The Education ‘Reform’ Bargain Is Off. Here’s What We Need Instead.

Jeff Bryant

Anyone who feels that America’s public schools need a better conversation about education policy should have been in a room in the basement of the nation’s capitol earlier this week.

The occasion that brought people together on an early, rain-soaked morning was a relaunch of a project that started seven years ago, the Broader Bolder Approach to Education.

BBA launched initially in 2008 at the peak of No Child Left Behind, the federal education law that mandated higher standards and strict accountability for schools.

At that time, BBA was a decidedly contrarian group, as its executive director Elaine Weiss explains in a post at the blog site of the Campaign for America’s Future. Her contention then, and now, is that addressing poverty and the needs of the whole child are equally, if not more so, imperative to improving education attainment than accountability mandates.

Now NCLB is gone. The law has been replaced with the Every Student Succeeds Act that reverses many of the edicts of NCLB or leaves them up in the air for states and districts to decide.

In the context of this dramatic change in education policy direction, BBA’s relaunch this week was an opportunity to introduce its “updated and expanded mission,” in Weiss’ words, and present a new “comprehensive policy framework” for guiding the organization’s work.

But if anyone had come to the relaunch event expecting to see people rubbing dirt in the face of the corpse of NCLB or to hear taunts of “we told you so,” they would have been sorely disappointed.

Among the 10 experts who shared speaking time, there were those who were deeply skeptical of the accountability mandates of NCLB from the beginning, those who had been early supporters (and still feel the law had merit), and those who believe they were caught in the middle of competing policy imperatives that fall woefully short of the real complications and struggles of teaching and learning.

What emerged from the conversation was a respectful consensus on where education policy has been and a very firm resolve on where it needs to go.

The NCLB Non-Believers

In the always-been-skeptical faction was Weiss herself, who recalled BBA got started because, “We knew standards and accountability alone weren’t the problem.” The problem, she stated, was poverty and the lack of adequate supports for low-income and marginalized students in the education system.

In her view, while problems associated with out-of-school factors were increasingly ignored, NCLB brought the full weight of low academic performance firmly down on the backs of educators. “No excuses became a way of excusing everyone else but teachers,” she insisted.

Another speaker in the always-been–skeptical camp was Duke University economics and education policy professor Helen Ladd. She cited the highly influential publication “Class and Schools” by Richard Rothstein, which spotlighted the disadvantages of poverty in the education process, and called for the need to mitigate those effects through quality early childhood education, summer school and after school programs, and health and nutrition programs.

The NCLB Believers

Looking at NCLB from a different perspective were early childhood expert Miriam Calderon and former Massachusetts secretary of education Paul Reville.

“NCLB was a civil rights law and a great civil rights law,” Calderon insisted.

But in the rollout of NCLB, Calderon saw how schools too often narrowed the curriculum and imposed a standardization of teaching rather than provide the supports for low-income students – supports, she maintained, that are specified in the federal Head Start program for the youngest learners.

Reville also bought into the philosophy of NCLB. “I thought standards-based and accountability-based reform was an ethical matter, the right thing to do,” he said.

So under his leadership, his state took to heart many of the law’s tenets, including imposing standards and accountability measures and providing for more choice in the system. Academic indicators for the state generally improved, but there was one that didn’t – the gap in achievement levels between low-income children and their better off peers.

His view now is that in order for any policy intended to benefit “all students,” standards and accountability simply aren’t enough. For all to really mean “all,” he contended, policies have to address out-of school factors too.

Caught In The Middle

Former Maryland state education superintendent and current CEO of PDK Joshua Starr talked about his experience in being caught between demands for higher standards and strict accountability and the imperative to meet children where they are in terms of their needs for non-academic interventions.

His contention was that what’s called for now is a rejection of the “polemics in the debate” and a meeting in the middle.

In his previous position, Starr saw all too often “the impact of bad adult behaviors on kids’ academic performance,” which necessitate some enforcement of higher standards and accountability. Nevertheless, he insisted, “We must address poverty, racism, and other negative influences in the system.”

A Bargain Gone Awry

Another way to look at the legacy of NCLB is to understand it as a bargain that never really was.

Prior to its enactment in 2002, public education had endured nearly two decades of attacks, beginning in the presidential administration of Ronald Reagan. Public education was under constant bombardment from conservatives for being given “a blank check,” and advocates for public schools and civil rights were encouraged to agree to saddle schools with “reform” – principally, higher standards and stricter accountability – in exchange for any action on making the system more equitable.

People fighting for education and social justice took the deal when they agreed to NCLB. But the equity never came.

Especially after 2007, the year BBA started, resources for schools were not only continuously cut, but the inequity in the system got worse and worse, with schools needing the money the most, getting the least.

In a real bargain, those who bear the consequences of the deal have some say-so on the terms, the deal-makers have to represent themselves honestly (or the deal is off), and there are measures in place to ensure everyone involved is held accountable after the deal has been struck.

But that’s not what happened under the education reform regime. Reform has been imposed on communities, while poverty and inequities in the system have worsened. Reform advocates never made good on their promise to fight for equitable resources. And while educators have endured stricter accountability, lawmakers and policy leaders got off scot-free.

So what has transpired instead of a bargain looks more like a raw deal for millions of students, their families, and their communities.

A Promising New Approach, Instead

With the passage of ESSA, many see an opportunity to have the raw deal of reform renegotiated.

At the BBA re-launch meeting, each participant spoke with some degree of optimism about what may be possible under the new law. One promising direction that became a focal point during the discussion was the expansion of more community schools. These schools provide wraparound supports – like healthcare, mentoring, and job training – for all students, as well as instructional approaches and curriculum that are more culturally responsive and respective of student needs.

On hand to explain this new model was a panel of community school practitioners that included Frederick County Virginia superintendent David Sovine; Lauren Wells, a community schools coordinating officer in Newark, New Jersey, and Edward Fiske, the founder and editor of the Fiske Guide to Colleges and a board member of a community school in Durham, North Carolina.

The consensus among all in the room was that community schools are an element that needs to be in the mix of any discussion about education policy.

Time For A New Deal

Unfortunately on the same day of the BBA meeting, a very different conversation took place in the Capitol building itself.

As Education Week reported, in a Senate education committee hearing about the new ESSA law, the discussion ignored the issue of equity and stayed mired in the swamp of accountability.

State officials, union leaders, and others testifying about the possibilities inherent in the bill were quickly reined in by political officials and misguided accountability hawks who wanted to hear about “guardrails,” “indicators,” and continued scrutiny of the “checks” being sent to public schools.

Almost as if the conversation about accountability vigilance was drifting through the floorboards of the Senate chamber, panelists at the BBA event were denouncing the narrow-mindedness of the reform agenda.

Joshua Starr called the current politics of accountability through test score outcomes “obscene,” recalling how money for much-needed school resources often has to be bargained for by pledging specific changes in test score levels.

“We have to break out of the paradigm that everything has to be confined to a conversation about test scores,” Paul Reville declared.

And Edward Fiske spoke of the need to be “liberated from the tyranny of test score outcomes.”

Surely, real leadership on education policy is not confined to being fiscal watchdogs. Because the original bargain of education reform was broken at the outset, let’s free the conversation of the constraints of that deal and instead consider what we can do to support equity.

That’s what a real conversation about education policy would be all about.

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