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NCLB and California

Implementation of accountability standards have taken place at the State and Federal level. Unfortunately, California has choosen to use a "growth model" while No Child Left Behind (NCLB) uses a "raising bar" method. As a result, negotiations between California and the Department of Education have been under way. Local school districts are suing the California Department of Education using NCLB provisions. All of the leads to confusion for the general public.

Critics on both the Left and the Right have charged that the No Child Left Behind Act tramples states' rights by imposing a federally mandated, one-size-fits-all accountability system on the nation's diverse states and schools.

In truth, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) gives states wide discretion to define what students must learn, how that knowledge should be tested, and what test scores constitute proficiencythe key elements of any educational accountability system. Another key component is a student tracking system, that California is struggling to implement. States also set standards for high school graduation rates, teacher qualifications, school safety and many other aspects of school performance. As a result, states are largely free to define the terms of their own educational success and this article reviews the variance state defined standards versus a national measurement. In 2006, Wyoming conducted a public review of what proficiency meant in Wyoming. In 2008, Idaho requested to restart the clock of when accountabilty should start.

By 2004, there were a number of different changes proposed by a wide range of parties.

In 2006 Governor Schwarenegger vetoed a bill that would lower the definition of proficiency to align with passage of the California High School Exit Exam. In November, 2006, critics of NCLB will turn to Democrats to change the federal law. Sacramento Bee columnist Peter Schrag recommends fixing not nixing the federal law. In December, The Education Trust issued its annual Education Watch Study for California.

in October, 2007, The Proficiency Illusion was issued which showed how states' definiton of proficiency varied significantly. Another report "graded" each states' standard against the National Assessment of Educational Progress. In November, LAUSD was one of 99 school districts that were notified that could be subject to sanctions under NCLB.

In 2008, the Legislative Analyst Office issued a report on Low Performing Schools as defined by NCLB.

In 2009, the Thomas Fordham released an Executive Summary on Accounability Illusion that how the same school would pass or fail based on the state's criteria. Fifteen states are currently piloting a growth model for NCLB compliance. The UCLA Civil Rights Project issued a study on NCLB is not working in 2009.

With the election Prsident Obama and appointment of Arne Duncan, the federal government shifted their strategy. By funding programs like to the Race to the Top, the federal government attempted to reform public education with competitive grants. California failed to qualify in three attempts to get funds. However, those states that won awards, are struggling to implement the reforms they signed up for. One reform is using data to make decisions. This study researches the impact of using data.

New Criteria Cut Ranks of Targeted School Systems

But L.A. Unified and 183 other districts in state would stay on watch list under U.S. compromise

By Duke Helfand, Los Angeles Times, March 9 2005

The Bush administration said Tuesday it would ease demands on California to identify troubled school districts, allowing the state to reduce the numbers of districts that could face takeovers and other sanctions.

Even with the new flexibility, 184 school systems would immediately be classified as needing improvement. That would be reduced, however, from the more than 300 that previously were going to be placed on a state watch list.

The targeted school districts  including Los Angeles Unified  would face increased scrutiny from Sacramento within two years if they failed to improve under the No Child Left Behind Act.

At the extreme, the state could abolish the districts or appoint trustees to replace school board members and superintendents.

The federal law requires states to place districts on a watch list if the number of students doing well on standardized math and English tests fails to increase enough two years in a row.

The compromise announced Tuesday would relax the federal standard for identifying struggling districts, and end months of difficult negotiations between Sacramento and Washington.

"We believe this is a fair solution," said Assistant Education Secretary Ray Simon. "This is not a failure label. It doesn't say you're a bad district. It just says you need to improve."

Still, state education officials said they were dissatisfied with the proposed agreement, which would keep some of the best school systems in the state on the watch list, including Palo Alto Unified and the Cupertino Union School District in the Silicon Valley.

State officials said they were unable to win further concessions from their federal counterparts.

The state Board of Education is expected to approval the deal today.

"You have to question the policy of dedicating time and resources to the Cupertinos of the state. I would much rather see us narrow our focus on the challenging, truly needy school districts," said Jack O'Connell, the state superintendent of public instruction. "This is another example of the federal department's inflexibility and one-size-fits-all approach to states."

State officials said that Cupertino  serving some of the state's most affluent communities  remained on the watch list because it did not test enough special education students in elementary and middle schools. Yet the district remains one of the top academic performers in California.

Cupertino officials were taking their new label in stride.

"It does seem a little peculiar," said Jeremy Nishihara, a district spokesman. "We're concerned with the fact that we're on the list. But we'd be more concerned if we weren't achieving academically."

The dispute over the identification of districts surfaced last fall, when federal education officials visited California to monitor whether the state was complying with the reform law.

They found that California had identified only 14 school districts as failing to meet the demands of the law.

The officials then required that California toughen its criteria, a change that would have landed 310 more districts on the watch list.

State leaders, saying they didn't have the resources to handle large numbers of failing districts, sought a compromise.

The state proposed a change that would make it easier for districts to meet federal expectations by reducing the categories of students who had to score at the proficient level on the English and math tests. The state also sought more time for districts to improve after they are identified on the watch list.

The compromise cut 141 districts off the target list, including some of the state's biggest school systems. Among those dropped were Oakland Unified, Rialto Unified and Fontana Unified.

Rialto Unified Supt. Edna D. Herring welcomed the news that her district of more than 30,000 students had been spared.

"I am very appreciative, but that doesn't mean we're going to do less," Herring said. "I'm going to keep the pressure on."

The superintendent of Fontana Unified said he too would continue pushing his schools to improve even though his system of more than 41,000 students would face no further scrutiny.

"We're going to continue to march forward as if we were on that watch list so we don't get complacent," said Supt. Charles Milligan. "Next year, the bar is significantly higher than this year."

Other districts were less fortunate.

Los Angeles Unified is among the 184 school systems that could face sanctions if they do not improve. Those districts also will be barred by the federal law from providing federally funded supplemental tutoring services to students who attend low-performing schools. L.A. Unified is spending about $25 million in federal funds this year to offer after-school tutoring to more than 16,000 students. But students will have to go elsewhere next year for tutoring.

"If we are failing to make change, they yank our chain," said L.A. Unified Supt. Roy Romer. "But this is a district that is changing more than most. It doesn't fit us right now. We are making great gains."

State officials said L.A. Unified remained on the list because schools didn't test enough high school students and special education students didn't score high enough to meet the federal goals.

School district officials noted an irony in the release of the new list of troubled districts.

L.A. Unified will be recognized today by the state Board of Education for its schools that have posted significant gains on state tests. At the same meeting, the district will be named as a school system in need of improvement under No Child Left Behind.

"It's not constructive," school board member David Tokofsky said. "It's not thoughtful."


