The "New" NCLB

Sorting Out the Fallout

It’s been over a week now since Secretary Spellings rolled out a slightly kinder, slightly gentler version of No Child Left Behind.

And, as was already pretty clear right off the bat, the response so far has been largely predictable, underwhelming, and -- in the case of the spat between Spellings and Connecticut -- counter-productive.

Even more significantly, however, the loud debate between the states and the feds about the "new" NCLB obscures what is -- and isn't -- being done to improve classroom instruction and student achievement at the local level.

Perhaps most damaging of all, however, the Thursday announcement highlighted the dirty little secret behind No Child Left Behind, which is that so many states are already operating under different ground rules, thanks to waves of modifications and waivers. Under the new plan, the differences from state to state could become even greater.

A Muddled Announcement

First, the Education Department rolled out a new plan that was so vague and confusing that no one could really say how it would affect the status quo, if at all: There will be a commission to study growth models (which some states love and the Achievement Alliance
hates). Some states might get to monkey around with the choice and tutoring requirements. Some states would get additional leeway in how they measure special education students and rate schools under the law.

But which states it would be and exactly how much leeway they would get, no one can say.

“Regrettable” or “Un-American”?

For those who missed it, during the now-infamous PBS interview last week Spellings first cited the state's a large achievement gap and castigated the state for belatedly trying to find a "loophole to get out of the law as opposed to attending to the needs of those kid."

Then, the coup de gras:

"And you know, I think it's un-American -- I would call it -- for us to take the attitude that African-American children in Connecticut living in inner cities are not going to be able to compete, are not going to be prepared to compete in this world and are not going to be educated to high levels."

Maybe she should have stuck with the more diplomatic "regrettable" she started out with.

Things went downhill quickly after that.

"Are we back in the McCarthy era?" Ms. Sternberg asked in an interview, according to the New York Times. "Are we un-American because we're asking for a waiver?"

State superintendent Sternberg is currently demanding an apology from the Secretary, or at least a face to face meeting:
Connecticut schools chief demands apology from Spellings Newsday, Sternberg to meet with nation's schools chief over No Child flap Newsday.

Little Relief for Squeaky-Wheel States

But even before the insults and slights began, CT AG Blumenthal had already dismissed the Spellings announcement as “verbiage” that did nothing to address the state’s concerns. And indeed, it doesn’t.

In fact, the "new" NCLB does little to address the concerns and complaints of the most vocal states, such as Utah, Texas, Virginia, and Connecticut:
Va. Is Denied Waiver From 'No Child' Law Washington Post Utah officials appear to dig in on No Child rules Salt Lake Tribune Lawmakers will discuss Utah's 'No Child' stand Salt Lake Tribune No White Child Left Behind Salt Lake City Weekly Official Warns Texas on School Testing" Dallas Morning News

Interesting Reactions

There have been a couple of surprises –mildly encouraging words from the presidents of the NEA and AFT, quoted in this UPI article:
Analysis: New NCLB policy has foes Washington Times.

Some thoughtful and balanced commentary in this week's Baltimore Sun: Mandates and mutinies, Worth defending (though the latter piece overstates the weight of the recent NCSL report criticizing NCLB, which is not "the consensus of the legislatures of 50 states.")

There's even a cautious blessing from Checker Finn, who says we should "...praise the Secretary and her team for being willing to learn from experience instead of stubbornly clinging to NCLB rigidities..." (though he mistakenly blames Florida's problems with NCLB on the law rather than on the unyielding plan that the state has insisted on keeping intact for nearly two years).
Flexibility and NCLB The Gadfly.

The Unfiled Lawsuit

It is well worth noting that some of this hooplah may well get sorted out when Spellings meets with officials from Connecticut and Utah.

Indeed, Governor Rell is already riding to the rescue in Connecticut:
Rell Aides Set for Talks on Federal School Bill NYT.

