’m an equity hawk, those systems should in no way be able to prioritize the achievement of any group of students over the achievement of under-served students. The discussion draft could open the door for that.

And that also brings us to the proposed local assessment pilot. I don’t quite get it. If it’s done according to the letter of what’s proposed then it’s a very redundant thing because state assessments – done right – can accomplish the same things and do we really need more testing or better testing anyway? If corners start to get cut, as seems likely, then it opens up a big accountability loophole that if history is any guide, poor and minority kids will fall through.

Finally, speaking of loopholes, the LEP provisions need some work. We need a national investment in better assessments for students whose first language is not English but the current draft includes way too much flexibility especially considering the overall poor job public schools have done for these kids so far.

But, as I said, all things considered this draft is a reasonable place to start and if House Ed and Labor Chairman George Miller is really ready to hold the line and not let all this get whittled away, then he should be able to strike a middle ground that preserves the core tenets that the Achievement Realists want while not giving the Public Relationists the outs that they want. In fact, done right, it could take some of their arguments off the table, something the Achievement Realists should want to see happen going forward.

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