Despite House Action, Debate Over ‘No Child Left Behind’ Goes Nowhere

Jeff Bryant

After years of inaction on rewriting the nation’s centerpiece legislation governing public schools, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives on Friday passed “The Student Success Act” by a mostly partisan vote of 221-207 – despite a veto threat from the White House.

Contrary to the legislation’s grandiose title, very little in the bill directly addresses the needs of students at all – other than some provisions related to homeless students and schools affected by the presence of the federal government. And nowhere does it propose what “success” for the nation’s students should look like and how our country can know when we’re realizing success for more of our youngest citizens.

The bill is being peddled by Republicans as “a better approach to K-12 education,” but many of the provisions continue the current emphasis on using high-stakes testing to evaluate teachers and to grade schools. As has been the tendency in education policy, the emphasis on raising test scores is generously seasoned with the language of “effectiveness,” while none of the policy directly addresses what effective teachers and schools actually do and how that can be supported, sustained and spread.

The bill’s emphasis on assessment is never balanced with attention to curriculum and instruction, as if the stern hand of accountability will magically take care of all the other aspects of schooling that are necessary for real success. A teacher’s ability “to teach” is assumed to be wholly and accurately attributable to test scores alone. Even a teacher’s qualifications to teach would be watered down by the bill, as long as she/he can “teach.”

What the bill is mostly about is redistributing authority away from the federal government and toward the states – so they can do . . . what? – and about cutting financial support for schools. On the latter point, the American Federation of Teachers strongly opposes the bill, saying in a press release, it “dramatically slashes resources for schools; takes away funding for disadvantaged students, English language learners and other students.”

In a voice vote, the House passed an amendment by Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia that would allow a student’s Title 1 funding to transfer to a different public school of the parents’ choosing. Although this measure will be framed as direct support for individual students “who want to leave failed schools,” it undermines the aim of Title I, which has been to bolster the funding needs of schools that serve the lowest-income schools.

Parsing out some specifics of the bill and its proposed amendments is worthwhile, as Education Week’s Alyson Klein did before the bill hit the floor.

Klein wrote, “The legislation takes a big step back when it comes to the federal accountability system at the heart of the current law, but still doesn’t go nearly as far as some in the GOP would like. And Republicans aren’t likely to pick up many votes from Democrats, who say the bill waters down accountability, particularly when it comes to the most vulnerable children.”

The House passed an amendment from two conservative Republicans – Rob Bishop of Utah and Steve Scalise of Louisiana – that drops the requirement that states and school districts implement teacher-evaluation systems based on student “outcomes.” Klein reported, “House lawmakers also accepted a key amendment that would make it clear that school districts can use “multiple measures” (not just standardized tests) in assessing students.” Both of these amendments were also backed by the National Education Association, although the NEA opposed the overall bill.

While federal requirements for teacher evaluations were indeed loosened, an amendment to drop yearly testing requirements failed, no attempts were made to require states to adhere to equitable funding plans, and limits to the amount of Title II funds that can be spent on class-size reduction remained in the bill.

A parsing of the bill before the vote by Parents Across America found almost as much in the bill to support as it did to oppose.

In sum, though, PAA concluded the bill would continue policies that “overuse and misuse standardized tests, marginalize parents, and promote privatization … Despite two decades of effort, none of these strategies has produced significant improvements in public schools.”

Most of what PAA supported and opposed remained in the bill that passed, so their overall opposition likely holds.

Diane Ravitch and her Network for Public Education had seen the House bill as an opportunity to “eliminate the federal requirement for yearly standardized testing in the ESEA bill, and eliminate the federal role in prescribing how teachers should be evaluated.” Also, they wanted the bill to become an opening for “requiring that states submit plans showing how they will improve equitable funding in their schools, and by omitting ANY restriction on the amount of Title II funds that can be spent on class size reduction.”

It’s doubtful that the House bill will open opportunities to do anything positive for the nation’s school children. Indeed, much of what Ravitch and others have included in their wish list is not even in the bill or any of the amendments scheduled to come to the floor.

The smorgasbord of provisions that education policy-making has become – a heaping helping of accountability here, with a little support for equity there – has given us a skimpy banquet.

And file this under “Stuff Democrats Need to Stop Saying: In defending the status quo on accountability Representative Jared Polis, D-C.A., stated, “While No Child Left Behind certainly has its flaws … it nevertheless did move us forward when it comes to serving low-income and minority students.”

This is not true. Results on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) had long ago revealed the achievement gap in schools, and minority students made their biggest gains in NAEP results before the advent of NCLB. Democrats undermine their credibility when they continue to make these statements.

Endlessly seeking compromises on the amount of testing to enforce or the degree the federal government should influence local decisions is getting us nowhere. And there’s a reason for that.

As Kevin Welner, co-director of the National Education Policy Center, recently wrote for The National Journal, policy debates on education are doomed from the beginning because they the all start with the No Child Left Behind template.

In his critique of a Senate bill – similar to the House bill but authored by Democrats – Welner maintained that these bills follow “the basic policy premises of the discredited status quo.” He wrote.

It’s not just the excessive testing, but that’s part of it. It’s not just the compulsive use of high-stakes incentives and punishments, but that’s part of it as well. It’s not just the narrowed idea of public schooling as three-Rs-based training for future employment, nor is it not just the evidence-free fetishizing of pursuits like privatization, choice and competition and technology. But those, too, are part of why people are seeking a change.

In truth, the most troubling element of the status quo in education is the lack of balance itself. All of these approaches – testing, high-stakes accountability, preparation for employment, private corporate services, choice and competition, and technology – all of these can play positive roles in the U.S. school system. But with the exception of preparation for employment, these are all tools, not goals. We’ve let the tools become our masters; we’ve been pursuing them as ends in themselves.

As long as this squabbling over the tools for education improvement continue to dominate the agenda, policies will continue to be flawed – Republican and Democratic. Contentious back-and-forth between groups that want less standardized testing and those that want every kid tested every year get us nowhere as long as there’s no policy vision for what children do when they aren’t taking all the bloody tests – or when they’re opting out of taking the tests.

A pivot from the current accountability measures to an agenda emphasizing opportunity can change that – that is, if people really want change.

Meanwhile, as Education Week’s Klein reports, a Senate reauthorization bill that differs sharply from the House version of No Child Left Behind has yet to reach the floor of that chamber and indeed may not. The fact that the House passed a bill that is decidedly “partisan” decreases the chances of progress for NCLB reauthorization in the Senate. Going nowhere, indeed.

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