• The New York Times pulled off a coup with its recent profile of Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy charter network. Students at the astonishingly high-performing schools have routinely achieved fantastic scores on state tests—a feat made all the more impressive by the fact that most come from low-income black and Latino families. So what’s their secret? Emphasizing a stringent focus on test preparation, the piece gives plenty of ammunition both to the schools’ boosters and their critics. On the one hand, most readers will wince at accounts of students wetting themselves during practice tests rather than sacrificing time to go the lavatory. On the other, vast demand for admission—this year, more than 22,000 applications were filed for fewer than 3,000 seats—speaks for itself.
  • Of course, Moskowitz is never one to shy away from controversy—or a fight. In an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, she goes after a new behavioral code for New York City schools instituted by her current nemesis, Mayor Bill de Blasio. Skewering the novel use of so-called “restorative circles,” she touts those huge Success Academy application numbers (undiminished by the network’s reputation for stringent discipline). Moskowitz is right that persistently disruptive behavior is antithetical
  • ...

This new study by the Center for American Progress (CAP) examines the ESEA comparability requirement, which mandates that school districts provide “comparable” educational services in both high- and low-poverty schools as a condition of receiving Title I dollars. CAP’s concern is that, although this requirement is intended to level the playing field for schools, it actually allows districts to use teacher-to-student ratios or average teacher salaries as a proxy for comparable services, instead of using actual teacher salary expenditures. And because poor schools typically have newer teachers who tend to struggle their first few years and cost less to employ, these schools are getting both less qualified teachers and less money than more advantaged ones.

The analysts examine Office of Civil Rights district spending data for the 2011–12 school year from roughly ninety-five thousand public schools. Adjusting for cost-of-living differences across districts, they compare how districts fund schools that are eligible to receive federal Title I dollars with other schools in their grade span and find “vast disparities” in the allocation of state and local dollars.

Here are the three key findings: one, due to the “loophole” in federal law, more than 4.5 million low-income students...

A few weeks ago, I used a graphic to show the four dimensions of federal accountability, each of which has a range of options. I then used this graphic to show the consensus for preserving NCLB testing.

Here I used it to show how eleven major ESEA reauthorization proposals address the other dimensions (remember, minimum federal accountability is on the left; maximum on the right). The total picture is as confusing as subway map.

But when broken down, the graphic reveals three distinct approaches, one of which offers the best chance at reauthorization.

Federal Prescription

Several proposals that appeared in the testing-alone graphic do not appear here because they didn’t take clear positions on the dimensions beyond testing. Of those remaining, four embrace what I call Federal Prescription. Their underlying logic is: If we want states, districts, and schools to get better results, the feds must tell them what to do.

NCLB is current law and represents the most expansive federal role on the table. It mandates and specifies performance targets (100 percent proficiency, Adequate Yearly Progress, etc.); creates mandatory, specified performance categories (“in need of...

The Club for Growth is right about a bunch of issues, but they’re wrong about the pending House bill to replace No Child Left Behind with something far better. H.R. 5 (the “Student Success Act”), slated for floor action a few days hence, would, if enacted, be the most conservative federal education move in a quarter century. It has the potential to undo nearly all of the mischievous, dysfunctional, intrusive, big-government features of NCLB and return most education responsibility and authority to states, just as the Tenth Amendment prescribes. Which is, of course, precisely why the bill has come under sustained attack from the left! If right and left team up to kill it, we’ll be left with No Child Left Behind circa 2002, as modified (and made even more mischievous) by the Education Department’s unilateral “waivers.” 

Moreover, states have always had the option—urged yesterday by the Club for Growth as if it were a fresh idea—to “opt completely out of the program.” Any state willing to forego its share of federal education dollars is free to do so—and to exempt itself from all the rules and constraints that accompany those dollars.

States have flirted with this...

For the first time since No Child Left Behind became law in 2002, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) stands a real chance to be reauthorized by Congress. It’s been at least seven years since it was supposed to be re-upped, and it’s overdue for some changes.

Most encouragingly, the Republican bills introduced to date seem to be designed to strike a balance between promoting parental, local, and state empowerment while also being pragmatic enough to stand a chance of becoming law. They’re still far from the finish line and could be made even stronger in the process. That said, they are a worthy effort and have the potential to improve the federal role in education policy dramatically.

Two chambers, two proposals

House education committee Chairman John Kline’s job is easier because his Student Success Act (SSA) passed out of the full House once before (in July 2013, on a party-line vote), and he can’t be blocked by a Democratic filibuster. He’s already marked up the SSA and plans to send it to the floor and pass it out of the House again in short order.

Senator Alexander, on the other hand, must cobble together a sixty-vote majority if...