Local schools to sue state

District says tests that measure achievement areunfair to English language learners

Christine Mahr, The Desert Sun March 4, 2005


The Coachella Valley Unified School District:

The state of California is violating the Federal No Child Left Behind Act by requiring that children who are English language learners take standardized tests before they are proficient in English.

The federal government

Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, states must provide "reasonable accommodations" such as native-language versions of tests when testing students to determine academic progress. In the areas of reading and language arts, students who've been in U.S. schools for three years will be tested in English.

The State of California

All students in grades two through 11 in California public schools must participate in the state's standardized testing program unless they have significant cognitive disabilities. The tests are administered in English.
Percentage Latino: 97.3
Percentage English language learners: 82
Percentage of district's schools in program improvement: 44
Schools in program improvement: Bobby Duke Elementary, John Kelley Elementary, Oasis Elementary, Palm View Elementary, Sea View Elementary, Valley View Elementary, Coachella Valley High School

Saying California's testing system is unfair to the district's English language learners, the Coachella Valley Unified School District is suing the state.

The district's seven-member board of trustees voted unanimously Thursday to retain three law firms to prepare what is believed to be the first suit challenging the English-only testing of children who speak little or no English.

School officials said about 82 percent of the district's 15,000 students fall into that category.

"Every time we test a child in a language that's not their native language, we give them a grade that doesn't belong to them," said board President Anna Rodriguez, adding, "We're saying they don't know anything when they may be brilliant children."

The district earlier considered also suing the federal government because of issues related to the federal No Child Left Behind Act - President Bush's education overhaul.

That hasn't been ruled out entirely, Superintendent Foch "Tut" Pensis said. "But No Child Left Behind has started to implode itself, so we're letting it run its course to see what happens," he said.

Pensis was referring to various lawsuits filed over the law and a scathing bipartisan statement last week from all 50 state legislatures calling for fundamental changes in it.

"Right now, our most immediate concern is California," Pensis said.

"Accountability is fine, but you do it in the right manner," he said. The district serves Coachella, Indio, Thermal, Mecca, Oasis and the Salton Sea. The children who are the Coachella Valley's future leaders, the district argues, are being wrongly called failures.

The district has been labeled a failing district because too few of its schools and students measured up to progress goals required by the No Child Left Behind Act.

But the district contends its students can't be successful because they must take required proficiency tests in English before they've learned the language.

That violates the No Child Left Behind Act, which specifies how testing of students with limited English proficiency should be handled, said Marc Coleman of Long Beach, one of the attorneys representing the district. The federal law requires that states provide English language learners "reasonable accommodations" such as native-language versions of tests, and allows students to be in U.S. schools for three years before being tested in English in the areas of reading and language arts. "California has decided only to test them in English, and they don't have a prayer of succeeding," Coleman said.

District schools have have improved their standardized test scores but not enough to meet federal goals.

Continued lack of adequate progress by schools and students leads to sanctions required by No Child Left Behind.

The district already is on a Program Improvement or "failing school district" list, meaning it has to take certain steps such as creating an improvement plan and using some of its federal funding - money to help educate low-income students - to train teachers.

And, if negotiations between the U.S. Department of Education and the state of California aren't resolved in the favor of California, Desert Sands Unified School District and Palm Springs Unified School District would be among more than 300 schools added to the list.


The coming school accountability train wreck

By Peter Schrag, Sacramento Bee Columnist, July 20, 2005

Before summer's end, Californians will get more troubling news about their schools. Once again, schools that a lot of communities thought were exemplary, and were listed as successful by the state, will be rated as "in need of improvement" - "failing" in plain text - under federal accountability standards.

A lot of those schools passed with flying colors last year. But because of the rising annual percentage of students in every school who must achieve proficiency, and because the increase must include students of every major ethnic and social subgroup, many won't make the grade this year.

Under NCLB, President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act, every student in America is supposed be "proficient" in reading and math by 2014. If proficiency is to mean anything, that was always an impossible target, and it has already led to a lot of fudging. But as the state-set curves toward the 100 percent proficiency target keep rising and the number of schools subject to the sanctions that go with "in need of improvement" goes up with them, the backlash and the pressure to modify NCLB - if not scrap it altogether - will grow. Without changes, in fact, there'll be a train wreck that could well destroy all meaningful academic accountability systems, state and federal.

Since states themselves define "proficiency" by their own standards, some have already lowered them in an effort to avoid perceptions of widespread failure.

Recognizing the inevitable, Bush's education secretary, Margaret Spellings, is showing some willingness to be more flexible on such things as the requirement that eventually virtually every special education student must achieve proficiency, a goal that, by definition, was as unattainable as it was noble.

California, like a number of other states, has maintained that its own "growth model" accountability system - a system that requires annual improvement in test scores and graduation rates in every school - makes more sense than the federal "status model," with its impossible goal of 100 percent proficiency.

California gives every school an API, Academic Performance Index, based on a test-score-based, 1,000-point scale, with a target that each school achieve at least an 800 on the API formula. Those below that goal - which means most schools - must improve at least five percent between their last API score and the 800-point target. (Thus, a school scoring 600 last year has to score at least 610 this year.)

That means low performing schools - many of them disproportionately schools of poor and minority kids - have to make greater numerical gains each year than high performing schools. It also means that schools making adequate gains on API may not make them on the different scale of the feds' AYP, Adequate Yearly Progress, even though both are based on the same tests.

In 2004, 321 California schools improved their APIs by doubling their annual targets for the second year in a row, but didn't make AYP.

Both systems are complicated and have serious flaws. But together, as Alan Bersin, who's just replaced the ineffectual Richard Riordan as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's new education secretary, has been saying, they generate hopeless confusion. That's especially so when the state labels certain schools as academic successes while the federal system calls them failures. If too many are rated failing, the whole system "could lose its legitimacy." Even now, the state's capacity to provide help for low performing schools is overtaxed.

So officials at the California Department of Education, the state School Board and now the governor's office are trying to modify the state system to make it consistent with the spirit of the federal law in the hope that eventually the feds will let the state use its reformed growth model in place of the federal system.

The proposed changes include tightening requirements for the minimum annual gains among ethnic subgroups from 80 percent of a school's overall gain to 100 percent. The 80 percent gain now required for Latinos, African Americans, English learners and other subcategories in California virtually guarantees that they'll never catch up with their non-Hispanic white and Asian classmates - and aren't expected to.

Proposals now circulating among state officials and under discussion between Bersin and California state schools chief Jack O'Connell also include an increase in the required minimum annual gain from five percent to 10 percent and perhaps raising the state's API target from 800 to 875.

California's academic standards are among the highest in the country. Unlike some other states, California so far has not lowered them to avoid the long lists of schools "in need of improvement" that will appear in your local paper in the coming weeks.

But the pressure will grow.

