Matt Gandal

With the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act, our country is entering a new chapter in education reform. After fifteen years of work by states and school districts to raise standards, disaggregate data, and close gaps, the federal government is taking the foot off the gas and leaving more decisions to the states and local school officials, including those about measures, metrics, incentives, and interventions.

For those of us who have been working with states for many years toward the goal of college and career readiness for all students, this is a period of great excitement—and, admittedly, some trepidation. Excitement because there's a real opportunity for states to build on the good work that has already been accomplished, make midcourse corrections, and spark needed innovation. Trepidation because if state leaders and advocates aren't careful, more than a decade of important work to establish more meaningful, rigorous expectations for our schoolchildren could be undone.

Although the No Child Left Behind Act outlived its relevance, let's not overlook the significant progress that states made during its time frame. As recently as the early 1990s, very few states even had standards. Expectations for students varied district by district and school by school,...

On Tuesday, April 12, 2016, the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions held a full committee hearing titled “ESSA Implementation in States and School Districts: Perspectives from the U.S. Secretary of Education,” the first of a series of oversight hearings on the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Chairman Lamar Alexander delivered an opening statement to Secretary of Education John B. King, Jr. and asked Secretary King two rounds of questions. What follows is the transcript of these talks.

Of particular interest to those of us at Fordham (besides the very important back-and-forth about the appropriate federal role in education and the balance of power between the legislative and executive branches) is the issue of flexibility around eighth-grade math assessments for advanced students. That is addressed toward the end of the transcript.


Senator Alexander Opening Statement

Mr. Secretary, as you know, I urged the president to nominate an education secretary because I thought it was important to have a confirmed secretary accountable to the United States Senate when the department was implementing the new law fixing No Child Left Behind.

You have sworn to discharge your duties faithfully. That is your oath of office, and...

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) requires a “negotiated rulemaking” process whenever the Department of Education issues regulations under parts of the law pertaining to assessments, academic standards, and several other topics. This process requires a panel of experts, which the agency assembled in March. Their work thus far (they’ve met twice) has revealed major problems on the regulatory front concerning gifted and high-achieving students. These issues need immediate attention, including close scrutiny by the lawmakers who crafted ESSA.

As Education Week explains the process, panel members “essentially get together in a room and try to hammer out an agreement with the department. If the process fails, which it often does, the feds go back to the drawing board and negotiate through the regular process, which involves releasing a draft rule, getting comments on it, and then putting out a final rule.” The Department of Education assists this process with issues papers (which provide background), discussion questions, and draft regulatory language that the panel can edit based on its discussions.

Last week, the group tackled assessments, an area of ESSA that directly affects gifted and high-achieving students. Unfortunately, in the twenty-plus pages of draft regulations and seven issue papers that accompanied those discussions,...

Policy wonks and political prognosticators have begun to forecast the collateral damage that is apt to follow if Donald Trump manages—in spite of himself, and notwithstanding his Wisconsin setback—to win the Republican nomination, damaging not only GOP prospects for retrieving the White House but also the party’s odds of prevailing in innumerable races for Congress and for state (and even local) leadership. Following in the wake of those generally dire prognostications are early conjectures about the policy shifts that may ensue in sundry realms both international and domestic if Democrats are positioned to chart the future course.

For education reformers parsing this prospect, it’s useful first to recall the many worthy changes that followed the GOP’s 2010 sweep of a galaxy of state and federal offices (obviously omitting the one that’s ovular). Though nothing in the list below is (from my perspective) perfect, it’s hard to picture many—perhaps any—of these things happening had Republicans not been in positions of influence:

  • New assessments in most states, geared to higher academic standards and featuring higher “cut scores” that correspond more accurately and honestly to the actual demands of college, career, and international competitiveness
  • Accelerating the spread of school choice, both the public version (typically
  • ...

Way back in the early days of the accountability movement, Jeb Bush’s Florida developed an innovative approach to evaluating school quality. First, the state looked at individual student progress over time—making it one of the first to do so. Then it put special emphasis on the gains (or lack thereof) of the lowest-performing kids in the state.

Many of us were fans of this approach, including the focus on low-achievers. It was an elegant way to highlight the performance of the children who were most at risk of being “left behind,” without resorting to an explicitly race-based approach like No Child Left Behind’s.

Chad Aldeman of Bellwether Education Partners recently interviewed one of the designers of the Florida system, Christy Hovanetz, who elaborates:

By focusing on the lowest-performing students, we want to create a system that truly focuses on students who need the most help and is equitable across all schools. We strongly support the focus on the lowest-performing students, no matter what group they come from.

That does a number of things. It reduces the number of components…within the accountability system and places the focus on students who truly need the most help….It also reduces the need for...

