Quick, everybody to cover! Education Secretary Arne Duncan told Congress today that 82 percent of schools would not make “adequate yearly progress” this year if the federal No Child Law isn’t reauthorized. Scary! Somebody do something!
Couple of thoughts on this claim. First, it’s not the first time we’ve heard big numbers tossed around and they generally don’t come to pass for a few reasons: It’s hard to actually model this because there are a lot of variables in play every year and the law has a lot of loopholes that mitigate against this, in particular the “safe harbor” growth model rules. In addition, there are current and pending waiver requests that will lower the numbers. So caveat lector on Duncan’s statement. Or perhaps more to the point caveat reporter. Michele McNeill isn’t fooled, by the way.
Second, I’m not sure this is the strategy that will get Congress to move on No Child Left Behind. The politics around No Child reauthorization right now are not especially substantive. Rather, Republicans know the Administration really wants a bill and they’re forcing a leverage play to see how much they can squeeze out of Democrats to get the law done. Yes, I know, it’s all about the kids. Down the road there will be policy debates but right now it’s big picture politics driving things more than the issues.*
Because of that it’s worth discussing the downside of this gambit. Right now states are in the process of adopting new standards that are more ambitious than the ones in use today and in a few years will hopefully adopt new assessments based on them. There is going to be a gut-check moment when that happens because there is a disconnect between the rhetoric about too many schools not making “adequate yearly progress” and the reality of outcomes from our schools today. 82 percent of American schools are not failing of course. But given the enormous gaps in achievement, high dropout rates, etc…the numbers will still be daunting (and it’s worth remembering that all those kids do go to school somewhere and it’s not just in our big cities). We have a bigger quality problem than we do a measurement problem.
So, what Duncan needs to be doing is laying the groundwork so when those new standards are adopted people understand what’s happening and are not shocked by some bad news. Today’s gambit is media friendly but arguably confuses the issues even more rather than clarifying them and consequently works at cross purposes with the bigger strategy here.
*In fairness while I don’t think this strategy will move the Republicans I also can’t really think of one short of total capitulation that would.