NCLB

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...

2009 it ain’t.

Back in those heady days, the new president, fresh off a comfortable electoral victory and with congressional majorities as far as the eye could see, had the power to drive the agenda. Though Capitol Hill’s budget process was broken, with the electorate behind him and congressional allies to spare, President Obama’s budget submission had to be taken seriously.

Today, the president possesses platinum-level lame-duck status. He’s in the homestretch of his tenure, his approval rating hasn’t hit 50 percent in nearly two years, and Republicans have significant congressional majorities.

It is through this lens that we should view the Obama administration’s FY2016 budget request, released yesterday. Given today’s political conditions, the education request is actually quite savvy. It retreats where necessary, digs in where possible, and has an eye on history. There are plenty of good summaries of the education request as a whole and descriptions of specific line items. But here’s how I’m seeing the ask:

Concessions

For six years, the Obama administration, breaking with generations of practice, gave every indication that it saw few limits to the role of the federal government in primary...

Congressional Republicans have promised to overhaul the No Child Left Behind act this year; the big debate so far has been whether to maintain the law’s annual testing requirements. At a hearing on the issue last week, Lamar Alexander, chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP), was clearly sympathetic to arguments by several witnesses that Congress should keep the testing mandate but dump the rules that prescribe how states must hold schools accountable for test results. As he summarized it for Time in an interview after the hearing, “You have to have the annual test. You have to disaggregate it. You have to report it, so we know how schools and children and school districts are doing. But after that, it’s up to the states, who spend the money and have the children and take care of them and it’s their responsibility to devise what’s success, what’s failure and [what the] consequences [should be].”

That Uncle Sam might back off of its demands that states intervene in failing schools has some reformers on the left on full alert. Chad Aldeman of Bellwether Education Partners—an alumnus of the Obama administration—considers it an abdication of...

Editor's note: This testimony was presented at a hearing of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions onFixing No Child Left Behind: Testing and Accountability on January, 21, 2015. It additionally appeared in a slightly different form at Education Next.

Chairman Alexander, Senator Murray, Members of the Committee:

Thank you for the opportunity to appear before you today. I would like to begin by congratulating the committee on putting the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act at the top of its legislative agenda for the 114th Congress. Nothing is more important to our nation’s future than ensuring that we provide all children with the opportunity to reach their full academic potential. Congress cannot do that on its own, but it can help by addressing the very real shortcomings of the most recent reauthorization, No Child Left Behind, and restoring the predictability with respect to federal policy that state and local officials need to carry out their work.

As you move forward with this important work, however, I would urge you not to lose sight of the positive aspects of No Child Left Behind. Above all, the law’s requirement that students be tested annually in...

Though hardly the only issue to be debated during the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education act, annual testing has taken center stage in discussions so far. Lamar Alexander, chairman of the Senate HELP committee, put forth a bill that leaves open the possibility of removing the federal requirement that states test students annually in reading and math from grades three through eight—a possibility that has thoroughly freaked out much of the education-reform community.

But as Alexander has explained, he is merely trying to respond to what he and every other member of Congress are hearing from their constituents: There’s too much damn testing in the schools.

But is that true? And if so, is it because of the federal requirements?

A new report from the Ohio Department of Education provides some timely answers, at least for one state. (A bellwether state, mind you.) State Superintendent Dick Ross charged his department with collecting information about the number of hours Buckeye State students spend preparing for and taking tests (not including tests developed by their own teachers). The findings are illuminating (most of this language is verbatim):

  • The average student spends approximately
  • ...

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