The California players agree that the feds will not be especially tender toward California. When waiver requests come from Utah, Virginia or Florida, they're much more likely to be viewed sympathetically. The one card the state holds is Schwarzenegger.

If he eventually weighs in with the feds, some order may be restored.


Joint Organizational Statement on No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act

October 21, 2004

The undersigned education, civil rights, children's, disability, and citizens' organizations are committed to the No Child Left Behind Act's objectives of strong academic achievement for all children and closing the achievement gap. We believe that the federal government has a critical role to play in attaining these goals. We endorse the use of an accountability system that helps ensure all children, including children of color, from low-income families, with disabilities, and of limited English proficiency, are prepared to be successful, participating members of our democracy.

While we all have different positions on various aspects of the law, based on concerns raised during the implementation of NCLB, we believe the following significant, constructive corrections are among those necessary to make the Act fair and effective. Among these concerns are: over-emphasizing standardized testing, narrowing curriculum and instruction to focus on test preparation rather than richer academic learning; over-identifying schools in need of improvement; using sanctions that do not help improve schools; inappropriately excluding low-scoring children in order to boost test results; and inadequate funding. Overall, the law's emphasis needs to shift from applying sanctions for failing to raise test scores to holding states and localities accountable for making the systemic changes that improve student achievement.

Recommended Changes in NCLB

    Progress Measurement

  1. Replace the law's arbitrary proficiency targets with ambitious achievement targets based on rates of success actually achieved by the most effective public schools.
  2. Allow states to measure progress by using students' growth in achievement as well as their performance in relation to pre-determined levels of academic proficiency.
  3. Ensure that states and school districts regularly report to the government and the public their progress in implementing systemic changes to enhance educator, family, and community capacity to improve student learning.
  4. Provide a comprehensive picture of students' and schools' performance by moving from an overwhelming reliance on standardized tests to using multiple indicators of student achievement in addition to these tests.
  5. Fund research and development of more effective accountability systems that better meet the goal of high academic achievement for all children.


  6. Help states develop assessment systems that include district and school-based measures in order to provide better, more timely information about student learning.
  7. Strengthen enforcement of NCLB provisions requiring that assessments must:
    • Be aligned with state content and achievement standards
    • Be used for purposes for which they are valid and reliable
    • Be consistent with nationally recognized professional and technical standards
    • Be of adequate technical quality for each purpose required under the Act
    • Provide multiple, up-to-date measures of student performance including measures that assess higher order thinking skills and understanding
    • Provide useful diagnostic information to improve teaching and learning
  8. Decrease the testing burden on states, schools and districts by allowing states to assess students annually in selected grades in elementary, middle schools, and high schools.

    Building Capacity

  9. Ensure changes in teacher and administrator preparation and continuing professional development that research evidence and experience indicate improve educational quality and student achievement.
  10. Enhance state and local capacity to effectively implement the comprehensive changes required to increase the knowledge and skills of administrators, teachers, families, and communities to support high student achievement.


  11. Ensure that improvement plans are allowed sufficient time to take hold before applying sanctions; sanctions should not be applied if they undermine existing effective reform efforts.
  12. Replace sanctions that do not have a consistent record of success with interventions that enable schools to make changes that result in improved student achievement.


  13. Raise authorized levels of NCLB funding to cover a substantial percentage of the costs that states and districts will incur to carry out these recommendations, and fully fund the law at those levels without reducing expenditures for other education programs.
  14. Fully fund Title I to ensure that 100 percent of eligible children are served.


"Proficiency for What?

A Wyoming standards-setting panel weighs the impact of its decisions

By Caroline Chauncey, 2006 Summer Issue, Harvard Education Review

In most states, the standard-setting process is carried on behind closed doors. State officials review teacher recommendations for various subjects and grade levels, and adjust the figures as they see fit. As additional tests are introduced at different grade levels, as per NCLB requirements, cut-scores are often calculated by extrapolating from existing standards. In Wyoming, however, education leaders have just introduced a completely new system of tests, known as PAWS (Proficiency Assessments for Wyoming Students). Designed to help teachers improve instruction, the tests are administered at grades 3-8 and 11 in three subject areas. (See Red Light, Green Light, Harvard Education Letter, March/April 2006.) Confronted with the need to set standards for all its tests at once, state officials seized the opportunity to open up a public discussion about the implications of this decision.

This sort of standard-setting by a panel of distinguished citizens is quite rare, acknowledges Wyoming state superintendent Jim McBride. Implicit in the decision to convene a highly visible, prestigious panel is the departments recognition that the impact of the panels deliberations would be felt in areas beyond the K-12 public schools.

We tried to convene a panel that would represent different interests, explains Annette Bohling, deputy state superintendent and chief state schools officer. The 14-member panel convened by the Wyoming Department of Education included Governor David D. Freudenthal; several state legislators; the president of the University of Wyoming and the executive director of the Wyoming Community College Commission; the CEO of the Wyoming Business Council; and several members of the state board of education. The panel also included members of the Latino and native American communities. No other state is doing this, Bohling emphasizes.


Wyomings previous system of accountability tests, the Wyoming Comprehensive Assessment System (WyCAS), set very high standards for proficiency relative to those of other states. The tests were developed as part of a major school reform effort launched in 1997 that brought Wyoming from ranking in the bottom half of the states participating in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in 1998 to a position among the top 10 states in both math and reading on the 2005 NAEP. (Wyoming also ranked first in 2005 in reading and math performance by students in the lowest socioeconomic group.) But because WyCAS was designed to track the performance of whole schools, rather than individual children, it could not easily be adapted to meet the requirements of NCLB, which holds schools accountable for the performance of specific subgroups of students.

The shift from WyCAS to PAWS meant revisiting the definition of proficiency. To reach Wyomings standard for proficiency on WyCAS, students would have to score above the 89th percentile on NAEP in math and above the 80th percentile in reading. By comparison, a study of a dozen states including Wyoming found that in the other 11 states, cut-scores for proficiency were clustered around the 50th percentile and the next highest score was set at the 65th percentile.

But NCLB requires that all students reach proficiency by 2014. If the PAWS proficiency standards were set at the same level as the WyCAS standards, this would require the states students to perform well above national norms for grade-level work, as measured empirically by the TerraNova standardized test, notes TAC member Michael Flicek, director of assessment and research for Natrona County Schools in Casper, Wyo. According to Flicek, Wyoming would become a real-life Lake Wobegon, a place where, in Garrison Keillors words, all the children are above average!

Underlying Issues

To guide their deliberations, panel members were presented with a set of three discussion starter options of increasing stringency, using as a baseline the cut-scores recommended by a task force of teachers in each subject area. For each set of cut-scores, panelists were given graphs showing the estimated number of children who would be categorized as advanced, proficient, basic, or below basic based on that set of cut-scores, broken down by ethnic subgroup and special ed status. Armed with all that information, the panel embarked on a two-day discussion in consultation with Wyoming Department of Education officials, TAC members, and representatives from Harcourt, the test developers.

