The profound question that anyone concerned about our children’s future – and the nation’s – is whether the Every Student Succeeds Act that President Barack Obama just signed will be any more successful than the law it replaced in realizing its lofty vision.
Almost 14 years ago to the day, on Jan. 2, 2002, former President George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind law that is now widely maligned, and in many quarters reviled.
“Today begins a new era, a new time in public education in our country,” Bush declared in the sweeping rhetoric that typically accompanies presidential signings of this kind. “As of this hour, America’s schools will be on a new path of reform, and a new path of results.”
His rhetoric was matched by the Democratic authors of the bill, who also trumpeted the transformational promise of NCLB. “This is a defining issue about the future of our nation and about the future of democracy, the future of liberty, and the future of the United States in leading the free world,” the late Sen. Edward Kennedy proclaimed. “No piece of legislation will have a greater impact or influence on that.”
Obama’s legslation was similarly launched with grand expectations. Calling it a “Christmas miracle,” Obama declared, “I’m proud to sign a law that’s going to make sure that every student is prepared to succeed in the 21st century.”
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the principal Republican author of the bill, said the law would “inaugurate a new era of innovation and excellence in student achievement by restoring responsibility to states and classroom teachers.”
Whether it will or won’t is, at this stage, unknown.
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten recalled a few years ago that she had “high hopes for NCLB when it was enacted in 2002.”
“I was not alone in being optimistic and heartened by the renewed federal commitment to supporting public education,” she said. “In particular, those of us committed to seeing all our students succeed, no matter their ZIP code, applauded the focused attention on eradicating the achievement gap.”
But, she noted, “hope, no matter its wellspring, can falter under the weight of reality.”
“Faith in the power of education has had both positive and negative consequences,” wrote David Tyack and Larry Cuban in “Tinkering Toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform.” “It has helped persuade citizens to create the most comprehensive system of public schooling in the world. But overpromising has often led to disillusionment and to blaming schools for not solving problems beyond their reach.”
The problem with both NCLB and the Every Student Succeeds Act is that both laws are not made up of a set of reforms that have been carefully tested and are known to work. Rather, they are shaped by viewpoints of elected officials who are typically not educators – and more importantly, perhaps, on huge compromises that were necessary to get both bills passed in a divided Congress.
A better way to legislate education reforms would be to implement them after they have been tried out in a select number of school districts. The law could then be informed by actual practice and results. But it is probably not practical for students to wait for researchers to spend years studying whether something works or not. Instead, disparate strategies and approaches are cobbled together into a law that both sides can agree on – in this case, one spanning 1,061 pages – after weeks and months of behind-the-scenes arm twisting, bargaining and concessions.
If there is a driving principle in the new law, it is to reverse the top-down federal mandates prescribed by NCLB, and to return decision-making to states. It is now up to states to make this reform work, including making more of a dent in closing the achievement gap than NCLB did.
Fortunately, California already has a jump start on the basic thrust of the new law, including devolving more power to local school districts and devising an accountability system based not just on test scores but on “multiple measures,” such as high school graduation rates, levels of student engagement, and parent involvement.
However, federal authority has not been relinquished altogether. States will still be required to file reports demonstrating progress. The law require states to identify their lowest-performing schools, those falling in the bottom 5 percent. However, it leaves it to states to decide how to define that and how to intervene if necessary.
The law contains some innovative ideas and approaches. More than any other previous version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, it places an emphasis on preparing students for college and careers. It promotes the notion of schools offering a broad range of what the law calls “pipeline services,” defined as “a continuum of coordinated supports, services, and opportunities for children from birth through entry into and success in postsecondary education, and career attainment.”
It also includes a provision that will target funds based on a weighted student formula, similar to what is in place in California, but with funds directed at schools rather than districts. This is one instance in which the idea will be tried out on a pilot basis in 50 districts across the nation.
But the new law still contains elements of the one it is replacing. Instead of identifying schools “in need of improvement” – the NCLB equivalent of a failing school – the new law says states will have to identify schools needing “comprehensive support and improvement.” Schools with subgroups of students who are not performing as expected will have to develop a “targeted support and improvement plan.”
As for its requirement that schools be held accountable on “multiple measures” of student and school performance, not just test scores, the research is inconclusive that this will make a difference.
A recent Rand Corporation review of states that have used “multiple measures” in their accountability systems found that there is no sound research indicating that they actually improved school performance.
The Rand researchers noted the following: “Although we identified considerable descriptive information about types of measures and their uses, we found, with a few notable exceptions, almost no published research about the technical quality of the measures, the theories of action that instigated their adoption, the utility of the measures for promoting improved decision making, or the effects of the measures on school practice or student outcomes.”
So what will be required to ensure that this latest version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act will be any more successful than the one that preceded it?
In Obama’s signing speech, Obama pointed in the right direction. He cautioned that “laws are only as good as their implementation,” which means “that we’re going to have to be engaging with the schools and communities all across the country – educators, school leaders, families, students, elected officials, community leaders, philanthropies – all to make the promise of this law reality.”
The recent history of reform doesn’t generate much optimism that this will actually occur. Lawmakers stuck with the NCLB law long after there was a consensus that it was not working. In fact, it took Congress eight years after the law was up for reauthorization to pass a new one.
While the responsibility to implement the law now moves to the states, there will need to be a willingness to adjust or change the law if there is evidence that it is not achieving its goals. That includes making significant progress towards closing the achievement gap and ensuring that “every child succeeds,” as the law’s title promises. The last thing the nation needs is another generation of children who lag behind their peers, and whose life prospects are radically limited before they even leave high school.
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