Today, the Senate HELP Committee is considering the bipartisan ESEA reauthorization bill crafted by Senators Alexander and Murray.

This legislation represents a very smart compromise on the key issue of accountability. What happens in committee, on the floor, and beyond is anyone’s guess. But the current language is, in my view, the best proposal we’ve seen for solving the problem that’s held up ESEA reauthorization for ages.

In February, I created a graphic showing how the various proposals on the table handled the various elements of accountability. The major plans followed one of three approaches. The middle path (between a beefed-up federal role and an emaciated one) was staked out by state-oriented groups including CCSSO, NGA, and NCSL. I called this “Accountability for Results.”

The Alexander-Murray bill is in this mold, though with a couple of notable adjustments.

Like many other plans, it keeps NCLB’s suite of tests. But it makes a very important, very interesting, and very compelling amendment to NCLB’s aspirational target of all students reaching proficiency in each grade by...

Everyone is right to laud the impressive work of Senate HELP Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander and ranking member Patty Murray in producing a strong bipartisan bill to update the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). But it has a significant flaw that needs mending before it becomes law, and it might be up to House Republicans to do the fixing.

The problem, in a nutshell, is that it puts enormous pressure on the states to set utopian goals. That, in turn, will result in most schools being declared failures (and/or create pressure for states to water down their standards), which is exactly what happened under NCLB.

At issue is a true dilemma for policymakers: There seems to be an irresistible urge in education to set aspirational goals. There’s nothing wrong with that, per se—stirring, “shoot for the moon” rhetoric can be motivational and galvanize action. But as Rick Hess and Checker Finn have explained, when it’s time to create accountability systems, policymakers must sober up. If they set unrealistic, unreachable goals, the people working in the system will grow cynical and disillusioned—the opposite of motivated.

Senator Alexander’s discussion draft bill got this balance right. (So does the...

I’m back from a week’s vacation and pleased to find that ESEA reauthorization is still (if just barely) alive. The release of a compromise bill from Senate HELP Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander and ranking member Patty Murray gives me an excuse to bring back my beloved color-coded ESEA table.

The last time we checked, when Chairman Alexander published his discussion draft, it looked like this:

After negotiating with Senator Murray, it now looks like this (items that moved are in bold):

(* These were in the Alexander discussion draft too; I had them in the wrong column last time. My apologies.
** The School Improvement Grants program is officially gone, though the bill [like Alexander’s discussion draft] does include a large state set-aside for school “interventions and supports.”

So what’s the big news? First, federally mandated teacher evaluations are dead as a doorknob, as are requirements that states adopt a particular type of standard (read: Common Core). That’s good news on both fronts, as Uncle Sam has become a monkey on the...

The Every Child Achieves Act of 2015, unveiled a few days back by Senators Lamar Alexander and Patty Murray and scheduled for HELP Committee mark-up on April 14, is a remarkable piece of work. The mere fact that it’s bipartisan is remarkable enough, given the polarized state of Capitol Hill nowadays. But it’s also a reasonable, forward-looking compromise among strongly divergent views of the federal role in K–12 education—and between the overreach (and attendant backlash) of NCLB and some people’s conviction that NCLB didn’t reach far enough.

The draft has received much applause—some of it muted, some tentative—from many quarters (including the Obama administration). Indeed, some Washington wags have remarked that if so many different factions are saying nice things about it, either they haven’t actually read it or there must be something wrong with it! I like most of it myself, though I (as with perhaps everyone else who has said anything positive) hope that the refinements to be offered in committee and on the floor will yield something that I like even better.

I’m mindful, though, that the amending process in the Senate alone is where...

  • 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...