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.