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Critics say administration’s blueprint is too similar to NCLB

Critics say the blueprint does not go far enough in changing NCLB.
Critics say the administration's blueprint for rewriting the nation's education law does not go far enough in changing NCLB.

As the Obama administration seeks support for its plan to rewrite the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), many education policy analysts worry that the new blueprint’s guidelines are too reminiscent of the Bush-era No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB)—most notably by continuing to place too much focus on high-stakes testing.

In the proposed dismantling of NCLB, education officials would move away from punishing schools that don’t meet benchmarks and focus on rewarding schools for progress, particularly with poor and minority students. (See “Obama offers blueprint for rewriting NCLB.”)

The proposed changes call for states to adopt standards that ensure students are ready for college or a career, rather than grade-level proficiency—the focus of the current law.

The blueprint also would allow states to use subjects other than reading and mathematics as part of their measurements for meeting federal goals, a move that could please some NCLB critics who have said the current law encourages schools to narrow the curriculum as they prepare students for high-stakes tests.

And, for the first time in 45 years, the White House is proposing a $4 billion increase in federal education spending, most of which would increase the competition among states for grant money—moving away from formula-based funding.

But despite the blueprint’s call for testing and core subject changes, critics say the U.S. Department of Education (ED) still has a long way to go in improving the nation’s education system.

“The Obama administration, although it promised change when it came to office, in effect has picked up precisely the same themes as the George W. Bush administration, which are testing and choice—and I think we’re on the wrong track,” Diane Ravitch, an education historian and research professor of education at New York University, said in a February interview with eSchool News.

In a follow-up eMail message sent in response to the just-released blueprint, Ravitch said the administration’s formal plan to dismantle NCLB had not changed her mind.

“It is a positive sign that the blueprint mentions the importance of subjects other than reading and math,” Ravitch wrote March 18. “These subjects, however, will still be tested annually and will still be the basis for determining which level a school falls into. These scores will determine which schools drop into the dreaded 5 [percent], where they will suffer draconian penalties. The federal government generously acknowledges that other subjects should be taught and tested, but good educators will want to teach history, literature, geography, civics, literature, the arts, and other studies even if they are not tested.”

In another reaction to the blueprint, Richard Rothstein, a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute and former education columnist for the New York Times, published “A blueprint that needs more work,” which closely examines the blueprint’s proposals.

While the blueprint has many positives—for example, it recognizes that college is essential, yet more and more expensive; broadens the curriculum focus; and notes that a typical school day is not enough to support students who need stimulating academic enrichment during off-school hours—those “positive steps seem somewhat inconsistent with other aspects of the blueprint and associated budget recommendations,” Rothstein wrote.

The blueprint proposes awarding formula-based grants for states to redesign their assessments in reading and math to make sure they align with college and career-ready standards. ED also would offer grants to help states develop tests in other subjects, such as science and social studies—although these grants would be awarded on a competitive basis instead of by formula.

That’s troubling, Rothstein wrote, because of current economic strains.

“…In the present period, with extensive layoffs of teachers and other school employees looming, it makes no sense to cut (in real, inflation-adjusted terms) formula-driven funds in order to reward states that innovate in ways that suit the administration’s policy preferences. A full employment program for grant-writers is no substitute for stable employment for educators. And what are states that don’t win the competitive grants, and thus have no way to avoid the layoffs, to do?” he wrote.

A change from NCLB?

Ravitch and Rothstein both contend that too many NCLB-esque policies remain in the blueprint’s present form.

“My concern is that the blueprint continues to be rooted in NCLB’s assumptions about testing and accountability as the levers for federal reforms, and it continues to assume, as NCLB did, that Congress can legislate and mandate how to reform schools that have low test scores,” Ravitch wrote in her eMail message.

“In essence, the NCLB template has been modified, but is still in place. Every student will still take annual tests of reading and math; now schools will be ranked into performance levels. There will be bonuses for those that make gains and severe punishments for those that all into the bottom 5 [percent]. I worry about the bottom 5 [percent], some 5,000 schools.”

One of the most troubling and “widely ridiculed” components of NCLB was its goal that all students become proficient in academic standards by 2014, Rothstein wrote in his examination of the blueprint.

Rothstein asserts that not only was the goal ridiculed, it “did great harm to public education” because it:

  • “Created incentives for educators to lie to the public and claim that they could achieve something that they knew was unachievable.
  • “Created well-known incentives to ‘define down’ proficiency, to make it possible for more students to pass themselves off as proficient.
  • “Engendered a culture of cynicism in public education, and … discredited public education in the broader community, as it became apparent that school leaders could not deliver what they were promising.”

Yet ED’s goal that all students be college- and career-ready by 2020 “is just as fanciful as the goal of all students proficient by 2014,” Rothstein wrote.