  • Merryl Tisch, who is stepping down as chancellor of New York’s Board of Regents, gave a valedictory interview to the New York Times last week. As head of one of the foremost educational authorities in the state, she will principally be remembered for championing and helping implement the Common Core State Standards and a new teacher evaluation system alongside New York State Education Commissioner John King (confirmed Monday as secretary of education). Her efforts led to some necessary improvements in curriculum and instruction across the state, but they didn’t come without a backlash: Roughly one-fifth of all eligible students were kept out of the new tests by their parents last spring, and unions revolted over the Regents’ recommendation to link teacher evaluations to student scores. Now, with Governor Andrew Cuomo backing slowly away from that notion and an opt-out favorite in line to replace Tisch as chancellor, the movement for high standards looks like it’s undergoing a reset in the Empire State. It’s up to both local leaders and national reformers to make sure that new players don’t change matters for the worse.
  • You may be wondering why, after many months and approximately eight thousand primary
  • ...

Opinions differed on the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act, as they do with just about any piece of important legislation. But one thing that all sides agreed on was that the bill clearly signified a shift of control away from the federal government and toward the states. Some commentators celebrated the move away from distant, centralized power, while others fretted about the consequences for accountability—but the gist was pretty much the same. Now that we’ve entered the implementation phase, however, some are calling for a takeback. A coalition of over fifty civil rights organizations has signed a letter to Acting Secretary of Education John King urging his department to provide clear direction to the states for carrying out the law. The group—which includes the ACLU, the NAACP, the Human Rights Campaign, and Teach For America—recommends strong steps to guarantee equitable educational opportunities for English language learners, foster children, disabled students, and other disadvantaged populations. Whether they prevail will probably hinge on the amount of federal oversight states (and Republicans on Capitol Hill) are willing to tolerate after fifteen years of the No Child Left Behind precedent. History suggests that it won’t be much.

That’s not the only open letter Acting Secretary King...

  • On the day when America’s schooling woes have finally ceased—when all of its children are guaranteed equal access to qualified teachers, enriching curricula, secure facilities, and reliable pathways to higher education and the workforce—Bill de Blasio and Eva Moskowitz will have to find something new to fight about. Maybe their respective choices for the finest Ninja Turtle, or whether Led Zeppelin II rocks harder than Houses of the Holy. Until that distant time, they can keep up their reassuringly constant tit-for-tat over Success Academy’s place in the New York City education system. This week, de Blasio has found himself disinvited from Eva’s prom afterparty for insisting that the charter network sign a contract (and therefore accept some form of municipal oversight) to receive payment for its participation in the city’s universal pre-K initiative. Seeking over $700,000 in reimbursement monies, and evidently concerned with being micromanaged by its archenemy, Success Academy appealed to the state education commissioner. The commish swiftly ruled against them, surprising few. This beef perfectly illustrates the challenges of extending pre-K funds to charters, which Fordham chronicled extensively in our report last year. Normally, the barriers to participation include low funding levels or district monopolies
  • ...
Lisa Hansel

Last week, we encouraged state policy makers and educators to rethink what it takes to develop strong readers and the signals sent to schools by accountability measures. The bottom line: reading comprehension is a slow-growing plant, and the demand for rapid results on annual tests may be encouraging poor classroom practice—giving kids a sugar rush of test preparation, skills, and strategies when a well-rounded diet of knowledge and vocabulary is what’s really needed to grow good readers. Assessment and evaluation policy must ensure that these long-term investments in the building blocks of language growth are rewarded, not punished. Under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), states have the opportunity to do exactly that.

States also have the freedom to rethink teacher accountability. Because broad, general knowledge builds broad, general reading comprehension ability, school-wide accountability for reading makes far more sense than individual teacher accountability. Every school subject builds the knowledge base that contributes to a child’s reading comprehension ability (you need to know some science to make sense of a science text; history to make sense of a history text, etc.).

Take the comparatively simple task of teaching students to decode. At a minimum, it requires K–2 teachers. For...

On the campaign trail, Senator Ted Cruz reliably wins applause with a call to "repeal every word of Common Core." It's a promise he will be hard-pressed to keep should he find himself in the White House next January. Aside from the bizarre impracticality of that comment as phrased (which words shall we repeal first? "Phonics"? "Multiplication"? Or "Gettysburg Address"?), the endlessly debated, frequently pilloried standards are now a deeply entrenched feature of America's K–12 education landscape—love 'em or hate 'em.

Common Core has achieved "phenomenal success in statehouses across the country," notes Education Next. In a study published last month, the periodical found that "thirty-six states strengthened their proficiency standards between 2013 and 2015, while just five states weakened them." That's almost entirely a function of Common Core. 

Education Next began grading individual states’ standards in 1995, comparing the extent to which their state tests' definition of proficiency aligned with the gold-standard National Assessment of Educational Progress assessment (often referred to as "the nation's report card”). That year, six states received an A grade. As recently as four years ago, only Massachusetts earned that distinction. Today, nearly half of all states, including the District of Columbia, have earned A ratings....