ESEA begins another year’s journey

Experts are predicting (also here) that the No Child Left Behind Act will not be revised in 2012. Meanwhile, Republican House education committee leaders are planning to change strategy and write a more comprehensive ESEA bill, dropping their efforts to come to agreement with Democrats on a set of issue-specific pieces and preparing a larger bill like the one passed out of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee last October.

The House committee has already passed individual bills on expanding charter schools, program consolidation, and funding flexibility. Only their charter school bill passed the full House. The Senate HELP committee bill has not moved to the full Senate.

The House ed committee is apparently now working on “accountability” (read testing) and “teacher quality” (read more testing) provisions to combine with the three bills already passed in the committee. While a final decision may not be near, this is the time when legislative language is being written. Once written, it becomes more difficult to change. That means that we should continue to contact our legislators to inform them of our concerns and ideas for the future of our children’s education. Parents Across America has a comprehensive position statement here.

Here’s a new comment on ESEA from FairTest’s Monty Neill (advertisement – don’t miss Monty here in Chicago Feb 15th!) 

Monty Neill on ESEA reauthorization posted today on National Journal education blog

The key question is, What’s the content?

The most pressing issue is not whether a NCLB reauthorization bill is partisan or not, but whether it helps improve teaching and learning.

NCLB has seriously damaged U.S. educational quality and equity. FairTest explains why in our just-released report, NCLB’s Lost Decade for Educational Progress: What Can We Learn from this Policy Failure? The combination of high-stakes testing overuse and unsound sanctions has undermined good schools, hindered and misdirected reform efforts in weaker ones, and perpetuated the dangerous illusion that schools alone can solve the problems of poverty and segregation.

Secretary Duncan’s waiver scheme does remove the boot of “adequate yearly progress” (AYP) from the necks of schools in states that accept the bad deal of judging teachers “in significant part” on the basis of student test scores. Despite rhetoric from President Obama and his education secretary about the low quality of standardized exams and the harm of teaching to them, they are intensifying the pressure on school people to narrow the curriculum and teach to the tests.

The Senate HELP bill likewise scuttles AYP. It at least limits the requirement to judge teachers by student test scores only to states that choose to use some ESEA discretionary funds to construct a teacher evaluation system. It also takes a more reasonable approach to school improvement in calling for a tailored plan based on a review of the particular school. Unfortunately, it undermines this sensible approach (strongly recommended by the Forum on Educational Accountability, FEA) by also insisting that districts pick from a menu of rigid options that closely resemble NCLB’s sanctions.

So what should the House do, hopefully as bipartisan legislation but even if Republican only? It should also drop AYP. It should not require any state to use student test scores to judge educators. And it should entirely scrap any remnants of the misguided NCLB sanctions structure.

But it should go well beyond these steps and follow the recommendations outlined in FairTest’s report (which in turn overlap with both FEA and the Broader, Bolder Approach). These include:

–          Reduce the amount of mandated testing to once each in elementary, middle and high school. No other advanced nation tests more than this. For example, top-performing Finland does not test at all for school evaluation. Over-testing in the U.S. has simply produced state test score inflation, not real gains in learning, as demonstrated by stagnant NAEP scores for almost all groups.

–          Provide serious support to enable states to work with districts to construct assessment systems rooted in ongoing student schoolwork. There are ways to do this that are unobtrusive, avoid teaching to the test and narrowing the curriculum, produce adequately reliable and strongly valid evidence of student learning, and support strengthening the capacity of the teaching force.

–          Provide serious support to states willing to build a school quality review system.

Taken together, these systems of assessment and evaluation can produce rich information to use in school improvement, as I’ve explained in an Education Week Commentary. By building on the school improvement ideas in the Senate HELP bill but jettisoning the continuing link to NCLB sanctions, the rich evidence of student learning and school strengths and weaknesses can be used to foster systemic school reform.

To succeed, these reforms will require additional funds for schools serving our most impoverished children. Even then, Congress should not perpetuate the falsehood that schools can overcome the consequences of poverty. Solving that vast problem goes well beyond an education bill, though ensuring high quality pre-school and wrap-around services are steps that Congress can take in reauthorizing ESEA.

 

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About the PURE Thoughts blogger
Julie Woestehoff is PURE's executive director. Julie's work has earned her a Ford Foundation award and recognition as one of the 100 Most Powerful Women in Chicago.