Retreat From Building Brighter Futures

Nov 25, 2015 by

Sandy Kress –

In no normal enterprise would leadership eviscerate policies, even flawed policies, if the policies effectively promoted the goals of the enterprise. But, of course, American public education is no normal enterprise.

this_is_dropout_nation_logoConsequential accountability emerged as a major policy direction in education in the nation in the mid-1990s. Through the force of the No Child Left Behind Act passed in 2001, accountability was extended to all the states in the early 2000s and deepened in its impact. This deepening was achieved principally by measuring student achievement each year (which made determinations of growth possible), insisting upon progress of key subgroups of disadvantaged students, and requiring consequences where adequate progress was not made.

Despite imperfections in the implementation of the policies and increasing resistance by forces of the status quo, some of the greatest gains ever on the National Assessment of Educational Progress were recorded during the peak of the consequential accountability movement. Whether one looks at the Long Term Trend data from 1999 to 2008 or the Main NAEP data from 2000 to 2009, the trajectories are impressively up for all subgroups in all subjects for students whose education was most affected by these policies.

Yet for a variety of mostly political reasons, policymakers began to wander off in unfortunate directions at the beginning of this decade. Declaring that No Child was “broken,” the current Administration made fateful decisions that weakened accountability instead of fixing the law’s problems. Unable to lead the Congress to a reauthorization of federal education law, the Obama Administration chose to waive the provisions of the law that were in need of repair as well as certain provisions it didn’t like.

Now here’s where the fatal move was made. Instead of demanding better, stronger, more effective and workable accountability from the states in return for relief from requirements that needed to be waived, the Obama Administration simply weakened accountability and instead demanded action on favored input factors, especially the adoption of certain content standards and teacher evaluation practices.

This was disastrous in several respects. First, it was disrespectful of Congress. The Congress had legislated on accountability for student results. It had not legislated in favor of one type of content standards versus another; nor had it called for teacher evaluation systems. Second, it further fanned the flames of hostility from various powerful interests who opposed the actions the Administration was taking unilaterally. And most importantly, it weakened accountability by limiting its application in a large number of schools, its coverage of all subgroups, and the range of consequences available.

Thus, instead of repairing and strengthening accountability, those in charge weakened accountability. And, in its place, they pushed favored input policies that have been weakly implemented, while further arousing ire and opposition to reform.

To what effect? NAEP scores have been largely flat on the Main NAEP since 2009. And the states that participated in the much vaunted, expensive Race to the Top program have neither raced to the top or anywhere near; nor have they generally made any progress at all since 2009.

In the midst of a breaking down of the law, an executive “doing its own thing,” and increasing dissatisfaction in the public, one might wonder where the Congress has been all this time. Reauthorization is now eight years overdue. Until very recently, there were occasional moans but no action. Now, suddenly, there appears to be coalescence around new legislation dubbed the Every Student Achieves Act.

What collection of policies merits this name? Essentially, the legislation keeps just a very few features of No Child (annual testing and meager pieces of accountability), purports to consolidate a few programs, adds a few new programs, keeps to current funding, adds no real choice, and reduces federal pressure on accountability, virtually to the very low level of that of the late 1980s.

Are key groups happy with this old approach that masks as a new approach? Certainly, conservatives aren’t. We’ll have the same level of borrowing and spending at the federal level. We’ll have no more parental choice. And yet we will get new programs.

Reformers aren’t happy either. The force that advanced civil rights is being seriously eroded. The law’s accountability features which helped lift student achievement and close achievement gaps are being virtually totally eviscerated.

Well – who then are happy with the legislation? The unions and other traditionalists, who despise the pressure of accountability, like the legislation. The states and local districts that want the money but would prefer to have it free of strings like it. And faux federalists, those who seem okay with borrowing and spending billions of federal dollars and keeping a massive federal machine in place to give states all this money basically free of criteria or requirements to get results for the money, support it.

The question arises: how in the world could anyone think this legislation could lead to every child achieving? At least No Child worked in the direction of its goal, and, while many children are still behind, distinctly fewer are today than when it was passed.

What reasoning could support the notion that what is essentially a return to policies that were in place when the NAEP scores were considerably lower than they are today would drive to every child achieving, even indeed to more children achieving than are today? I trust, as certain state chiefs have pledged, some states will keep up the work of reform. But where’s the evidence now of any abundant commitment to improvement that registers in distinctly better results? Other than in a handful of states and districts, one sees no forward motion on the NAEP anywhere.

While we are considering the matter of deception in words, let’s look at what may very well be the worst single feature of the new legislation.

The accountability that data and research have shown contributes to improved student achievement has been grounded predominantly in the expectation of improved student outcomes. We have had standards of learning, measures of progress in learning, and consequences for success or failure in improving learning outcomes. In virtually all systems of accountability at all levels, during the entire period of the accountability movement, accountability has been measured on the basis entirely, or virtually entirely, of outcomes.

If the measures of outcomes show deficiencies, the theory of action has been that inputs ought to be adjusted to get better results. In response to bad results, decision makers could deploy more effective strategies, better or more personnel, improved climate, better engagement of key players, or other inputs to effect improvement.

So, what does the new legislation permit? Up to 49 percent of the accountability criteria can be based by the states on any one or a combination of input factors, including school climate. This means (somebody’s judgment of) school climate could count more than, say, black students’ progress in math or Hispanic students’ proficiency in reading. Indeed if any input can drive 49 percent of an accountability rating, particularly if it gets an “A”, the input could totally dominate and determine ratings, even if real outputs get low to mixed marks.

This essay is intended to be a serious critique of recent moves to weaken accountability. Yet, as to calling it accountability when “the 49 percent input loophole” is permitted, I can think of no better technical term to use than to say this is disgusting.

Beginning in 2010 and accelerating through this legislation, we are witnessing a terrible retreat in the nation’s accountability for educating all its children, especially its disadvantaged children. We began to see signs of stagnancy in recent years, and we see them vividly today. I foresee continued stagnation well into the future, if not actual declines. This is nothing short of tragic. Our children require, and urgently so, that we continue, indeed speed up, the gains we made in the 2000s. Now, with this action, regardless of the misnomer people give it, we will languish in the years ahead.

The future will judge this turn harshly. But, worse, the children who fail to make needed further gains will be hurt by what’s being done, and the nation, as a whole, will suffer.

Source: Dropout Nation » Retreat From Building Brighter Futures

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