Why Don’t Senators Alexander and Murray Want to Improve the Education of Low-Income Students?
April 8, 2015
Senators Alexander and Murray seem to want low-income students to remain as badly taught as they have been for 50 years. In the draft they want Congress to consider next week, they have gutted the only part of the 2001 authorization of ESEA, called No Child Left Behind (NCLB), that would have made a difference over time in the academic gains of low-income students. That section required teachers who knew the subject they were teaching, as measured by a major or graduate degree in the subject or passing a licensure test in that subject. All gone now.
Why was this requirement a sound one? Because the only characteristic of an effective teacher that has been found in high quality research is knowledge of the subject he/she teaches. This was reported by the task group on teacher education for the National Mathematics Advisory Panel’s final report in 2008.
Nowhere in their current language for ESEA do Alexander and Murray address the basic flaws in ESEA since its inception in 1965 as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty. Despite all the billions in Title I funds to address the needs of low-income students, there have been NO meaningful increases in achievement for poor students on national tests for reading—the basic subject in the curriculum. The overall profile of trends in reading at grades 4 and 8 on the main tests given by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is flat. And for the high school years, the general profile in both reading and mathematics on the long-term trend tests given by NAEP since the 1970s is a plateau. In reading, the average scale score for age 17 students was 285 in 1971 and 287 in 2012. In mathematics, the average scale score for age 17 students was 300 in 1978 and 306 in 2012. And this after billions of federal dollars to the states under Title I.
In their “bipartisan” draft, Senators Alexander and Murray continue such failed policies as grade by grade standards in English language arts, reading, and mathematics, as well as annual tests based on them. Alexander and Murray seem totally unaware of the factors that led to academic gains in low-income students in the one state where they made significant and enduring gains—Massachusetts.
As the person often cited as the driver behind the Bay State’s first-class, pre-Common Core standards, I have been trying for years to inform reporters and education researchers that without the changes Massachusetts made to its entire system of teacher licensing, it is unlikely there would have been enduring gains in achievement for students in all demographic groups and in all its regional vocational/technical high schools (which enroll a disproportionate number of at-risk students and below-grade-level readers). For an account of these changes, see my latest book (An Empty Curriculum: The Need to Reform Teacher Licensing Regulations and Tests. Rowman & Littlefield, March 2015).
Shouldn’t a re-authorization of ESEA by now show some awareness of what one state did to produce academic gains in low-income students instead of continuing a set of failed policies on which it will continue to shower and waste Title I billions? Most Title I money is and has been spent on teaching personnel (for example, Title I reading teachers and teaching aides), as required by law. But, there has been almost no research to find out why these teachers and aides have been so useless.
Clues did appear in an American Institutes of Research (AIR) report on Title I expenditures in the late 1990s: “Paraprofessionals were widely used for teaching and helping to teach students, although their educational backgrounds do not prepare many of them for such responsibilities.” What this report obliquely tells us is that in their efforts to teach low-income students how to read or do arithmetic, schools hired under-qualified teaching aides, all certified by their states, it seems, to do what more qualified classroom teachers had not been able to do.
In an ironic twist, Senators Alexander and Murray require only that “the local educational agency” will “ensure that all teachers and paraprofessionals” working in a program supported with Title I funds meet “applicable State certification and licensure requirements.” Since most licensure tests for prospective K-8 teachers are at the middle school level and do not require test-takers to demonstrate mastery of any subject area, including the teaching of reading, reliance on most current state licensure requirements will serve to continue the NAEP plateau in reading for low-income children. They will continue to be taught by minimally competent teachers.
What amendments need to be made to the Alexander/Murray draft? First, ESEA can be re-authorized to require low-income children to be taught by teachers and paraprofessionals who have demonstrated mastery of scientifically-based reading instructional knowledge and elementary mathematics.
Second, ESEA can be re-authorized to reduce, not increase, federal control of state standards. In the Alexander/Murray draft, state departments of education are still the only educational authority that can submit a set of standards to the U.S. Department of Education. State legislatures have been excluded from the process. And only the USDE (not a state’s legislature) is to approve the standards used by a state that wants Title I funds. Moreover, the Alexander/Murray draft deliberately excludes academic content experts from the peer-review process to be used by the USDE. (“The Secretary shall establish a peer-review process to assist in the review of State plans.”) In other words, the “bipartisan” draft of ESEA that Senators Alexander and Murray want Congress to pass continues the educational disaster that ESEA has been for low-income students since 1965.