Because Fed Ed Isn’t Meant to Be Creative

Earlier this month, the good folks over at Bellwether Education Partners released their review of the state implementation plans for the most recent version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, ESSA. In its review, Bellwether found that that the states were largely unimaginative in responding to the new federal mandate. The minds at Bellwether were looking for innovation and the unexpected. Instead, they got what was largely expected.

But isn’t that the point? We’ve seen time and again that the feds aren’t looking or the most unique thinking when looking for state responses. Whether it be No Child Left Behind and Reading First or Race to the Top, we want creativity that isn’t too creative. We want unique thoughts that align with the non-unique checklists of reviewers. We want the what we expect.

Over on dear ol’ Eduflack’s BAM! Radio Network, we take a look at the responses to the state ESSA plans, and how the critics are looking for far more from state ESSA than they should expect.

When it comes down to it, state ESSA plans are meant to serve as a floor, not a ceiling. They are intended to make sure that every state is expending the required minimum effort when it comes to ESSA implementation. It now falls to the field to push them harder, to seek ceilings on what is possible that are always beyond reach.

If we look to bureaucratic responses to formulaic funding plans for innovation, we will always be left disappointed. Maybe it is time to read between the lines at what states might now be able to do.


Where’s the New Education Federalism?

The start of the Trump administration promised, when it came to education, a return to state and local voices being the final word when it comes to policy. But as the US Department of Education provides its reviews of state ESSA plans, why doesn’t seem like a reinforcement of the Federalism witnessed during both the No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top eras?

That’s the question we pursue on the latest edition of BAM! Radio Network’s #TrumpED. Give it a listen. Please. 

Doing What “Works” In the Classroom

Last week, educators across Florida went to the state capitol in what has become a common refrain. Florida teachers demanded more respect for their profession. They asked for a reduction in testing and its emphasis. They took on the perceived “profiteering” in public education, whether it be seen in charter school operators or textbook publishers.

There is no question that the education profession has been under attack for many years, and there is similarly no question that educators deserve greater respect than they largely get. Teaching is an incredibly difficult job, and it has only gotten more challenging in recent years. We look to teachers to be everything from guidance counselors to social workers to parole officers, and then we expect them to get every child under their care into Harvard. (sure, a little hyperbole, but what would an education debate be without it?)

Eduflack was struck, though, by a comment made by a Florida school district’s head of employee relations. Obviously responding to a question about why 3,000 teachers descended on Tallahassee to speak their minds, this school official said, teachers “want to get back to doing things in the classroom that they know work.”

This is a common refrain in the post-NCLB world. But what does it really mean? Does it mean we want to empower teachers to do what is most effective in teaching the kids in their care? Or does it mean to let teachers do what they want, when levels of accountability were low?

“Doing the things that they know works” would seem a tip of the hat to research-based instruction, where we have qualitative data showing the instruction boosts student learning. It speaks to longitudinal studies that seek to pinpoint what works (and what doesn’t) when it comes to instructional practice. And it is almost lifted directly from the NCLB law itself, particularly as we talked about scientifically based reading when it came to Reading First and the creation of the What Works Clearinghouse over at IES.

If that’s what going back to doing what teachers know works, then sign me up now. Give me a placard and a megaphone and let me shout loud and proud for using evidence-based instruction in the classroom.

But please don’t tell me it is code for letting us go back to the way things used to be in the 1990s, when it was the Wild West when it came to both instructional practice, student expectations, and accountability. Please don’t suggest we go back to the good ol’ days when inputs ruled the day and outcomes were horrible things that were just whispered about.

When a third of fourth graders are unable to read at grade level, we don’t know what works (and if we do, we certainly aren’t using it). When that same percentage of fourth graders are unable to earn a college diploma eight years later, we sure don’t know what works.

Yes, we need to empower teachers. They need to be equipped with the skills, knowledge, and pedagogy to succeed in the classroom. They need to be supported – by financial and human resource – to lead their classrooms and reach their students. They need to be give real-time student data (and know what to do with it) so they can adjust and tailor instruction to meet the needs of this year’s class of students.

Yes, all educators should be using what works in their classrooms. Alas, we still have a long way to go before we can agree on what those research-effective practices are, and where evidence trumps philosophy.


Does Accountability “Eradicate Goodness?”

As a nation, No Child Left Behind has been the law for more than 13 years now. Good, bad, and ugly (and with the occasional waiver from any of the three), NCLB governs K-12 education in the United States.

Listen to any of those who were responsible for bringing it into law, or those who were responsible for implementing the law, and you’ll hear one of the most important components was “accountability.” NCLB was designed to hold states, districts, schools, teachers, and students themselves for learning. Test scores determined if adequate progress was being made. If it wasn’t, then federal dollars were at risk and great public shame could come to those put on the “list” for failing to make AYP.

