What Congress Could Do Right Now To Improve Education

Jeff Bryant

The weather is turning colder for sure, but spring is in the air for those who believe there is an urgent need to change the nation’s federal education law known as No Child Left Behind.

Seasoned education journalist Alyson Klein at Education Week believes recent changes in Congress “have lit a fire under negotiations on reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act,” the name of the original law that eventually became NCLB.

In a more recent report, Klein explains, “ESEA reauthorization has been stalled since 2007. But earlier this year, the Senate overwhelming passed a bipartisan bill to rewrite the law, and a GOP-only measure barely skated through the House.”

The goal now is “to negotiate a deal that can make it through both houses of Congress and be signed by President Barack Obama, ideally by the end of the year.”

Calls for a revision of NCLB are coming from outside Congress too. US News and World Report reports the pressure is coming from “a coalition of 10 major education organizations – including the two national teachers unions and groups representing state education chiefs, superintendents, principals, school boards, and others.”

A statement from the coalition posted by Politico says, “It’s time for Congress to finish the job of revising No Child Left Behind and not let another school year go by under the old law.”

The coalition’s effort includes a “digital ad campaign” and a “letter to Congress”.

“The push,” notes US News correspondent Lauren Camera, “comes after the Obama administration’s announcement that it wants states and school districts to cut back on the number of tests administered to students. The issue of testing has been front and center in the ongoing reauthorization debate.”

Camera quotes Randi Weingarten, who leads the American Federation of Teachers, a member of the coalition. “The final bill should put an end to the unproductive fixation on high-stakes testing,” she says, “and protect the law’s original intent to target services to districts and schools serving high concentrations of low-income children.”

So there’s some evidence a revision to NCLB may be in the offing, which many folks believe is a good thing.

But shouldn’t any attempts at revising the guidelines be based on an understanding of how well or poorly the law worked?

Did NCLB Work?

First, what do we mean by “worked”?

The premise of NCLB is based on a sort of circular logic. The law said to schools, “You’d better get student scores on standardized reading and math tests up, or else,” then it used that very same narrow range of statistical measures to determine whether the law was working or not. So what was being incentivized by the policy was being used as a proof the policy was working. What if the policy incentivized bad things?

But even if you accept the circular logic of the law, determining whether NCLB “worked” or not is far from a settled matter.

Matt Di Carlo at The Albert Shanker Institute grapples with that question in a recent post on that organization’s blog. “This is not a situation that lends itself to clear cut yes/no answers to the ‘did it work?’ question,” he writes.

Di Carlo points to studies showing that a policy incentivizing upward movements in standardized test scores can eventually result in some upward movements in standardized test scores. (Surprise!)

“Yet even the best of these studies are sometimes used by advocates in an oversimplified fashion,” he argues. “It is seriously unwise to judge test-based accountability based solely (or, perhaps, even predominantly) on short-term testing outcomes.”

What else should be considered? “Accountability policies are fundamentally about changing behavior,” Di Carlo explains, “and there is evidence that accountability systems do sometimes lead to undesirable behavior.”

Di Carlo lists a few of the “undesirables” that NCLB spawned, including gaming the system by reclassifying students and narrowing the curriculum, and just flat-out cheating on the tests.

An undesirable he doesn’t mention is that a test-based accountability system invariably puts way more emphasis on testing and everything that endeavor involves, including test-prep drills, behavior conditioning of the students, and the use of pre-tests to help schools know where their students stand so they can get them ready for the tests.

It’s certainly possible for test-based accountability policies to lead to desirables, too. Di Carlo points to a few possibilities: “increasing instructional time, investing in teacher training, and reorganizing the learning environment.” But note these desirables all have one thing in common: they cost more money – something often considered to be the biggest undesirable of all, especially if you’re a Republican.

So it stands to reason that in the rewriting of the NCLB law, it is the undesirables, to a great degree – rather than the “empirical evidence,” such that it is, or the desirables – that are driving the process.

The Undesirables

For sure, one undesirable driving the NCLB revision process is the all-encompassing pervasiveness of testing in our schools.

According to a new study, “The average student in America’s big-city public schools takes some 112 mandatory standardized tests between pre-kindergarten and the end of 12th grade – an average of about eight a year,” reports education journalist Valerie Strauss on her blog at The Washington Post.

“That eats up between 20 and 25 hours every school year, the study says. As for the results, they often overlap, on top of all that are teacher-written tests, sometimes taken by students along with standardized tests in the very same subject.”

The pervasiveness of the testing is driving an “anti-testing rebellion,” notes Strauss, that “became so loud that even some of the strongest proponents of testing started to say it was time to scale back on the number of assessments students must take. In August 2014, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said finally that he ‘shared’ teachers’ concerns about too much standardized testing and test prep, and that he believed ‘testing issues today are sucking the oxygen out of the room in a lot of schools.’”

Another undesirable from NCLB has to do with money. Republicans in Congress, especially those in the Republican dominated House, generally see the need for education funding as an undesirable, unless it comes with a “no strings attached” clause.

For instance, in revising the original ESEA mandates, the House wants to get rid of a provision known as “maintenance of effort.” As Andrew Ujifusa of Education Week, explains, this provision incentivizes districts to keep education spending fairly level from year to year, providing a potential backstop to drastic funding cuts by the state or a conservative takeover of the district.

Also, House Republicans want to give states the option to have their Title I aid, another provision of the original ESEA that earmarked money for disadvantaged students, follow students to the public schools of their choice. To House Republicans it’s clearly undesirable to encourage states to do something about the drastic inequities in funding in the nation.

But as Ujifusa explains in another article, if the House gets its way and makes Title I funds portable, the change would cause funding cuts in many districts, especially those servicing low-income kids. According to the White House, under Title I portability, “the 100 districts facing the most severe cuts would lose 15 percent of their Title I aid, or $570 million in all.”

Weighing The Undesirables

Clearly the coalition groups urging passage of an NCLB rewrite have weighed the options and determined there’s more good than bad in both revisions of the legislation, even as they currently stand.

Part of their rationale is based on the fact Obama is still president. The changes in spending the Republicans want to impose – easing maintenance of effort and instituting Title I portability – are opposed by the Obama administration which has said including these measures in the bill would lead to a veto.

Also, pro-rewrite fans like that major testing issues plaguing current legislation would be resolved in the bill. Whether the Senate or the House gets its way, the new version of NCLB will provide for some ability for parents to opt their children out of standardized testing. States and school districts will have more leeway in developing their own assessments. And a new law will give states flexibility in deciding the role of tests in accountability.

Under a revision, as currently written by both chambers, the annual tests will continue, but the dreaded “Adequate Yearly Progress,” the mechanism used to impose punishments on schools, would vanish and so would the requirement to use student test scores in teacher evaluations.

What would be preferable, of course, is to have federal education policy based on a more robust idea of what works and designed to achieve outcomes that are truly desirable. But if stopping the tyranny of the testocracy is the best we can do right now, that alone seems a good enough reason to hope Congress acts and passes a revision of NCLB before the year’s end.

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