The discussion touched on a wide range of issues associated with the definition of proficiency and its implications:

How arbitrary is the process of setting cut-scores for proficiency? This is not a scientific endeavor, cautioned TAC member David Berliner, Regents professor of education at Arizona State University. Its about judgment. Berliner noted that there is always an element of arbitrariness in setting the passing level for, say, a driving test at 26 correct answers out of 40, rather than 25. Some items, for instance, may be more important than others: Would you ever want to see a driver on the road, he asked, who cannot answer a question like this correctly: What should you do when you see a sign that says School Xing?

Nonetheless, the standard-setting process is not capricious. The root of the word arbitrary, he pointed out, is the same as for arbitrationimplying a give and take among competing interests.

Nobody has a handle on doing cut-scores right, Berliner told the panel. We can try to be rational, but its hard to be right.

Why not use the same definition of proficiency as the NAEP standard? Because standard-setting can be controversial, education officials often look to NAEP as a standard of comparison. Although NAEP is widely considered the gold standard among large-scale assessments, its performance standards have been widely criticized as technically problematic and too stringent, according to TAC member James Pellegrino, distinguished professor of cognitive psychology and education at the University of Illinois-Chicago. He told the panel that at current rates of improvement, it would take over 100 years for 100 percent of children to become proficient on the NAEP exam, and noted that even Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings has suggested that statewide proficiency levels for NCLB tests should be set closer to the basic performance level on the NAEP exam. Its useful information, but it should not be treated as gospel, he said of the NAEP definition.

What does proficiency mean in the real world? The question you have to ask yourselves, Berliner said, is Proficient for what? Panelists debated a variety of suggestions: To enter college without needing remedial coursework? Not everyone is going to college, some panelists noted. To be prepared for the responsibilities of citizenship? To qualify for a good job? Each definition implied a different standardand each standard implies different consequences for students.

How do proficiency standards affect aspiration and motivation? You have to look at what motivates or demotivates kids, noted Tucker Fagan, CEO of the Wyoming Business Council. High standards can motivate schools and children to achieve, but they can also cause more children to be labeled as failures, with potentially devastating consequences, he pointed out. If we raise cut-scores [too high], were going to drive kids below the line and keep them below the line, and thats not what we want to do.

The trick, the panelists agreed, was to come up with a Goldilocks solution, where cut-scores were set not too low, not too high. Standard-setting is always a judgmental process, Pellegrino reassured the panel. Theres no right or wrong. Youre trying to make a reasonable decision in a social, political, and economic context.

If you feel uncomfortable, Bohling added, thats normal.

Framework for a Decision

Following the discussion, panel members voted on a series of recommendations for the state superintendent. In the process, they evolved guidelines for framing their decisions. Among their suggestions:

Consider different goals in setting cut-scores for different performance levels. Raising the cut score for the advanced performance category, for example, can be a way to motivate students, without risking the adverse consequences associated with setting proficiency standards that may be out of many students reach. The panel recommended that the state superintendent consider raising cut-scores for the advanced category in all areas, independent of the level at which proficiency standards were set.

In defining proficiency, differentiate between grades 3-8 and 11th grade. In the elementary and middle grades, proficiency is defined as readiness to proceed to the next grade, panelists pointed out. Children who are not proficient in one grade may catch up in the next. By 11th grade, the stakes are higher. Youre not asking a fifth grader to go out and make his way in the world, noted Jim Rose, executive director of the Wyoming Community College Commission. The panel recommended that the superintendent make independent decisions on setting cut-scores for the earlier grades and for 11th graders.

Treat teachers recommendations for math and reading differently. Panelists observed that the cut-scores recommended by teachers for math were set significantly higher than the cut-scores their peers recommended for reading and would initially result in more children failing to achieve proficiency. Its typical, Flicek explained, for math teachers to recommend more rigorous cut-scores. Math teachers in the higher grades, he noted, tended to have particularly high expectations. As a result, the panel voted against recommending cut-scores higher than those proposed by the math teachers. Anticipate the impact of future performance. The panel voted to raise cut-scores for reading significantly above those proposed by teachers in that area, noting that the state has embarked on a number of reading initiatives that are expected to strengthen student performance significantly in the next few years. Its realistic to expect that we can meet a higher standard, Bohling acknowledged.

By contrast, the state has devoted significant resources to its writing programs over the last 25 years. [The teachers] know exactly what they are looking for and they have high expectations, she said. Weve seen some bumps in writing [performance] over the last several years. Were not going to see those kinds of bumps in the future. The panel voted to accept the teachers recommendations for the writing test.

The panels recommendations supported those made by teachers in some areas, but refined them or raised the bar in others. Teachers have certain aspirations, noted Flicek, but there are a lot of other interests and aspirations in Wyoming. The point of the panel is to bring those into the process.

At the end of the discussion, Thomas Buchanan, president of the University of Wyoming, commented, I leave feeling a lot better about whats going on in public education.

Caroline Chauncey is editor of the Harvard Education Letter and assistant director of the Harvard Education Publishing Group.


Student tracking system receives a failing grade

Millions spent, yet state can't calculate dropouts

By Ed Mendel, Los Angeles Times, August 21, 2006

SACRAMENTO  The state has spent $70 million on a high-tech student information system during the last decade, but the goal of analyzing test scores and other data to improve the education system is still years away.

California has fallen far behind other large states with sophisticated student tracking systems, such as Texas and Florida, and cannot accurately calculate a basic fact about school performance: the dropout rate.

The state has been reporting a dropout rate of 13 percent to avoid a cut in federal funds, even though the actual rate is believed to be 29 percent  and alarmingly, around 50 percent for black and Latino males. Disputes over the dropout rate have been going on for years. Most recently, a Harvard University study last year and an Education Week report in June both concluded California has the higher dropout rate.

A tracking system that could provide authoritative dropout rates has been delayed by several things: disinterest by top policy-makers, state budget deficits, bureaucratic infighting and fear of a computer fiasco that plagued the Department of Motor Vehicles and other agencies.

When the $131 billion state budget was signed in June, Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell criticized lawmakers for not including $15 million to help school districts produce quality data for a new system.

It is frankly shameful that well into the first decade of the 21st century, the state that is home to Silicon Valley can't provide accurate graduation and dropout rates, O'Connell said in a news release.

A similar view is held by John Mockler, a former education secretary for former Gov. Gray Davis, who expected a student tracking system to be completed several years ago.

It's shameful that the state of technology doesn't have a technology system to track students over time, Mockler said. It's embarrassing.

Beyond answering the question of how many students are completing their education, a modern student tracking system has strong backers because of the potential to aid research that could improve instruction.

Such a system might help answer important questions: What programs and teacher preparation work best? What's revealed when test scores are sorted by race, gender, income and other factors?

