NCLB

The eyes of the nation are fixed on a tournament of champions this week. Snacks have been prepared, eager spectators huddle around their screen of preference, and social media is primed to blow up. Veteran commentators have gathered at the scene to observe and pontificate. For the competitors, the event represents the culmination of months of dedicated effort, and sometimes entire careers; everything they’ve worked for, both at the college and professional level, has led up to this moment. The national scrutiny can be as daunting for grizzled journeymen as it is for fresh-faced greenhorns. You know what I’m talking about:

The Fordham Institute’s ESSA Accountability Design Competition.

Okay, you probably know what I’m talking about. If you inhabit the world of education policy, you took notice of Fordham’s January call for accountability system frameworks that would comply with the newly passed Every Student Succeeds Act—and take advantage of the new authority the law grants to states. With the federal influence on local classrooms scaled back so suddenly, it will be up to education agencies in Wisconsin and Mississippi and Alaska to adopt their own methods of setting the agenda for schools and rating their performance in adhering to it.

The purpose of...

On Tuesday afternoon, we at the Fordham Institute will host a competition to present compelling designs for state accountability systems under the Every Student Succeeds Act. (Event details here.) The process has already achieved its objective, with more than two dozen teams submitting proposals that are chock-full of suggestions for states and commonsense recommendations for the U.S. Department of Education. They came from all quarters, including academics (such as Ron FergusonMorgan Polikoff, and Sherman Dorn); educators (including the Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellows); policy wonks from D.C. think tanks (including the Center for American ProgressAmerican Enterprise Institute, and Bellwether Education Partners); and even a group of Kentucky high school students. Selecting just ten to spotlight in Tuesday’s live event was incredibly difficult.

I’ve pulled out some of the best nuggets from across the twenty-six submissions.

Indicators of Academic Achievement

ESSA requires state accountability systems to include an indicator of academic achievement “as measured by proficiency on the annual assessments.” 

Yet not a single one of our proposals suggests using simple proficiency rates as an indicator here. That’s because everyone is aware of NCLB’s unintended consequence: encouraging schools to pay attention only to the “bubble kids” whose performance is close to the...

  • Career and technical education is one of the best weapons in the reformer’s arsenal. It’s a proven gateway to post-secondary credentials and skilled jobs, which can’t be taken for granted when so many of our high school graduates find themselves unprepared for college and career. The Gadfly was apoplectic when Arizona Governor Doug Ducey green-lit $30 million in cuts to the state’s CTE programs last year, reducing their funding by nearly 50 percent. These classes obviously benefit the ninety thousand students they serve annually, but they’re also a boon to the local and regional economies, which profit immensely from a domestic source of coveted technicians and tradesmen. It’s great news for all, therefore, that veto-proof majorities in both houses of Arizona’s state legislature are ready to pass legislation repealing the cuts. If ever there was a case of government electing to be pennywise and pound-foolish, it was this.
  • Republicans and teachers’ unions have always been like peas in a pod. We’re not sure where the love affair started, but it was probably when they spent all those decades impugning and seeking to destroy one another. Okay, kidding aside, we’re all aware of the historic tensions existing between unionized teachers and the
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  • The ink is dry on the bill, the interest groups are mollified, and the lobbyists have made the first payments on their tastefully appointed condominiums. Now that the Every Student Achieves Act has become the law of the land, it’s time to examine its implications for our federal education bureaucracy. Ace Fordham policy fellow Andy Smarick has identified the shrinking classroom influence of Uncle Sam as the top media takeaway from ESSA’s passage, and there’s no denying that Congress acted decisively to roll back the Department of Education’s Obama-era authority. But just how much has the agency—and John King, who will act as its leader regardless of whether he ever gets a confirmation hearing—seen its prerogatives narrowed? This recap from Education Week offers a good primer, consulting aides from both parties along with education superlawyer Reg Leichty. Shockingly, the sources don’t agree on whether future secretaries of education will be “handcuffed” in their dealings with state accountability schemes. But as Leichty happily observes, those differences in opinion will likely be resolved in the courts.
  • Now that it’s the second week of January, you’ve probably received your W-2 tax form. And as the old saying goes, there are
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Officials at the Department of Education have requested public comments by January 21 about areas in the new Every Student Succeeds Act where regulation might be “helpful or necessary.” My recommendation to the feds: Tread very lightly.

That’s not an ideological plea (though I am ideologically disposed to a limited federal role). It’s because there’s no one best system for school accountability, and there never will be. Uncle Sam has to be damn sure not to smother good ideas that the states might develop, now or in the future.

That’s not to say that anything goes. ESSA established “guardrails,” in D.C. parlance, to ensure that states don’t eviscerate results-based accountability. They cannot decide to judge schools by nothing but student engagement, or teacher happiness, or the number of hugs a kid receives each day.

But Congress did give the green light to the states to come up with new approaches to rating school quality. It’s critical that John King and his colleagues don’t put on the red light before the process even begins.

Let me offer a few examples of novel approaches that deserve to be permissible, and even embraced, under the law—but that the micromanagers at...