And Spellings is already set to meet with officials from Utah -- though apparently not until after the legislature has done whatever it's going to do next week. In
Education chief won't visit before NCLB vote Salt Lake City Tribune, Senator Hatch caused the delay. In Spellings cancels trip amid attack on NCLB Washington Times, it’s Spellings who pulls the plug.

Given three years of states almost doing something about NCLB (remember Vermont, and California, and all the rest), it seems likely that things will get worked out or dealt with on symbolic levels (resolutions passed, speeches made). Remember that even Connecticut hasn't actually filed its lawsuit, and no other states have joined in despite an open invitation. This could blow up, as advertised, or it could all blow over.

Left Behind: Improving Schools

Regardless of those specific state outcomes, however, what’s largely been left out is that most of the things being discussed by the Secretary and debated by the states have little to do with improving classroom instruction or raising student achievement. Are the teachers qualified and effective? Is the curriculum challenging for all students? Are specific students or subject areas being addressed?

Instead, the discussion is almost entirely about the law’s school rating system -- that is, what “grade” the law gives schools (and districts) and how it’s calculated. Connecticut doesn’t want to test annually. Texas wants to exempt 10 percent of its disabled students. Utah doesn’t want to measure subgroups.

One obvious but largely unspoken reason is that that the other parts of the law -- actual sanctions and school improvements requirements -- are turning out to be so weak as to not warrant much attention or concern. Roughly 11 percent of the students who are supposed to get tutoring after school are receiving it, according to the Center on Education Policy report. Roughly 1 percent of the students who are eligible to transfer to a better school have actually transferred. The unequal distribution of highly qualified teachers is one of the most widely ignored aspects of the law, according to Education Week. And only a tiny percentage of the lowest-performing schools, those in “corrective action” or “restructuring” status, are being actively revamped as required by the law.

Only the Sacramento Bee seems to address this issue directly, reporting that just one of the eight area schools in the lowest categories is taking substantial steps towards changing things: Districts find wiggle room in federal law Sacramento Bee. “Schools in Sacramento and across the nation are discovering a novel way out of the restructuring requirement,” says the Bee. “They’re ignoring it.”

Much the same is true around the country, where there are roughly 1100 schools that are supposed to be restructuring. Information about the number of restructured schools in each state was released and then withdrawn supposedly because of sloppy press coverage that unfairly compared states to other states: ECS Removes Data on School Improvement Education Week, though I think you can still get a PDF version of the list here: Schools Status in School Improvement Categories SCSDE.

Not everyone is avoiding the real issues of school improvement. In San Diego and Oakland, schools are being converted to charters, and in Sacramento some schools are being broken up into smaller learning communities.

There are lots of reasons few schools are being restructured, however.

First off, there’s lots of wiggle room in the law, which allows districts to convert schools to charter status, restaff the school, arrange for outside management, provide for a state takeover, or undertake other major restructuring steps. There's also very little scrutiny or oversight from most states. (In fact, Michigan is the only state that requires districts to submit restructuring plans for approval, according to the Bee.) In addition, restaffing or converting schools is politically unpopular and logistically difficult given the relative weakness of the NCLB requirements.

Most fundamentally, restructuring -- essentially turning around a sick school -- is an uncertain remedy.

“Reforms such as restaffing, closing and taking over low-performing schools may not always deliver better results for students than more low-key solutions,” says Greg Toppos in the USAT about research unveiled at this week’s AERA converence in Montreal:
States plug away with NCLB.

Indeed, as an
ASCD report highlighted by the PEN NewsBlast shows this week, state takeovers don’t always – don’t often? – work.

What does always work? Nobody knows. It's likely nothing works all the time. But that doesn't mean that states -- and the USDE -- shouldn't be focused on it.

Increasingly Different Versions of NCLB

Last but not least, there is the danger that the new NCLB will, in the name of flexibility (or politics), lead to increasingly different version of NCLB being implemented in various states. There are already clear differences between state plans. As I and others pointed out last week, if the differences grow too large, or are motivated for questionable reasons, the USDE will undermine its own efforts, and eventually the law itself.


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