Nearly all states are installing various types of student data systems to track test scores and attendance. Some states, such as North Carolina and Idaho, have had expensive failures.

A survey conducted last year by the National Center for Educational Accountability found that Texas and Florida had nine of the 10 essential elements in their data systems, while California had just one.

While each state's education system is unique, it is clear that there is a set of 10 essential elements that are critical to a longitudinal data system*:

  1. A unique statewide student identifier
  2. Student-level enrollment, demographic and program participation information
  3. The ability to match individual students test records from year to year to measure academic growth
  4. Information on untested students
  5. A teacher identifier system with the ability to match teachers to students
  6. Student-level transcript information, including information on courses completed and grades earned
  7. Student-level college readiness test scores
  8. Student-level graduation and dropout data
  9. The ability to match student records between the PreK12 and higher education systems
  10. A state data audit system assessing data quality, validity and reliability

Source: Data Quality Campaign

In most states I visit, it's a struggle to get money from state legislatures, said Nancy Smith, deputy director of the center's Data Quality Campaign in Austin, Texas.

California launched a voluntary student data system in 1997 to help school districts submit electronic reports to the state and transfer student records to other districts and colleges and universities.

The state had spent $70 million on the California Student Information System through last fiscal year, according to the state Department of Finance, and about 250 districts with 60 percent of the students were participating.

The state budget signed in June contains $35 million to help the rest of the districts switch to the system during the next three years. But many of the remaining 800 districts are small, have no technology experts on staff and could struggle with the conversion.

A big step toward a modern student data system was taken this year when the state, after a decade of delay, completed assigning an identification number to each of the more than 6 million students in California.

One example of why identifiers are said to be important is that the previous system could show whether the test scores of a class of second-graders made progress when the class was tested again the next year as third-graders.

But because each student was identified anonymously with a number, there was no way to know whether the same students were being tested. Students come and go as their parents move, particularly in low-income areas.

The collection of this information is being called longitudinal data.

Prompted in part by data requirements in the federal No Child Left Behind law, the state passed legislation in 2002 that was supposed to create the California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System.

Unlike the current system, which only transfers reports and records, the new system will be able to store and evaluate student data gathered over the years. But it's off to a slow start.

The state budget contains $1.8 million to go out to bid for a database, estimated to cost an additional $8.6 million and to begin operating a decade after the state launched its student information system.

The Data Quality Campaign Web site says some states have built extremely functional, user-friendly longitudinal data systems in less than three years at a cost of less than $5 million.

It's one of those things, whether we had money or didn't have money, it was never sexy enough for any governor to care about, said former state Sen. Dede Alpert, D-Coronado, the author of legislation creating the new system.

Alpert and Mockler attribute part of the delay in creating a tracking system to resistance from the governor's Department of Finance, which is at odds with the Department of Education run by O'Connell.

The Department of Finance said the funding to help districts with the tracking system would be premature because the system is not scheduled to begin operating until December 2008, and districts do not expect to receive funding in exchange for accurate data.

The view that the Department of Finance is resisting the creation of a new student data system was expressed in a bill last year, AB 1213, that briefly contained a provision saying the department's approval was not needed to release system funds.

I am not aware of any money that we have let sit there and not be allocated, said a Department of Finance spokeswoman.

Brad Strong, a lobbyist for EdVoice, a broad-based group funded by wealthy Silicon Valley businessmen that pushes for education reform, said the provision in the bill tweaking Finance was a kind of tongue-in-cheek joke.

But the provision was mentioned in a Harvard study in March 2005 that criticized the state for delaying student identification numbers.

As in a study published by Education Week in June, the Harvard researchers concluded that the dropout rate in California is 29 percent, much higher than the 13 percent reported by the state.

The Department of Education does not dispute the contention that the actual dropout rate is the higher number. The state uses a method that underreports dropouts to avoid penalties under No Child Left Behind.

What's the difference? The researchers compare the number of students who enter the ninth grade to the number of graduates four years later. The state adds up annual dropout estimates known to be questionable.

The Harvard study said some California schools are dropout factories. The study said the dropout rate rises sharply for minority male students: Latinos 46 percent, blacks 50 percent and American Indians 54 percent.

Now that the state has given each student an identification number, it can begin calculating a more accurate one-year dropout rate, starting a process that will require four years of data to produce a complete dropout rate.

We are looking forward to seeing what that says, said Keric Ashley, the Department of Education data manager.

A bill in the Legislature this year could aid sophisticated analysis of student data in the future by creating a teacher tracking system, the California Longitudinal Teacher Integrated Data Education System.

The bill, SB 1614 by Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, is supported by the California Teachers Association, which opposed a bill last year containing identifiers that could link specific teachers to student achievement data.


Academic standards bill vetoed

Governor refuses to lower criteria for complying with No Child Left Behind law

By Jim Sanders, Sacramento Bee, September 21, 2006

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed legislation Wednesday that proposed an instant fix for students failing to meet California's standard for proficiency: redefine proficiency.

Schwarzenegger concluded that changing a few words won't solve academic woes.

"Redefining the level of academic achievement necessary to designate students as 'proficient' does not make the students proficient," his veto message said.

Assemblywoman Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, called the governor's veto of her Assembly Bill 2975 a "missed opportunity" that ultimately will hurt students.

"Schools will be labeled as failing schools even if they are making progress and improving their test scores," she said.

AB 2975 argued that California's definition of proficiency was unrealistically high.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) requires every student to be proficient in English and mathematics by 2014, but every state can define proficiency.

Thus the rub: States that set the bar low academically have a distinct advantage.

In recent years, fewer than 50 percent of students have met California's standard for proficiency, which basically requires standardized test scores that show grade-level competence and, thus, skills necessary to attend college.

"While that's a good goal, it's an unrealistic requirement for all students," Hancock said.

Under NCLB, sanctions are imposed on schools that receive federal funds for disadvantaged children and fail two consecutive years in meeting annual targets for the number of proficient children overall and in ethnic or other subgroups, such as English learners.

Penalties increase in severity over a five-year period, from allowing students to transfer at district expense to restructuring the faculty or administration of a targeted school.

AB 2975 proposed a lower standard for proficiency. Students would have met it by acquiring adequate skills, year by year, to pass the California High School Exit Exam.

The exit exam measures English-language arts at about the ninth- and 10th-grade levels, and mathematics at about the seventh- and eighth-grade levels, officials said.

The California Teachers Association and the California School Boards Association supported AB 2975, but the bill was opposed by Jack O'Connell, state superintendent of public instruction.

"Young people need higher-level skills than ever before to succeed in the competitive global economy," O'Connell said in a prepared statement.

