Eight-Dollar Words

Secretary Spellings’ big national NCLB policy announcement came yesterday in Minnesota.  And the closely guarded secret was exactly what Alexander Russo and others thought it would be — greater flexibility in determining student achievement and AYP.

We all know it was an important step, and one that was a long time in coming.  The Commonwealth of Virginia is aggressively looking at pulling out of NCLB over the issue, willing to refuse its federal education dollars because of issues involving AYP and ELL students (among others).  For years now, the states have been clamoring for additional flexibility, noting unique demographic and data circumstances in their states.

Such flexibility is not an excuse for avoiding federal requirements, rather it is a recognition that some states have to take different paths to reach proficiency and to get every student achieving.  While we’re all heading to the same ultimate goal, it may take some longer and it may require more work and more innovation from others.

The U.S. Department of Education should be commended for finally offering this lifeline to those states trying to do the right thing when it comes to AYP.  And we likely have groups like CCSSO for helping push it forward.  Now, the spotlight will be placed on which 10 states will gain this newly found flexibility (and from the speakers list yesterday, it seems Minnesota and South Dakota are likely to be in the pool.  And Spellings also singled out Maryland, North Dakota, Louisiana, and Massachusetts.  Here’s hoping that Eduflack’s home state of Virginia makes the cut as well.

But in all of the excitement of a major education policy announcement, I can’t help but notice the need by some to secure a triple-word score on the announcement.  For years now, the talk has been on flexibility.  Yet if we look at all of the headlines from the “official” documents coming out of the Minnesota announcement, we’ve decided to rebrand flexibility as a “differentiated accountability pilot.”

If the goal is to win over the research professors in our schools of education and public policy, then the rebrand is genius.  But if our intent is to demonstrate that ED is listening, and has answered the call for greater flexibility, we are falling a little flat.

Over the past few years, one of the greatest criticisms of this Department of Education (and this Administration) is that it is inflexible.  It is their way or the highway.  And that has been particularly true of NCLB.  It is enforced the way those on the seventh floor intend it to, and there is little (if any) room for interpretation or flexibility.  That is why you have seen so many states (along with ed organizations like AASA, NEA, and the others) grouse about the law and its implementation for the last seven years.

We blunt that criticism by showing we are flexible.  We scream from the rooftops of our ability to recognize and adapt to the needs of our constituencies.  At this stage of the game, we should become virtual Gumbies of public policy, doing whatever it takes to reauthorize the law and recommit to boosting achievement in all students.  These last 10 months are all about legacy, after all.

Instead, we fly such flexibility under the banner of “differentiated accountability pilot.”  After reaching for our latest copy of Webster, we may figure out that ED is demonstrating flexibility.  Or we may just move on, seeing it as just the latest in policyspeak and education gobbledygook.  Worse, we may think there is something unknown and hidden in such a complicated term, fearing there is an enforcement shoe to drop that we don’t see or don’t understand.

Don’t get me wrong.  A differentiated accountability pilot is a good step, particularly if ED selects the right states — those who need the flexibility the most and those who can demonstrate that, with a little help, improved achievement is just around the corner.  But we should look to use common-sense words to describe complex issues. 

We don’t need eight-dollar words when a 50-cent one will do.  The name of the game here is flexibility.  Hopefully, educators and policymakers will overlook our Scrabble-speak and recognize the opportunity and possibility behind the actions.  After all, this is what they’ve been calling for for years.

2 thoughts on “Eight-Dollar Words

  1. I would argue that when we start adding provisions like this, it simply shows that the core of the Act doesn’t work. I am not anti-accountability. I just think the time has come to consider NCLB 2.0.

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