Superintendents, teachers, advocates for students and business and community leaders sounded a strong, though not unanimous, call Monday for federal officials to give California wide berth to fashion a school improvement system without micromanagement from Washington.
“The best-run companies empower front-line workers. Focus on being a partner, not on telling us how to do the job but on helping us do the job,” David Rattray, executive vice president of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, told U.S. Department of Education officials at a hearing in Los Angeles on the Every Student Succeeds Act, the successor to the No Child Left Behind Act.
In all-day hearings last week in Washington, D.C., and at UCLA on Monday, federal education officials led by Ann Whalen, senior adviser to Acting Education Secretary John King, sought advice on regulations to implement the new law. The watchword from California – from the State Board of Education to the local level – was that the new regulations shouldn’t encroach on the flexibility that Congress intended when it passed and President Barack Obama signed the law last month.
“Implementation depends on lessons learned from the failure of NCLB,” said Patricia Rucker, a member of the state board who spoke in her role as a lobbyist for the California Teachers Association. “Balance federalism with local control. Rule making should be disciplined to respect the nuances of state plans.”
The state board is in the process of designing a school improvement system under parameters that the Legislature set in the 2013 Local Control Funding Formula. It will use various yardsticks of student achievement and school improvement, including measures of college and career preparation, parental involvement and student suspension rates as well as standardized test scores. The new law marks a shift from NCLB’s prescriptive state requirements on turning low-performing schools around, based primarily on test scores. The Every Student Succeeds Act is compatible, in principle, with the state’s approach.
But Congress also pared back the authority of future secretaries of education to negotiate exceptions to the law, and the federal and state laws have differences that could prove problematic.
State law focuses on assisting districts that need help, while the Every Student Succeeds Act directs aid to schools. The federal law requires identifying the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools and then overseeing comprehensive improvement plans for them. It also requires that districts provide technical help to schools where subgroups of students would also rank among the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools.
Gov. Jerry Brown and the state board oppose using a single school score created from an index to rate schools. They want to use a “dashboard” of measures to identify schools in trouble. In a letter to the federal officials and in testimony at the hearing, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson and state board member Ilene Straus repeated that stand. “Do not require differentiation by a single index or grading system; avoid any particular metric; let states choose in any manner,” Straus said.
Loring Davies, assistant superintendent of the Whittier Union High School District, testified that his district has already shifted, ahead of the state, to pay attention to a variety of performance measures: attendance rates, discipline data and progress toward graduation. That approach has led to overall student growth and improvement, he said, because concentrating on single measures, like test scores, did not address the needs of students and the true causes of problems.
But civil rights advocates warned that a dashboard of metrics could mask consistently underachieving schools, complicate identifying disparities in performance of student subgroups and confuse parents. Carrie Hahnel, deputy director of research and policy analysis at Education Trust-West, said “judicious” federal regulations can help fix gaps in the state accountability plan by insisting that the state set specific goals for student performance and clear time frames for achieving them. The state could use guidance on what a successful school, as opposed to district, improvement plan looks like, she said.
Tom Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said the federal Department of Education should remain firm that states adhere to the federal law’s goal of eliminating achievement gaps. It should insist, for example, on measuring subgroups’ access to and completion of high-level courses and not use schoolwide data to hide disparities, he said. States like California should identify more schools with large gaps in subgroup performance than the lowest 5 percent, an arbitrary federal standard, he said. Limiting the number would “water down” the law’s intent to help all students, he said.
Close achievement gaps: top priority
Other speakers said regulations should clarify vagueness and ambiguity in the law.
Gary Orfield, a professor of education law and political science at UCLA and co-founder of the Civil Rights Project, called on federal officials to remind states and districts of their obligations to follow civil rights laws. He said that the Every Student Succeeds Act requires districts to use evidence-based practices to address problems, but he called the law’s vague definition “pathetic.” Schools will “waste money on things that don’t work,” he said.
The congressional authors of the new law mistrust the federal government’s role in education, but many states lack knowledge of research and the capacity to evaluate effective programs, Orfield said, so Congress should turn to the National Research Council to lay out best practices.
Candis Bowles, managing attorney at Disability Rights California, called for guidance to prevent bullying and to monitor discipline practices and behavioral interventions for students with disabilities. And, she said, it is critical for the federal government to act to reduce the use of restraints and the practice of seclusion with those students.
Tony Gueringer, speaking on behalf of the UCLA Black Alumni Association, called for regulations to set uniform policies on suspensions and expulsions, which he said disproportionately discriminate against African-American students. In one district a student can be sent home because of how she wears her hair, while in another it’s a non-issue, he said.
The Every Student Succeeds Act was carefully written, with purposeful ambiguity to reach a bipartisan compromise in Congress. Writing regulations to satisfy advocates of local control, like Torlakson, and of a more assertive role in closing achievement gaps, like Orfield, could prove tricky. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., a co-writer of the law, has promised to keep a close watch and rein in regulators if they stray too far.