The Republican governor vetoed two other bills Wednesday relating to academic standards:

  • Senate Bill 1546 would have allowed community college districts to concurrently award an associate degree and a high school diploma, without passage of the High School Exit Exam.
  • Assembly Bill 2937 would have required the state Department of Education to determine what performance levels on a California Standards Test would equate to passage of the exit exam.

"California has made tremendous strides toward achieving world-class academic standards and testing for our students," Schwarzenegger said.

"I will continue my vigilance in protecting these high standards."


No Child Left Behind: Fix it, but don't nix it

By Peter Schrag, Sacramento Bee Columnist, December 20, 2006

Like many federal laws, the No Child Left Behind Act operates mostly on states and local agencies. Few ordinary citizens notice it in their private lives.

But NCLB, the centerpiece of President Bush's compassionate conservatism, has had a deeper impact on the nation's schools and thus on students than any other piece of federal legislation.

"It's changed the conversation in the schools," as Alan Bersin, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's outgoing secretary of education, said the other day, by forcing serious attention on school accountability and achievement, particularly the lagging achievement of poor and minority kids.

But it's also generated fundamental controversies and thorny problems that go to the heart of the nation's ambivalence about educational policy and the treatment of kids. One of its two core provisions requires all schools to achieve 100 percent proficiency in major academic fields by 2014. Schools receiving federal funds for disadvantaged students that don't make progress toward that goal face an increasingly tough set of sanctions.

Some critics have called the very notion of 100 percent proficiency an oxymoron -- something that, if proficiency is to have any meaning, can't be achieved. And since the states themselves define proficiency and set their own standards, some, such as Wisconsin, have lowered their standards to make the targets. California, which has among the highest standards in the nation, is not one of them, despite some legislative efforts to water them down.

But as seemed evident from the start, the federal mandate on schools to get students in all ethnic, economic and educational subgroups to full proficiency is a near impossibility, especially for learning disabled students and immigrants who have been in U.S. schools for three years -- or perhaps five years -- or less.

Rep. George Miller of Martinez, a Democrat who's the incoming chairman of the House Education Committee, and, with Sen. Ted Kennedy, one of the co-authors of NCLB, agrees that the law needs fixes especially in weighing the achievement of English learners and handicapped students.

He's also willing to consider proposals from California and other states that school progress be measured by year-to-year growth rather than movement toward that 100 percent proficiency goal. But he's leery about abandoning a drop-dead date. "We can't give away the integrity of the act," he said. If the schools think that mere "growth," no matter how little, is enough for students to be competitive in the global economy, the country is likely to be back on the slippery path to mediocrity.

The bipartisan deal that led to the passage of NCLB in 2001 was based on a combination of rigorous school accountability measures and increased federal funding that would supposedly pay for the increased demands on schools.

Inevitably there's been erosion at both ends of the bargain. States have continually fudged on the law's demand that there be a "highly qualified teacher" in every classroom -- a laudable target but a near impossibility -- and on the proficiency standards. The Bush administration, while increasing funding, has fallen many billions short of its fiscal commitments when the law was passed.

Not surprisingly, there's been push-back from a variety of sources -- from bipartisan legislative committees, from the National Education Association, from some civil rights groups and from educators who believe that the law's pressure on states has led schools to overemphasize drill for tests and the subjects, particularly math and English, that are tested, and to neglect other subjects.

There's also debate about the extent to which federal accountability programs have raised achievement and closed the gaps between different groups of students. And as low-standards states continue to report high levels of success, the gaps between state and national test scores have increased pressure for a system of national standards, even among educational conservatives who generally oppose meddling with what used to be a strict state-local prerogative.

What's certain is that until the federal and state accountability are "harmonized" -- Bersin's term -- there'll be continuing public confusion about what different scores and proficiency reports mean. In California, as elsewhere, hundreds of schools that are doing well according to the state's "growth" model are underperforming in moving toward the federal proficiency target.

Although NCLB is up for renewal this coming year, and while it's already the subject of hearings, the chances of major revisions before the 2008 presidential election -- or even on anything more than a temporary extension -- are low. Given the controversies, neither the administration nor Congress is eager to touch the subject any sooner than necessary.

And yet it's also true that, as Miller says, "When you have poor kids, poor schools and poor teachers, how can you expect a good result?" To change that requires a major -- and well targeted -- investment, including serious reforms in the nation's tired schools of education, another item on Miller's agenda. And it will require a continuing national push.

"If NCLB is gone," as he says, "America's poor kids will again be forgotten."


Fordham Report: The Proficiency Illusion

Fordaham Report, October 7, 2007

At the heart of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) is a call for all students to be "proficient" in reading and mathematics by 2014. Yet the law expects each state to define proficiency as it sees fit and design its own tests. This study uses a Northwest Evaluation Association exam as a common benchmark to measure proficiency cut scores for assessments in twenty-six states. The findings suggest that the tests states use to measure academic progress and student proficiency under the No Child Left Behind Act are creating a false impression of success, especially in reading and especially in the early grades. Read the entire report here or just the California report.


L.A. Unified warned that it falls short of state standards

By Howard Blume, Los Angeles Times, November 29, 2007

The California Department of Education has alerted 99 school districts, including Los Angeles Unified, that they are in danger of being abolished, taken over or stripped of administrators and schools under their jurisdiction. But whether these and other harsh measures will come to pass is questionable at best.

Other districts that were informed that they face sanctions for failing to improve test scores for all students include Berkeley Unified, Montebello Unified, Pomona Unified, Santa Ana Unified, Antelope Valley Joint Union, Centinela Valley Union, Santa Barbara Elementary and Lennox Elementary.

Under the federal No Child Left Behind law, state officials have not adopted severe punishments against school districts, and they appear reluctant now.

But their authority to do so became sweeping this fall in the wake of the most recent results on state standardized tests.

For the first time, school districts that continue to fall short of academic benchmarks are exposed to severe measures, and federal law requires the state in the next few months to take some action.

Los Angeles school Supt. David L. Brewer armed himself with the state's written notification recently to defend himself against parents who were upset over his failure to consult with them before announcing his latest reform plan. He said the state's letter explained the urgency behind his actions.

"They can remove all of us," Brewer said referring to himself, his staff and the elected school board. And they could withhold funding: "I don't want them to mess with my money."

Among other actions, the state board also could authorize student transfers outside a district or break up a large school system.

The state board is scheduled to deliberate on what to do with L.A. Unified at its January meeting. And under federal law, it must adopt one or more specific options, all of which sound potentially extreme, and not only to officials in Los Angeles.

"A number of those sanctions could be very detrimental," said Brett Neal, director of school improvement for Antelope Valley.

Antelope Valley met 32 of 34 mandated goals, missing the mark on the academic proficiency of its disabled students as well as their participation rate on tests.

As a result, the district could not shed the unwanted label of being in so-called program improvement status.

"When you say a district is in program improvement, you have all kinds of ideas about what's not working," Neal said. "On the contrary, our district has grown academically" -- a message the district is trying to get out.

