Looking Backward

Yesterday ES hosted an event on the history of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (the current version is called No Child Left Behind) and some ideas about what is next. Sam Halperin, Chris Cross, Kati Haycock, and Jack Jennings discussed the issues. The audio can be found here and if you want to learn some of the history and context, as well as what some sharp people think about the issues today, you can’t beat it.

2 Replies to “Looking Backward”

  1. You provide me with hyperlinks that are so valuable, and how do I repay you? With long memos. “The Evolving Federal Role in Education” discussion asked three great questions:

    1. Can federal legislation move towards “incentives” rather than trying to “leverage” change?
    2. How do we get out of our “silos” and address education within the context of comprehensively providing services?
    3. How do we pay for it?

    Before offering my suggestions, I would like to raise a “thought experiment.” Even when NCLB was adopted, its accountability provisions were widely seen as “a work in progress” and more faith was placed in the power of the antiseptic power of daylight. What if we had trusted in the power of transparency, using testing as simply a diagnostic tool? We could have then used the bipartisan pulpit to fight against the tricks which states adopted to manipulate data. In retrospect, we see that openness would have provided the same “kick in the pants” without, as Jack Jennings commented, alienating the foot soldiers. At minimum, the incentives for misrepresenting data would have been decreased. We the foot soldiers were the ones who knew how data was be manipulated, and in a less punitive environment we would have been invaluable allies in data driven decision-making. Given your characterization of the “monstrosity” of spring testing (if I heard you right on my old computer), I would think you we be open to a comparable approach to NCLB II accountability – if the politics were right.

    Acknowledging that I do not have a fraction of your knowledge the concrete realities of vote-counting, here are my recommendations for NCLB II:

    1. A Marshall Plan for recruiting and training teachers, especially for high poverty schools. The model could be the recommendations of governors James Hunt and Thomas Kean in their Education Week Commentary “A New National Strategy for Improving Teaching in High-Need Schools.” As was explained by the AEI conference “Turning Around the Nation’s Worst Schools,” even the school systems with the most flexibility on teachers contracts are stymied by the lack of teaching talent.

    State-of-the-art accountability, as described in the research of the Education Sector and others, would be implemented.

    2. A Marshall Plan for recruiting and training principals. The same logic and accountability would be applied.

    3. Pre-K and early childhood education. This is the investment that produces the “most bang for the buck,” but it is threatened by budgetary considerations.

    Accountability was the fifth ingredient cited by Lawrence Schweinhart for creating the best pre- kindergarten, and he provides a solid model. (Bill Clinton spoke glowingly of the accountability provisions of the Harlem Children’s Zone, and even though I have no precise knowledge of what it entails, I trust Clinton’s sense of the politics of the issue.)

    4. Graduation and dropout recovery programs. This would be similar in the logic and scope of what Achieve which seeks for preK-16 efforts for college-bound students.
    Accountability would be a hybrid, including both measurements of “outputs” and the systems used by health and social work in evaluating their efforts.

    5. The Turnaround Process. Mass Insight and the CEP have already done masterful work on this area.

    6. Testing. In return for dropping sanctions, states would be required to adopt common definitions of graduation rate, dropout rate, highly mobile population, attendance and absenteeism, and the other areas which your organization have shown NCLB to be problematic. Incentives would be provided for multiple measures, growth models, improved testing, and the infrastructure for the formative testing that you described. (I just reviewed the research on your web site, and I see the Education Sector’s studies as a metaphor. They chronicle the flaws in today’s testing and describe the potential in a variety of multiple measures systems for evaluating students, educators, and programs. None of those systems show the potential to become a national test of all students, but they are associated with valuable efforts that should be expanded.. Why not shift the battleground from over-arching single measure data, which has already been “branded,” to the great potential of rifle-shot accountability where humans integrate the qualitative and the quantitative?)

    7. Research. Your organization has already done masterful work on this.

    Budgetary considerations might require more modest investments in recommendations #4 and #5, and the other hand, they need to be funded in the context of other budgetary areas.