I re-read about fifty major articles, blog posts, and other missives about ESSA over the break, since this written record will serve as the foundation for years of commentary and analysis. Below are the five major themes that jumped out (along with gobs of the supporting links).

1. The diminished role of Uncle Sam in schools

The biggest ESSA takeaway is the dramatically reduced role for the federal government. The New York Times called it a “sweeping bill” that ends Washington’s “aggressive polic(ing) of public school performance.” Politics K-12 explained that it represents an about-face after a quarter century of increasing federal authority. Politico wrote of NCLB’s being “killed.”

Hess and English wrote that “conservatives scored a smashing educational triumph.” David Kirp wrote that in the “first time since the Reagan years, the balance of power (shifts) away from Washington and back to the states.” Longtime congressional aide Jack Jennings noted, "The federal government overstepped its bounds, and it got a smackdown from Congress."

(For more details, see Mike Petrilli’s chart and Politics K–12’s cheat sheet.)

2. A major loss for Arne Duncan?

There’s broad agreement—with two exceptions noted below—that ESSA dealt a blow to Arne Duncan’s legacy. Observers quickly saw that...

As everyone knows, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)—the long-overdue reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—was approved by overwhelming bipartisan majorities in the House and Senate and signed into law by the president in December. The law grants much greater authority to the states over the design of their school accountability systems, especially in contrast to No Child Left Behind.

States now enjoy the opportunity—and face the challenge—of creating school rating systems that can vastly improve upon the model required by NCLB. To help spur creative thinking about how they might do so—and also to inform the Department of Education as it develops its ESSA regulations—the Fordham Institute hereby declares an “accountability design competition.” (We are focused on school ratings, not the interventions that may result from them.) Participants will be tasked with suggesting specific indicators for states to use in grading schools, along with working through the various decisions that states will struggle with as they determine how to calculate ratings. Judges will evaluate the recommendations, and all of us will get to watch and weigh in online.

By January 26, participants will submit their proposals with the following elements included. To keep things from getting too complex,...

As 2015 was coming to a close, I compiled a list of my fifty favorite reads of the year. You can find them all here.

Though most are article- or report-length, the subjects are all over the map. In total, they offer a glimpse of the big happenings of 2015 and—though this wasn’t my initial intention—show where my mind was during this eventful year. Here’s a smattering.

The end of the year was dominated by ESSA. The New York Times captured the historical importance of the new law. Rick Hess explained why it was a major conservative victory, and Politics K–12 detailed how it undermined Arne Duncan’s legacyChad Aldeman and Conor Williams wrote separately about why the Left should be unhappy. (I’ll have a follow-up piece shortly focused exclusively on ESSA reporting and analysis.)

But 2015 also had lots of great non-ESSA edu-writing. Marty West penned a smart piece on Uncle Sam’s role in innovation, and Joanne Weiss looked back on Race to the Top. Sara Mead explained early-childhood education in New Orleans, Kathleen Porter-Magee wrote about the Catholic-school reawakening, and The Economist reported on the heartening story of private-schools outside of the US serving low-income kids.

There were...

  • There’s a reason we don’t bounce our grandkids on our knees and delight them with stories of how Congress muscled through the Deficit Reduction Act of 1984. As the saying goes, there’s nothing pretty about the way the sausage gets made. But for those who were begging for a new federal education law, Politico’s postmortem on the passage of the Every Student Succeed Act provides an inside look at a splendid, savory knackwurst of statutory goodness. In the year following the 2014 Republican midterm landslides, draft legislation had to overcome anti-testing fervor from teachers’ unions, the remnants of the anti-Common Core crusade, and the sudden resignation of House Speaker John Boehner. Between clearing these obstacles and stitching together the perennial philosophical differences of Left and Right, the ESSA used up seven or eight of its nine lives. Thankfully, it’s now a matter of settled law.
  • Speaking of the backlash against high academic standards: Reporting out of Colorado suggests that we might need to think differently about the opt-out movement and its adherents. Though the bulk of the students who absented themselves from the state’s PARCC test were indeed residents of wealthier, high-performing districts—you know, where the
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Like many, I’m convinced that what happens inside the classroom—curriculum and instruction—has as much of an impact (if not more) on student outcomes than structural reforms. For those who believe as I do, the revamped Elementary and Secondary Education Act has the potential to help states figure out how to hold schools accountable for student learning and what, if anything, to do about teacher evaluations. Let me throw out a few ideas.

“If you want more of something, subsidize it,” Ronald Reagan famously quipped. “If you want less of something, tax it.” During the No Child Left Behind era, test-driven accountability has too often stood Reagan’s maxim on its ear. Annual reading tests have practically required schools and teachers to forsake the patient, long-term investment in knowledge and vocabulary that builds strong readers, critical thinkers, and problem solvers. High-stakes accountability with annual tests that are not tied to course content (which reading tests are not) amounted to a tax on good things and a subsidy for bad practice: curriculum narrowing, test preparation, and more time spent on a “skills and strategies” approach to learning that doesn’t serve children well. Under the new ESEA, states will still have to test students...

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