Brewer used the ostensibly disastrous news in a novel way: to get the upper hand with parent representatives at a late October meeting.

But down the line, should he -- and other superintendents -- be worried?

"We're getting a lot of calls," said Wendy Harris, assistant superintendent of the Department of Education. "There's a lot of angst out there. . . . Some of these options are very draconian and maybe not even doable under state law. I don't know how you abolish a district.

"We're trying to find a way to meet federal law that works within the California context and doesn't unravel the positive growth that districts have made," she said.

The president of the state Board of Education referred to the sanction alternatives as "the seven deadly cures." Kenneth Noonan, a former Oceanside Unified superintendent, also said he wants to get "input from each of the 99 districts to tell us what it is you need."

On measures used to calculate the federal standard of "adequate yearly progress," L.A. Unified passed muster in 43 of 46 categories.

L.A. Unified, the nation's second-largest district, fell short on its graduation rate and in two English language arts categories: English learners and disabled students.

State officials insist they don't have nearly the resources to step in and take control. In the past, the state has appointed its own administrators to run only school systems facing imminent bankruptcy. An exception was Compton Unified, where the state took charge for eight years through legislation characterizing the district as both educationally and financially bankrupt.

Critics have faulted the state's accountability system from both directions: Some say there are no meaningful sanctions; others say the state labels schools as failures without giving them sufficient means to improve.

Actions against low-performing school districts are "the part of No Child Left Behind that almost no one is paying attention to," said Chester E. Finn Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, based in Washington, D.C., which funds education research and supports charter schools.

"It is close to being a joke," he added, addressing a recent conference of educators. "I don't know if there is the political will or policy leverage" to use the sanctions.

The ultimate federal sanction under the No Child Left Behind law is withholding money from a state or school district, a rare tactic. The U.S. Department of Education could cite only one example: The department once penalized Texas for being late in delivering test results for schools.

Despite the lack of federal enforcement, "states are beginning to feel a little overwhelmed" at the high number of perpetually low-achieving schools and school districts, said Raymond Simon, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Education.

Bush administration officials say they are open to some revisions in No Child Left Behind. An amended law, for example, could make helpful distinctions between schools and districts that fell just short of testing targets "for relatively minor infractions" and those "that continually miss year after year," Simon said.


Idaho asks the feds for a fresh start on No Child Left Behind

By Bill Roberts, Idaho Statesman, May 29, 2008

Idaho's State Board of Education wants a fresh start for hundreds of public schools facing sanctions under a tough federal education accountability mandate.

The board has asked the U.S. Department of Education to wipe away the student progress measurements between 2002 and 2006 under No Child Left Behind on which the sanctions are based. In its place, the board wants the feds to restart the No Child Left Behind clock, which sets the deadline for schools to meet minimum proficiency standards.

The board's rationale: Idaho had poorly written education standards and statewide exams not aligned to what instructors were expected to teach.

If the feds agree - and some Idaho educators are doubtful - hundreds of schools could be out from under immediate requirements that they provide outside tutoring or allow children to go to schools that are more successful than the ones they attend.

But John Goedde, state Senate Education Committee chair, opposes a do-over because it defeats the purpose of accountability.

No Child Left Behind is the centerpiece of President Bush's education program. It affects nearly every U.S. public school and requires all students be performing on grade level by 2014.

Some educators across the country grumble about No Child Left Behind and its reliance on testing. Some states have even flirted with abandoning the system, which would mean giving up federal funding.

Mike Rush, State Board executive director, wrote the feds asking to reset the No Child Left Behind clock for Idaho beginning with spring 2007 statewide exam results, after the state made improvements to its testing system.

The clock, however, would start again and schools that don't measure up would face a new round of sanctions if student performance doesn't improve.

"It is unreasonable to label schools and districts based on student achievement data that was measured with an invalid and unreliable tool," Rush wrote in a letter to the U.S. Department of Education dated Tuesday.

The board's request is "fair to schools and teachers," said Linda Clark, Meridian School District superintendent. "We want schools to have the most sound data."

U.S. Department of Education officials say they have received the letter and are reviewing it.

Idaho was fined $103,000 in 2005 after the feds said the state did not have an adequate testing system in place. The board is now using the feds' own argument against them. If the previous system was poor, the board argues, schools shouldn't be held accountable under it.

"How can you say that a school didn't make progress if your initial measurement was not valid?" Rush said Wednesday.

Since No Child Left Behind started, hundreds of Idaho schools have faced sanctions and diverted resources to help improve student performance in subjects such as reading, math and language. Some students are required to give up electives and attend classes to help them improve academic performance.

Tests and standards used over the past several years were approved by the State Board in 1999 and early in this decade. The system was revised in 2007.

Tom Luna, state schools superintendent, played an integral role in development of both the first standards and the exams, although he was not superintendent or a State Board member at the time.

Despite concerns from critics, including then state schools Superintendent Marilyn Howard, the board moved ahead with both testing and standards. The tests and standards were later found lacking in two independent reports in about 2005.

The board's request to the U.S. Department of Education was prompted by the Idaho School Superintendents Association, which said schools were being unfairly labeled as failing by a system that did not accurately measure student progress.

Terry Donicht, superintendent at both McCall-Donnelly and Meadows Valley school districts, tried to point out some of the problems during those early years.

"Many people thought we were simply trying to avoid being held accountable," said Donicht, who brought the association's proposal to the board in April.

Donicht makes some good points, Goedde said.

"The original (exam) was not a valid test, yet that test was commissioned by the State Board of Education to meet federal standards," he said. "Our State Board made another mistake, which is a tragedy.

"But to ask to restart the accountability process due to that error seems to defeat the concept of accountability altogether."

Leaving My Lapel Pin Behind
Is No Child Left Behind’s birthday worth celebrating?

By Michael J. Petrilli

For five years now, I’ve considered myself a supporter of the No Child Left Behind Act. And not just the casual flag-waver variety. Much of that time I spent inside the Bush administration, trying to make the law work, explaining its vision to hundreds of audiences, even wearing an NCLB pin on my lapel. I was a True Believer.


In a way, I still am. After all, in the 21st century, saying you “support” NCLB is shorthand for affirming a set of ideas, values, and hopes for the country as much as an expression about a particular statute. I’m not just referring to the proposition that “no child should be left behind” — the notion that we have a moral responsibility to provide a decent education for everyone. Ninety-nine percent of the education establishment can get behind that “purpose” of the law and still resist meaningful reform.

