Schools and Politics: In Epitaph Of A Tale Told By An Idiot

Summary: The demise of No Child Left Behind together with the rise of Every Student Succeeds acknowledges the limits of federal power and corporately inspired test measurement, targets funding to lower performing groups, and shifts the balance of policy power toward the states.

In writing the epitaph of No Child Left Behind, it is tempting if a bit flip to quote the Bard, “’Tis a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing.” After all, from the benefit of hindsight, who in their right mind would pass a bill that would legislate its own failed future, as NCLB did by requiring all students in all schools to be at grade level by 2014. Well, Congress did, so let’s pile on.

I confess. Back at No Child’s inception I did wonder at its cumulative requirements and its complex ratcheting up of expectations, but I didn’t grasp the full absurdity, nor did many, as schools and teachers labored in frustration to reach the rabbit that kept leaping out of their grasp.

It was a skinny rabbit. No Child was one of those infamous products of Congress, the unfunded federal mandate, which I suspect gave cover to the resistance of states, which took a variety of other costume. Teachers and their partisans vehemently opposed the use of student test scores to evaluate teachers. Advocates of local and state control resented federal intrusion. Power structures in some states feast covertly on the poor and less educated and contest any effort to improve their lot. On this latter, I am whistling Dixie, though other states elsewhere also fail to take action on the plight of their poor.

Moreover, as I have frequently contended, the test scores that stagnate our national score card are those of lower income kids. While we falter for complex reasons to address our income inequalities, the problem of schools is a problem of the same poverty. It will take investment in human capital, not unfunded mandates, to alter that equation.

Now, as Washington State Republican Chris Vance has noted, No Child is utterly devoid of defenders and its demise has been one fragile point of bipartisan handshake in the run up to its successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). In what I hope is not an ill omen, the name of the latter is such pabulum as to beg what compromises we may yet note that eviscerate the act’s intent.

I do worry with the federal sheriff significantly declawed that accountability will waiver, though, as my conservative friends would contend, that responsibility shifted to the states may invigorate more subtle, broad based approaches and breathe new life into school reform on the more local level. May the conservatives have this one right.

Back to the sound and fury part of the Shakespearean overview. There’s no question in my mind that No Child has kicked, shoved and dragged many school systems out of complacency and on the quest for better practice. Fear of consequence as dictated by the defunct act only goes so far; to the benefit of kids, many of the educators I have known themselves welcomed the challenge to find a way to do better by their students, but in my view have been part of an army that has needed still more warriors.

The results of No Child and the broader school reform movement at this point are mixed. Anecdotes abound in the literature of progress, whether public school or charter. In the aggregate, particularly in comparison with the gilded Finns and other first nation students, we have made little progress, despite persistent reports of improved graduation rates and school test scores that have trended upward, just not to the impossible standard NCLB ultimately set.

In this somewhat confusing picture, one wonders about the validity of some of the score reports. States that lower the bar to look good. Graduation statistics that are gerrymandered. With pressure, there is sometimes progress, sometimes prevarication.

In another way, though King No Child be dead, long live the king, for federally mandated testing is still with us, though in a more benign and less intrusive manner. The notion as urged by corporate leaders that measurement on the industrial scale will refine education in the same way it culls the wheat from the chaff in the commercial environment has suffered comeuppance, or at least a political setback.

The verdict of many teacher types is more damning. From many classroom points of view, the high stakes emphasis on testing has distorted, even perverted optimum classroom balance. In my view there is a place for informal formative assessment to help determine whether students are mastering what teachers are trying to teach. However, NCLB has subtly but drastically affected the classroom environment by hyper-focus on skills measurement. The act’s provision for penalties for poor performance that have labeled most schools as failed has thwarted its own intent. Classrooms do not work well that work with fear.

Where the feds have largely failed to kick-start pervasive progress, it remains to be seen if the states and localities can do better with the federal brother more distant but still offering fiscal partnership. Under ESSA in a less adversarial manner the feds offer funding for a variety of purposes that generally target under performing groups, including monies that would support preschool for low income students and boost special education and English language learners.

Under Every Student Succeeds states are to determine how academic progress is to be assessed. Test scores are to be used, but language in the act specifies that there are to be limits on time devoted to test preparation. States are free to implement broader measures of progress, such as graduation rates, the closing of achievement gaps from lower performing groups, and “college readiness.” For the latter, beyond skill readiness it is difficult to see how more elusive qualities such as inclination to access help and deep motivation would be assessed.

The use of student test scores to evaluate teachers is no longer mandated, and also left to the states. Those who pushed such elements will cry foul and claim that entrenched teacher unions have won a victory that is pyrrhic for the cause of education reform. On the other hand, many legitimate questions remain for teacher advocates, including from my own perspective, about both the justice and the technical validity of measuring teaching quality by student skill outcome, particularly in low income classrooms, even while acknowledging doing so may seem proper from a lay point of view.

Without specifying the mechanisms, ESSA also requires states to intervene in the lowest five per cent performing schools. Some lower intensity federal requirements remain necessary. My major worry about the diminished federal presence in education is that it will enable those states less organized or more entrenched in discriminatory practices not to address the compensatory needs of lower performing groups, such as those in poverty and particularly Latino and African Americans. My recent visit to Alabama, for example, has reinforced those concerns.

So we shall see what we shall see. The landscape has been altered in school reform. No Child in fact has signified more than the Shakespearean existential nothing. Schools and states know the status quo has to change. The notion that the federal government can order the populace to fall in behind its behemoth powers has been shown to have limits, though it’s been a nice try. I confess my own relearning in this instance has been to recognize the wisdom of the balance of powers between the state, the local and the federal, and hope ESSA has struck a better balance; some matters may be better addressed closer to the action, but still with federal support. Ronald Reagan may rest a bit easier in his grave. That I invoke him at all is a grudging acknowledgement that the progressive perspective does not hold all the cards, and the political discourse needs to redouble recent efforts of each side in Congress to listen to the other on the field of ideas. In fact, that is how we got to ESSA.

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