We all recognize that, at some point in the near future, NCLB will be replaced with some variation of the current “Every Child Achieves” bill that is currently working its way through Congress. A great many legislators, organizations, individuals, advocates, agitators, and the like are all look to make the changes that help them the most or reflect their own dreams and desires for federal K-12 governance.

And we will see change. We likely will see a number of changes. We will likely see changes that aren’t even warranted (or may not be demanded). But one thing should be clear. We aren’t going to see federal law do away with accountability.

I understand there are a great number of people who want to accountability go the way of the dodo. Those that want to see all the sticks replaced with carrots and federal law governed by the philosophy that we are all a success and we’ve earned trophies just for participating in the schooling process.

But results count. There are clear benchmarks of what students should know and be able to do at the conclusion of each grade. There are clear expectations of what it means to finish the fourth grade or to graduate from high school. And when students enter fourth grade unable to read at grade level or head into 12th grade functionally illiterate, someone needs to be held accountable. The state. The district. The school. And the student himself.

So it a cryin’ shame when we see folks who should know better thinking that a redo of the ESEA law can and should mean the total elimination of any and all accountability. Particularly when they frame it as, “Doing anything punitive in nature eradicates what goodness is going to come out of this bill.”

For those keeping track, those are the words of Sheila Cohen, the president of the Connecticut Education Association. They were spoken, as captured by the Connecticut Mirror, in response to U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy siding with civil rights groups who want to see accountability provisions remain in the federal law, including the NAACP.

“The principle of accountability is not negotiable to us,” said Leslie Proll, director of the Washington office of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “This was the raison d’etre of the original act. Educational systems must be held responsible for narrowing and eliminating gaps in opportunity and achievement for students of color.”

Proll is right on point here. Educational systems must be held responsible. They must be responsible for both the inputs and the outcomes. They must both admit there are serious concerns when it comes to achievement and opportunity gaps AND that we need to everything possible to close those gaps. And no, simply blaming “poverty” is not going to get us there.

There cannot be accountability without some sort of punitive action. Otherwise, there simply is no accountability. Are we to simply say, borrowing from the old Robin Williams routine, “improve the schools, or we’ll ask you to improve them again?” Decades have shown us it just doesn’t work that way.

Instead of believing that something punitive eradicates all that is good in nature, perhaps we should borrow a little from Newton’s third law of physics. For every act of accountability, there is an equal and opposite act of achievement. That the possibility of a negative impact will actually lead our schools to make the requisite change to close those persistent gaps that need to be closed.

Urban Supes: We Want Greater Accountability

While all the things that go bump in the night tell us that tests and standards and accountability are responsible for the complete and utter fall of western civilization as we once knew it, a large and impressive group of superintendents (present and former) representing some of the nation’s largest school districts have a different view. They believe strong standards, assessments, and accountability are required if we are to provide all kids with a top-notch school experience.

Over at Education World, I write about how this group of school district leaders is calling on Congress to ensure a great public education for all kids. In asking Congressional leaders not to lose sight of the gains many of their districts made because of accountability measures in place, these educators offer a very simple equation for success. As Eduflack writes, these supes are telling us:

We believe in strong academic standards. We need annual tests in core subjects to determine student progress in meeting those standards. Those test results need to get back to teachers quickly, so they can adjust classroom instruction accordingly. States need to make sure this happens as intended. If it doesn’t, the feds need to step in. That’s how we make sure all kids—regardless of race, family income, or zip code—get a world-class public education.

It’s an important lesson from an impressive list of education leaders on the front lines of school transformation and improvement. I hope you will give it a read.

Duncan: ESEA “Outmoded and Broken”

For those keeping score, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was slated for reauthorization in early 2007.  These acts are supposed to be reupped every five years.  And like clockwork, we tend to forget about the clock and leave existing laws in place long after their expiration date.