“Today, perhaps 20 percent of all youth graduate [from] high school fully prepared for academic college. It should certainly be higher. Aspiring to make it higher is a worthy ambition. But basing policy on a promise, or even an expectation, that we will quintuple this rate in a mere decade is laughable.”

The majority of schools serving disadvantaged children will “be in danger of sanctions for failing to make progress towards this goal,” and schools in middle-class neighborhoods also will be required to report regularly on their progress.

“Defenders of this absurd goal aver that it is inspiring to have an aspirational goal, even if it cannot be met. This is true only if the goal is within reach, albeit with great effort. If the goal is entirely out of reach, then holding it up as an aspiration is corrupting,” he wrote.

The administration’s education goals still mimic some of the goals outlined in NCLB, Ravitch said.

The blueprint is concerning because of “its failure to break free of the ‘measure and punish’ mentality embedded in NCLB,” she said.

“Our nation needs to improve its education system dramatically. We should not waste another eight years tied to the belief that we can test our way to excellence. We can’t, and we won’t.”

Test scores vs. growth

The blueprint’s intent to measure progress not only by a test score, but also by student academic growth and graduation rates, presents a move away from much-criticized high-stakes testing—but measuring student growth is not necessarily cut and dry, some say.

Ravitch said it’s better to measure growth rates—which are also represented by test scores, she noted—but doing so requires that students be tested twice a year; once in September when school opens and again in May or June when the school year ends. This ensures that student progress is measured over the course of an academic year.

“Of course, it is worth wondering how U.S. education got into this situation, wherein the federal Department of Education arrogates to itself the power to control curriculum, instruction, testing, and measures of quality,” she said.

Rothstein also foresees problems in trying to measure growth from one year to the next.

“NCLB insisted that annual tests must be given early enough in the year so that they could be scored in time to design interventions for the next school year,” he said in an interview with eSchool News. “The blueprint will need a similar requirement if Challenge schools are going to be ‘turned around’ the following year. Yet if tests are given, say, in March, which teachers are to get credit for students’ gains, or lack of them—the teacher who had the students from September to March, or the teacher who had the students from the previous March to the previous June? And how can such ‘growth’ models account for learning, or lack of it, that takes place during the summer?”

He added: “There’s a lot of research now that shows that low-income kids gain as much during the school year as middle-class kids. Then, in the summer, they fall behind; middle-class kids fall behind much, much less. The gap grows in the summer. So if you’re measuring year-to-year changes, you’re measuring the differences in summer experiences.”

Common core standards

Common core standards, lauded by many as a way to ensure that all the nation’s students are held to the same rigorous educational requirements, present another hurdle—and a tall one at that.

Ravitch said it will take years to develop and implement the new common core standards, and much time until educators know whether those new common standards increase student performance.

“In the meantime, schools will be evaluated on the basis of the old assessments that are now recognized as unsatisfactory. In the meantime, the testing culture will remain intact, and thousands of schools will be closed,” she said.

“Where will the states find 5,000 principals to staff the closed schools? Where will they find hundreds of thousands of teachers to staff them? Will they be better than those who were fired? Or will they play musical chairs? Why will this improve American education? Will 5,000 additional schools be closed every year? If so, this sounds like the ingredients of a cultural revolution.”

Ravitch said one approach to the debate that is sure to arise over the common core standards would be for ED to “fund demonstration projects in several states, so that the standards can be implemented at specific sites and the rest of the nation can see what happens. If they product strong improvement in student knowledge of English, language arts, and math, other states will hurry to adopt them. It seems premature to adopt standards that have never gotten a fair trial.”

Effective teaching

The blueprint proposes a focus on effective teachers and principals that would call on states and districts to develop systems for evaluating and supporting these individuals, based on student growth and other factors. The plan also calls for a new program that would support efforts to recruit, place, reward, retain, and promote effective teachers and principals and enhance the teaching profession.

Ravitch recommended several new ways of thinking about teachers in particular.

  • Teacher preparation: All future teachers should master two academic subjects, she said.
  • Teacher entry to the profession: Teachers should pass examinations in the subjects they intend to teach.
  • Teacher evaluation: Evaluation should involve human judgment, not just test scores.

“We need educators who are more professional, not amateurs who have always wanted to be a superintendent, a principal, or a teacher. Other nations with successful school systems rely on professionalism, not amateurs. We need a strong curriculum that stresses the arts, science, history, literature, foreign languages, government, and civics: not because they are tested, but because they are important elements in a good education. Other nations aim to build a system, not a marketplace. It is not too late to embark on serious reforms, but we should start now, not eight years from now,” Ravitch said.

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Laura Ascione

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