    I hope this unsolicited advice has not been too presumptuous, and neither will be the following critiques.

    Katie Haycock said that they tried to “hitch” Standards onto Equity, and then answered the question of what would that take to do that by saying, “darned if I know.” Also to her credit, was the acknowledgment that addressing federal inequity in funding should be “the easy version” of the challenge. (As I have often argued, the problems in the schools are just as complex as the politics dilemmas that you face, and she seems to be admitting that they are more intractable.)

    The “Freaknomics” discussion in The New York Times provides a good explanation of why her “hopes were bigger than reality.” As Caroline Hoxby noted, it would have required many more hours per day and a significantly longer school year, as well as better instructional use of that time. The Turnaround Challenge concludes that instruction-driven approaches are inadequate for the complex ecosystems of the highest poverty schools. Studies from the Fordham Institute, John Hopkins, Yale, Harvard, and the CEP explain why high poverty schools must build relationships and that is a people process. You cited Reed Hastings who said it best, “we have a much of a shortage of places where good teachers want to work as we do a shortage of good teachers.”

    I come from a state which consistently earns Quality Counts grades of B+ and A- for its Standards, but grades of D- and F for student performance. I can read our state’s high school Math standards, but being a historian I do not really understand them. The same applies to most of my colleagues but in their own areas; they can decode our Social Studies Standards, but not really comprehend them. If we want high school teachers who understand concepts such as federalism, judicial review, colonialism, liberalism, and conservatism, then we need major changes in the way we recruit and retain teachers. (I am not criticizing; many are fine teachers and a knowledge of Standards was not contemplated until very recently.) We must recruit “career changers,” and address school climate. That, of course, will be impossible if we do not learn from the United Federation of Teachers 360 degrees evaluation proposal and hold administrators create accountability for “safe and orderly schools.”

    Your appraisal of Standards struck me as far more realistic than Haycock’s when you characterized the attitudes of teachers as, “since these damned tests aren’t going way, give me a curriculum.” I would like to quibble with your following comment, however. I agree that every student should have access to at least one Reading and Math class per year that incorporates formative assessments and continuous improvements so that spring testing is not such a big deal. That in itself would be a huge challenge taking huge amounts of money, human capital, and a generation of trial and error. If mishandled, however, such a system would be a nightmare. If schools invest in technology and testing, without investing comparably in people, then we will just have a more expensive version of today’s test prep mania. “To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” so poorer districts will always be tempted to deprofessionalize teaching and condemn poor kids to primitive rote instruction.

    Perhaps, the main difference between our perspectives is this. In order to make the sausage of educational policy, you need to be realistic but you can not dwell on every possible negative outcome. Given my experience, I have to see unintended consequences as a norm. My hope is that a society that invests the resources necessary to create a corp of teachers, will then demand that they be allowed to teach. I see that as the real lesson of charter schools, small schools, pilot schools, and other magnets. Once a real commitment has been made, political willpower is generated to address the conditions (chronic disorder, scripted instruction, ineffective educators, etc.) that wreck neighborhood schools.

    Had “Accountability” not existed, progressives would have needed to create it in order to leverage change. Any accountability system, however, has to struggle with the dynamic of “garbage in, garbage out.” Reducing incentives for accounting tricks, however, has a second benefit. Accurate data encourages collaboration and facilitates the comprehensive strategies we need for addressing our toughest challenges.

    Education is an affair of “the Heart,” as well as “the Head,” and I suspect we will always strike a different balance between the two. For instance, I see Standards as a good idea, but not as a locomotive of educational transformation. But the good news is this. The steps we need to implement our differing visions are nearly identical. We need to build capacity in teaching, in principal leadership, in early childhood, in our ability to turnaround our toughest schools, and recapture our most challenged students, in data-driven decision-making, and in use of evidence. If we make those investments, and twenty years later we see that your vision was better, I will gladly acknowledge it. If a generation later we conclude that my vision was better, I would like for you to buy me a beer.

    Thank you.

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