The five-year cycle allows us to recognize that the work changes around us.  The K-12 education space is vastly different today than it was when the law was written in 2001.  From the stronger role of technology in the classroom to the growing needs of addressing a growing ELL population, circumstances change.  The Federal law governing our public schools should change as well.
But it has now been a dozen years since the current law was written.  We should be preparing for our second revision, and not still waiting for a re-up that is more than six years past due.  But we wait.
A few years ago, Eduflack opined that EdSec Arne Duncan didn’t need reauthorization.  That the Administration could and would adjust Federal education law through the introduction of new programs (like Race to the Top) and through greater flexibility to NCLB (as we’ve seen with the NCLB waivers and the waiver waivers).  And to date, Duncan and company have done a good job playing the hand they’ve been dealt, recognizing that Congress was not looking for another major bipartisan lift on education policy, so one just lives with the law that brought ’em.
Sure, we’ve seen both the House and the Senate debate and even pass some reauthorization legislation.  But the differences between the two chambers has been significant.  And there seems be a lack of urgency in either side of the Hill to really move major legislation that will improve educational outcomes and opportunities for our kids.
Today, though, Duncan took to the pages of The Washington Post to call for a refocus on ESEA and a demand for its reauthorization.  Taking aim at a recent House bill out of sync with Obama/Duncan priorities, the EdSec is using his bully pulpit to refocus the spotlight on our need for ESEA reauthorization.
Some of the highlights include:
The vision of American education that President Obama and I share starts in the classroom – with fully engaged students, creative and inspiring teachers, and the support and resources needed to get every child prepared for college and career.  Students in our poorest communities should enjoy learning opportunities like those in our wealthiest communities.  Zip code, race, disability and family income should not limit students’ opportunities or reduce expectations for them  The progress of U.S. students should remain transparent.

Washington’s role is to protect children at risk and promote opportunity for all.  The federal government is not, and will never be, in the business of telling states or schools what or how to teach.  But it cannot shirk its role of ensuring that schools and students meet the high bar that prepares them for the real world.  History shows that, without some kind of accountability, states and districts do not always need the needs of the most vulnerable students.
He continues:
In the months ahead, I will ask Congress to listen to those doing the real work of education change.  Principals, teachers, governors, state education chiefs, superintendents, parents and students themselves know what is and isn’t working. They can guide us to a better law.

Lawmakers in both chambers and parties should agree on a bill that raises the bar, protects children, supports and improves effective teaching and school leadership, and provides flexibility and supports good work at the state and local level.  We should give them the resources and the flexibility and make sure we all are accountable for the job we are doing on behalf of our children.

We are fighting not just for a strong education system but also for our country.  A good law is part of that fight.
Kudos for Duncan and the folks down on New Jersey Avenue for seeking to regain congressional attention on ESEA reauthorization.  But will it help?  With issues like accountability, testing, and Common Core State Standards under attack from both the left and the right, it seems unlikely that Congress will find the gumption to take a meaningful stand and do the right thing here.  But we can hope, can’t we?

“Higher-Quality Assessments”?

Lost in the excitement of this week’s NCLB waiver waivers and NCTQ’s teacher prep scorecards was a new report coming out of Stanford University’s Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, or SCOPE.  The report offers up the thought-provoking title, Criteria for Higher-Quality Assessment.

With a tip of the cap to Common Core State Standards (CCSS), Criteria for Higher-Quality Assessment offers up some guidance that “can be used by assessment developers, policymakers, and educators as they work to create and adopt assessments that promote deeper learning of 21st century skills that students need to succeed in today’s knowledge-based economy.”
Obviously not as sexy as the wavier waivers (or the non-waiver of waivers, depending on who you talk to), it is an interesting topic.  And it definitely helps when this guidance is coming from a team of authors who have been or currently are involved in CCSS or the development of Common Core assessments.  The SCOPE report offers a who’s who of authors, including Linda Darling-Hammong, Joan Herman, Eva Baker, P. David Pearson, and Lauren Resnick (all told, the piece boasts 20 “authors”).
And what does the esteemed panel offer up?  Noting that “No single assessment can evaluate all of the kinds of learning we value for students or meet all of the goals held by parents, practitioners, and policymakers,” the authors advocate five criteria that should be applied in the development of assessments moving forward:
  1. New assessments should tap the “higher-level” cognitive skills that allow students to transfer their learning to new situations
  2. Assessments should evaluate the critical abilities articulated in the standards, such as communication (speaking, reading, writing, and listening in multimedia forms), collaboration, modeling, complex problem solving, research, experimentation, and evaluation
  3. Assessments should be as rigorous as those of the leading education countries, in terms of the kinds of tasks they present as well as the level of performance they expect
  4. Assessment tasks should also represent the curriculum content in ways that respond to instruction and have value for guiding and informing teaching
  5. An assessment should represent well the knowledge and skills it intends to measure, be used appropriately for intended purposes, and have positive consequences for instruction and for test-takers, guiding better decisions rather than restricting opportunities
All of these points seem reasonable.  All of these points seem like something the entire education community should strive for.  The big question, then, is whether any of the current testmakers — particularly those who construct and sell the dreaded “high-stakes tests” would say they don’t already adhere to these five criteria and won’t continue to follow as they develop new summative tests aligned to the Common Core.
Anyone, anyone?