And Now For Something Differentiated

Nancy Connor from Denver Public Schools turns in an interesting essay on No Child Left Behind’s “adequate yearly progress” rules over at the TitleIderland blog.  She makes some good points and is well worth reading but this doozy is worth looking at in more detail:

Take AYP, for example. It has several well-recognized problems. It looks at only one measure of achievement, has impossible expectations, doesn’t give schools credit for how far they have come, and then, worst of all, does not differentiate between broad and limited failure when dishing out consequences. Clearly, AYP was not as-well-thought out as it should have been, even if most people thought that reauthorization would have fixed its problems before they got out of hand.

She’s right that AYP does only look at one measure of achievement although it’s debatable in a how many measures you want in an accountability system like this and how much you want to use other mechanisms such as parental choice.

But the law clearly does give schools credit for progress.  The original law included a growth model (known as “safe harbor) that gave schools credit for improving student performance even if they missed targets.  That provision was subsequently expanded through waivers by Secretary of Education Spellings to allow states to use even broader “growth” models.  The problem is that in some places the achievement of some groups of students is so low that even with these generous allowances schools still fail to reach the targets.  There is now a raging debate about whether the response there is even more generous allowances for some progress, focusing only on the very bottom 5 percent of schools, or saying enough is enough and intervening and if so, how?

Whether NCLB has impossible expectations is a judgement call.  2014 wasn’t really the deadline, it’s more like 2017 because of how the law actually works.  And only about 92 percent of kids in a school are expected to pass the tests and passing is based on state determined passing scores (pdf) – or cut scores in the jargon – on state tests.  Those often are not very demanding.   So, back in 2001, was expecting schools to prepare about 9 in 10 kids to pass not especially demanding tests 16 years in the future a ridiculous national goal?  That’s up to you.  And Connor is certainly right that people figured the law would be fixed by 2007 or 2008, which is one reason the law’s goals worked the way they did. For a variety of reasons that hasn’t happened.

But her “worst of all point” is, well, perhaps worst of all. It’s a serious misunderstanding of what the law requires.  Section 1116 of the law lays out the consequences for schools that do not meet AYP goals.  After two years schools must develop an improvement plan and offer students public school choice.  After three years they must offering free-tutoring (in the through-the-looking glass world of education policy free tutoring for kids is considered a “sanction” by the way).  And in years 4, 5, and subsequently they must take corrective steps.

The provisions in years one and two don’t differentiate.   All schools in those categories are supposed to implement them.  That hasn’t worked well and today because of waivers, non-enforcement, and evasion those provisions are largely meaningless.  And there has been too little regulation of the tutoring industry in most states so the quality ranges from quite good to unacceptably lousy with almost no oversight for outcomes.

However the more serious consequences clearly allow for differentiation.  Here’s the most draconian stuff that could come into play after 7 years of not meeting performance targets:

‘(i) Reopening the school as a public charter school.

‘‘(ii) Replacing all or most of the school staff (which may include the principal) who are relevant to the failure to make adequate yearly progress.

‘‘(iii) Entering into a contract with an entity, suchas a private management company, with a demonstrated record of effectiveness, to operate the public school.

‘‘(iv) Turning the operation of the school over to the State educational agency, if permitted under State law and agreed to by the State.

‘‘(v) Any other major restructuring of the school’s governance arrangement that makes fundamental reforms, such as significant changes in the school’s staffing and governance, to improve student academic achievement in the school and that has substantial promise of enabling the school to make adequate yearly progress as defined in the State plan under section

(Bold added because one of the most common misconceptions is that the law requires everyone in a school to be fired)

You can do a lot under that, especially the last one, if you’re serious about changing things and not just evading responsibility. What’s more, when Secretary Spellings gave the states the ability to apply for waivers to do even more differentiated things do you know what happened?  About nothing.  The plans the states submitted were uncreative and basically status quo in terms of the current law.

So two takeaways.  First, Secretary Duncan recently told me in an interview that there was confusion about the amount of flexibility the law offered among some state officials.  He’s right about that and it’s not a new issue.  The Clinton-era “Ed Flex” initiative showcased this – more than 40 percent of the waiver requests were for things that were already allowable under the law.  The perception of a regulatory straightjacket outpaces the reality.

Second, when it comes to tackling these problems we have a serious failure of creativity, imagination, and of course political will.  That’s not this law’s fault and it’s not going to be solved by any future law. Rather it’s cultural, deep-rooted, and demands real leadership from within the field.

3 Replies to “And Now For Something Differentiated”

  1. Amen, Andy. You’ve said it perfectly.

    The real issue is: why don’t smart folks see the facts as they are, and why aren’t we debating the crucial, underlying issues you raise?

    The Obama folks are doing the “dance” on NCLB. Their opponents are doing the “dance” on RTTT and their new waiver strategies.

    Whatever fun there is in this dancing, it’s no damn good for poor kids.

  2. Spot-on, Andy, and your last paragraph says it all. The one thing I would add: states are free to add multiple, statewide measures of achievement, if they choose. None have.

    As to your question, Sandy, “Why don’t smart folks see the facts as they are?” Religion and ideological fervor tend to blind people to objective evidence, have for centuries. And, as the evidence pours in, things usually get worse before they get better. On my “3 people, living or dead, I’d like to have dinner with” list, I always put Galileo.

  3. Safe Harbor must not be equal everywhere in how it is used. In Nebraska, the rules are quite restrictive and are not the savior for those showing growth that they once did. Early in the NCLB process, a school could show growth and not be hit with failing status. Now if a subgroup misses a target, say special education students or ELL, there must be a min of 30 students in that same subgroup passing a second requirement in the assessment process to use safe harbor. So, if ELL kids fail reading and the 4th graders (state writing exam is elementary and middle school mark, grad rate in high school) in the school do not have enough ELL students to count as a subgroup in and of themselves, then you cannot use Safe Harbor. Not many elementary schools have 30 student subgroups in fourth grade alone. Not exactly an easy loophole to drive through. Confidence interval is much more widely used to make AYP.

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