I mean a set of powerful — and controversial — ideas that provide the subtext for all the big NCLB battles. First, that virtually all children (even those living in poverty) have the capacity to achieve a reasonable level of proficiency in reading and math by the time they turn 18 — and that it’s the education system’s job to make sure they do. Second, that everyone benefits from having someone looking over his shoulder and that schools and school systems need external pressure — i.e., accountability — in order to improve; good intentions aren’t enough. Third, that good education is synonymous with good teaching. This requires good teachers, which every child deserves, but which today’s education bureaucracies, licensure rules, ed schools, and union contracts too often impede. Fourth, that giving parents choices within the education system has all kinds of positive benefits, from creating healthy competitive pressures to allowing educators to customize their programs instead of trying to be all things to all people. And fifth, that improving education is a national imperative, and that the federal government can and should play a constructive role.

In other words, at the level of ideas, NCLB is the embodiment of the 1990s era education reform playbook. Educators, policymakers, think tankers, and activists who “support” NCLB are saying “I’m part of the education reform team.”

But does that mean that they necessarily agree with the machinery of the law itself? Speaking personally, I’ve gradually and reluctantly come to the conclusion that NCLB as enacted is fundamentally flawed and probably beyond repair.

Of course, I harbored doubts about certain specifics from the beginning. You didn’t have to be a genius to see the “highly qualified teachers” mandate as a huge overreach and a probable failure, as it took a reasonable notion (teachers should know their stuff) and tried to enforce it through a rigid rule-based mechanism (second guessing principals who, for instance, hired engineers as math teachers). Nor was it hard to determine that asking all states to reach universal “proficiency” by 2014 but allowing them to define “proficiency” as they saw fit would create a race to the bottom.

Other flaws took me longer to appreciate. For example:

Surely schools would respond thoughtfully to the law’s incentives to boost achievement in reading and math, and would understand that providing a broad, content-rich education would give them the best shot at boosting test scores, right? Yet the anecdotes (and increasingly, evidence) keep rolling in of schools turning into test-prep factories and narrowing the curriculum. (See here, for example.)

Surely if those of us at the Department of Education pushed hard enough we could get districts to inform parents of their school-choice options under the law, and ensure that kids trapped in failing schools have better places to go, right? Yet (as I conclude in this paper presented in December at the American Enterprise Institute), hard experience has shown that “stronger implementation” would only make a difference at the margin. It cannot solve the fundamental problem: in most of our big cities, there are too few good schools to go around. Uncle Sam can’t snap his fingers and make it otherwise. Furthermore, while it’s hard enough to force recalcitrant states and districts to do things they don’t want to do, it’s impossible to force them to do those things well. And when it comes to informing parents, creating new schools, or implementing almost any of NCLB’s many pieces, it’s not enough for states or districts to go through the motions. They have to want to make it succeed. If they don’t, Washington is out of luck. It has no tools or levers to alter the situation. That’s why I’ve called much of the law “un-implementable.”

So I shouldn’t have been surprised when the AFT’s Michele McLauglin wrote in her NCLB blog about the AEI conference, “Petrilli and Checker Finn…seem to be arguing for a more limited role for the feds in education because the U.S. Department of Education doesn't have the ability to get states and districts to implement the law well. Unless I am missing something, this seems to be a shift in position for the Fordham Foundation, which has been a major supporter of NCLB.”

Guilty as charged. I can’t pretend any longer that the law is “working,” or that a tweak and a tuck would make it “work.” Yet I still like its zeitgeist. As Kati Haycock argued at the AEI confab, NCLB has “changed the conversation” in education. Results are now the coin of the realm; the “soft bigotry of low expectations” is taboo; closing the achievement gap is at the top of everyone’s to-do list. All for the good. More than good. But let’s face it: it doesn’t help the dedicated principal who is pulling her hair out because of the law’s nonsensical provisions — the specifics that keep NCLB from achieving its own aims.

Here’s the crux of the matter: when it’s time for reauthorization, can we overhaul the law itself without letting go of its powerful ideas? Two other outcomes are more likely. One is the tweak regimen: the law gets renewed but remains mostly unchanged, and we continue to muddle through, driving even well-intentioned educators crazy and not achieving the results we seek. (This is the prediction of most “education insiders.” It amounts to ostrich-like stubbornness in the face of evidence that an overhaul is what’s needed. The second is bathtub emptying: Throw the baby out along with the murky water and give up on the law and its ideals. Then we go back to the days when schools felt little pressure to get all of their students prepared for college and life and democratic participation, and we declare No Child Left Behind another failed experiment.

That would be a disaster.

What, then, to do? In my opinion, the way forward starts with a more realistic assessment of what the federal government can reasonably hope to achieve in education. Using sticks and carrots to tug and prod states and districts in desired directions has proven unworkable. It was worth trying but experience has taught us that this approach suffers from too much hubris and humility at the same time. Instead of this muddle, the feds should adopt a simple, radical principle: Do it yourself, or don’t do it at all.

In the “Do it Yourself” category would be two major responsibilities: distributing funds to the neediest students, and collecting and publishing transparent information about the performance of U.S. schools. Redistributing funds is easy; it’s what Washington does best. Still, it could do it even better by adopting weighted-student funding, ensuring that dollars follow children to their school of choice, with extra cash following students with the greatest needs. Furthermore, it could do more to ensure that high poverty schools receive equitable resources before the federal dollars arrive. (December’s Funding Gaps report from Ed Trust demonstrates the screwiness of today’s federal-funding formulas.)

As for its second responsibility, an important bullet waits to be bitten: collect and publish swift, reliable, and comparable data on the performance of the nation’s schools via clear national standards, a rigorous national test, and a common approach to school ratings (e.g. a single definition of “adequate yearly progress”). Then everyone would have a consistent and fair way to distinguish good schools from bad. We would have consistently high expectations for all students and all schools, and would end the federal/state cat-and-mouse games being played over accountability. The federal government should also make school-level financial information transparent (a necessity to achieve the funding reforms mentioned above) and continue to pay for high-quality research and make its results transparent and accessible to all.

Into the “Don’t Do it At All” bucket goes everything else. No more federal mandates on teacher quality. No more prescriptive “cascade of sanctions” for failing schools. No more federal guarantee of school choice for children not being well-served. The states would worry about how to define and achieve greater teacher quality (or, better, teacher effectiveness). The states would decide when and how to intervene in failing schools. The states would develop new capacity for school choice. These are all important, powerful reforms, but they have proven beyond Uncle Sam’s capacity to make happen. These policy battles should return to the state level, where governments can actually do something about them and do them right. And if the federal government just can’t help itself and wants to “promote” these causes, let it offer competitive grants for states and districts that want to move in these directions.

The Do It Yourself or Don’t Do It At All Act doesn’t have the same ring as leaving no child behind. But its zeitgeist is the same. It would also be a better fit for our federalist system and a more effective vehicle for the reform ideas that we NCLB supporters hold so dear. In this new year, let us resolve to be humble enough to admit the law’s limitations and brave enough to stand up for its ideals.


 —  Michael J. Petrilli is a vice president at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution.



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