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Senate education bill looks a lot like NCLB-waiver guidelines

The bill promises increased flexibility, but it also sets performance targets that are arguably as unrealistic as NCLB’s.

johnson portrait
Wikimedia Commons
LBJ would not have stood for the latest NCLB

Whatever plane he inhabits now, one-time schoolteacher Lyndon Baines Johnson is likely wishing he could lock his current successor and a handful of key Beltway players in a closet and keep them there until they fix No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

LBJ would, of course, have the goods on each and every one of them. And not much patience for the rationalizations that would clog the air as leaders of both parties tried to both prescribe policy and position themselves as hands-off.

No, Johnson would likely do what he did in 1965, when he ended a century of debate by pushing through NCLB’s precursor, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). He’d declare education a key path out of poverty and threaten to open a can of political whoop-ass on anyone who talked back.

Senate Dems’ latest plan

Tuesday U.S. Senate Democrats introduced their most recent proposal for revising the 2001 law, which has now languished, expired, for longer than it was authorized for. The ironies were almost too thick to wade through.

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Introduced by Education Committee Chair Tom Harkin, of Iowa, the Strengthening America’s Schools Act of 2013 looks an awful lot like the guidelines U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan hands to states seeking waivers from compliance with NCLB.

Senate Republicans are likely to deem the measure, scheduled to come up for discussion June 11, too intrusive and are likely to counter with a measure that calls for a greatly reduced role for the U.S. Department of Education (DOE).

And Lakeville Republican Rep. John Kline, head of the House of Representatives Education Committee, is likely to have his own ideas about what should replace NCLB. Two years ago he was seen as one of the most powerful players in the reauthorization debate, alongside Duncan.

Kline has struggled to gain support not just from Democrats but from the House’s Tea Party wing, which would prefer the wholesale abolition of the DOE. His failure to advance a bill to replace NCLB despite the GOP’s control of Congress in part allowed Duncan to end-run lawmakers.

Bill promises flexibility, includes targets

For educators, Strengthening America’s Schools would be a mixed bag. The bill’s language promises the increased flexibility that Duncan’s waivers allow states willing to craft their own education-reform plans. But it also sets performance targets that are arguably as unrealistic as NCLB and would require reams of new data reported.

Like NCLB, the bill would continue to require all students to be tested in grades 3 through 8 and at least once in high school. Results would still have to be broken down and reported by an array of demographic subgroups. The data would have to be reported to parents and other community members in a uniform manner, but also in much more detail.  

Administrators would gain some flexibility in terms of the tests they can use to fulfill the law, however. In some cases they might be able to use the formative assessments that teachers actually find helpful in terms of identifying and plugging gaps in students’ knowledge.

In lieu of NCLB’s widely reviled mandate that all students become proficient in math and reading by this year or their schools face sanctions, the bill proposes, essentially, the waivers Duncan has been granting. But states would have to pledge to bring all schools to the level of the highest performers by a “reasonable” deadline — potentially as high or higher a bar than the unmeet-able NCLB.

‘Focus’ and ‘priority’ groups

As under the waivers, states would continue to be required to identify the lowest-performing 15 percent of schools. But additionally they would be required to put high schools with graduation rates of less than 60 percent and schools failing certain subgroups of students into “focus” and “priority” subgroups.

Possibly the most complicated provision concerns changes required of those persistent underperforming schools. Educators have complained that the four “turnaround” models laid out by the current law are counterproductive and haven’t resulted in gains in many places. The bill would keep the four school turnaround models but adds a host of confusing caveats.

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One provision is likely to make steam come out of the ears of policymakers who have engaged in bloody, state- and district-level battles over tying teacher evaluations and job security to student performance. That would become optional. Evaluations would still be mandated, but their outcomes would be de-coupled from major personnel decisions.

Finally, like the waivers — and most maddening to those who crave transparency — accountability would be pegged to adoption of the new Common Core standards or a state’s preferred set of academic benchmarks, provided they look a whole lot like Common Core.

The Common Core flap likely would have LBJ waving a cudgel at both sides. A set of guidelines created by educators that spell out in detail exactly what students should know, they were originally the creation of the governors of all but a couple of U.S. states.

NCLB penalized schools and districts that failed to produce enough “proficient” students but did not define proficiency. Some states reacted by lowering academic standards; Minnesota was not one. Common Core was an effort to level the playing field and inject some rationality.

Criticized by right and left

It has also widely been criticized, first by the right, which has decried the creation of a “national curriculum,” and more recently by the left, which is sounding alarms about a supposed increase in standardized testing.

Although their verbiage and tactics have varied, both political parties have responded to the din by espousing the importance of local control in education while insisting said control has to be equal to or better than a prescribed set of standards and policies.

Which is where the Strengthening Schools Act is most likely to disappoint. In trying to serve both ends, it could end up serving neither, teeing up another protracted reauthorization battle.