A couple weeks ago, I created a graphic to help explain the contours of the debate about federal accountability in the ESEA reauthorization process. My immediate purpose was to show that the blanket term “accountability” actually includes four dimensions, each of which includes a range of possible policies. I organized each of the four along a continuum, with “minimum” and “maximum” federal accountability representing the two ends.

The ultimate purpose of the graphic was to serve as a tool for assessing various proposals and, hopefully, revealing where a final compromise might be found.

Since then, I’ve read all the major proposals, speeches, press releases, and news accounts I could find. In this post, I focus only on what I’ve learned about testing.

I’ve plotted on the continuum the highest-profile proposals. Bear in mind that this is not an exact science. Apart from the congressional bills, the proposals are somewhat vague, and trying to turn words into images involves some artistic license. These caveats notwithstanding, three major lessons were revealed.

1. Emerging Consensus

In the middle-right, you’ll see a group of proposals with...

The biography of teacher evaluation’s time in federal policy might be titled Portentous, Polarizing, and Passing. It had gigantic ripple effects in the states—man, did it cause fights—and, with its all-but-certain termination via ESEA reauthorization, it stayed with us ever so briefly.

Some advocates are demoralized, worried that progress will at best stall and at worst be rolled back. Though I’m a little down that we’re unlikely to see many more states reform educator evaluation systems in the years ahead, I think the feds’ exit makes sense.

This has nothing to do with my general antipathy for this administration or my belief that its Department of Education deserves to have its meddling hands rapped. And while I think Tenth Amendment challenges are justified, I have a different primary motivation.

In short, I think the work of teaching is so extraordinarily complex and teachers are so tightly woven into the fabric of school communities that any attempt by faraway federal officials to tinker with evaluation systems is a fool’s errand. I think we may eventually come to view the Race-to-the-Top and ESEA-flexibility requirements related to assessing teachers as the apotheosis of federal K–12 technocracy.

If you’ve never dug into the details of...

Recent days have brought several thoughtful commentaries on results-based accountability in K-12 education, why it’s important, what it’s accomplished and why it needs to continue.

Such attention is exceptionally timely, as the negotiations presently underway between Senators Lamar Alexander and Patty Murray in pursuit of a bipartisan formula for reauthorizing No Child Left Behind will inevitably devote much attention to the issues surrounding school (and teacher) accountability.

Like Mike Petrilli, I’m convinced that this can no longer be managed from Washington. Like Mike, I’m also convinced that accountability for results in K–12 education must continue. Losing it would carry us back to the pre-Coleman era when schools were judged not by their results but by their inputs, promises, and services, and teachers were evaluated by brief classroom visits from supervisors who arrived with no data, no rubrics—and no ability to do anything about problematic instructors. (Alas, that last shortage remains the norm, as does the practice of finding just about every teacher satisfactory, if not outstanding.)

The only thing that really matters about a school (or teacher)—beyond such basics as children’s safety—is whether kids are learning there. If they’re not, something must be done to change the situation....

It’s fascinating—and telling—how rapidly the zillion issues tucked away in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act have been distilled down to arguments about testing.

There’s been almost no discussion, at least in places where I look, about Titles II through X of the 2002 (NCLB) version, and most of Title I’s myriad provisions seem also to have been set aside while people argue over the future of annual testing.

The new House bill would retain that requirement, and Senate Education Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander, though declaring himself open-minded on the subject, seems to be moving closer toward keeping it.

Testing is of course controversial in its own right. Many people think there’s too much of it and that it’s getting in the way of teaching and learning. I’ve come to view annual testing of kids in reading and math, and the disaggregating and public reporting of their performance at the school (and district) level, as the single best feature of NCLB and the one that most needs preserving. Indeed, I wish the testing requirement extended below third grade and above eighth, and that it was as demanding for science and history as for reading...

Over the last couple of months, the ESEA reauthorization discussion has focused on testing. But that’s just one part of the accountability conversation.

As I see it, there are four major components of the federal accountability framework: testing, school and district designations, performance targets, and interventions (more on these below). Whether ESEA is reauthorized this year depends on how these sub-issues get resolved.

Mike, trying to forecast the shape of a final bill, recently created a very helpful table explaining the NCLB policies that he assessed to be totally off the table, certain to survive, or up for debate. I think his table did a solid job of explaining the lay of the land.

But it seems to me that more is needed to help folks with a higher level of involvement, such as those actually crafting the new legislative language, advising members of Congress, hoping to persuade decision-makers from the outside, or trying to understand the inevitable bargains to be made.

I think the shortcoming of Mike’s table is that its entries (like “cascade of sanctions” and “school ratings”) aren’t binary; that is, they can’t be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” Policymaking in general, especially complex...