What???s at stake in ESEA debate? Not much

Occupy Wall Street. Liberal reformers and prominent editorial pages are steaming
mad about the supposedly weak approach to accountability that the Harkin-Enzi
ESEA-update bill
takes—in comparison to current law and the Administration’s waiver plan. But are they
right to be so hot and bothered?

start by examining the language that’s causing the hullabaloo—the main options
on the table today when it comes to determining which schools qualify for

  • The Administration’s waiver package. In order to
    opt-out of ESEA’s Adequate Yearly Progress metric, states must propose
    accountability systems that “set new ambitious but achievable [Annual
    Measurable Objectives] in at least reading/language arts and mathematics for
    the State and all LEAs, schools, and subgroups.” In other words, states must
    set a goal for each year in terms of the percentage of students reaching the
    “proficient” standard on the state test. States must also identify “Title I
    schools with the greatest achievement gaps, or in which subgroups are furthest
  • The Harkin-Enzi bill (as passed out of
    Under this version of ESEA, states would have to develop accountability systems
    that expect “the continuous improvement of all public schools in the State in
    the academic achievement and outcomes of all students, including… subgroups.”
  • The Lamar Alexander-Johnny Isakson bill. Under this
    bill introduced by several Senate Republicans, states would have to establish
    “a system of identifying and differentiating among all public elementary
    schools and secondary schools in the State based on student academic
    achievement and any other factors determined appropriate by the State [that]
    also takes into account achievement gaps…and overall performance of all
    students and of each category of students.”

So the
waiver plan, the darling of civil-rights groups, requires states to set annual
targets for all kids and subgroups. The Harkin-Enzi bill, on the other hand,
just asks for “continuous improvement” (whatever that means). And the Alexander-Isakson bill would leave it
up to states to design their own systems—and determine whether they want to use
annual targets or not—though such systems must consider subgroup performance,
too. Even astute readers will have a hard time discerning what the big-deal
differences are among these three options. Observe that none of these
approaches maintains AYP as we know it. But none of them eliminates the federal
mandate around accountability entirely. This is a debate taking place between
the forty-yard lines.

being said, I favor the Alexander-Isakson approach, for two reasons. First, we
know that setting annual (and ever-rising) targets à la NCLB put pressure on
states to keep their “cut scores” modest so as not to label
every school in their jurisdiction as failing. I worry that the continued use
of fixed targets will either encourage the Common Core testing consortia to set
their cut scores low—or, if not, that the combination of high cut scores and
annual targets will cause lots of states to bail from the Common Core project
entirely. And in my view, it’s more important for states to be gunning for high
standards (à la Common Core) than it is to have utopian annual targets in

second reason for preferring Alexander-Isakson is more straightforward: We
don’t know what the ideal accountability system looks like so why not give
states the latitude to innovate? Asking them to consider subgroup performance
is appropriate, but there are lots of ways to do that without looking at annual
performance targets, per se. Why tie our hands unnecessarily?

Including achievement targets in the next ESEA wouldn’t be
the end of the world. Neither would excluding them. Let’s pick one approach and
get this reauthorization across the finish line.

This piece was originally
(in a slightly different form) on Fordham’s
Flypaper blog. To subscribe to Flypaper, click here.

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Michael J. Petrilli
Michael J. Petrilli is the President of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.