One Size Fits None: Why Federal Educational Polices Will Not Change Classroom Practice

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people. 10th Amendment to the Constitution.

From the Land Ordinance of 1785 and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 to the present day the role of the federal government has impinged upon state responsibility in the area of education.

In 1965 the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) created both a maze of regulations and a pipeline of funding directed to the poorest schools and school districts. In each funding cycle the representatives of the recipients of Title 1 funding fought to increase funding, today about 10% of national education dollars come from federally funded programs. Under current Title 1 legislation schools have wide discretion in the use of the dollars, reading and math teachers who work with children in small groups, guidance counselors, ESL/Bi-lingual teachers, or, using the dollars to create additional classes to reduce class size.

Do the federal Title 1 dollars increase pupil achievement?

The Institute for Education Successes, the research arm of the US Department of Education tracks federal dollars and documents successful programs.

A recent meta study of Title 1 funds concludes;

Title I became an increasingly effective program over its first 2 decades. Research shows that those students who participated in Title I programs in the early grades have maintained the gains they achieved in Title I through middle school and high school, continually outperforming their non-Title I peers. While students make their biggest gains in math during the school year, the likelihood exists that they will lose many of their math skills over the summer. The authors suggest that schools consider using part of their Title I funds to provide math programs over the summer, so that students will not lose the gains they make in math during the school year.

If Title 1 programs are effective, why haven’t we seen effective programs, documented by student growth, around the nation?

The issue: how do we both align and bring to scale successful practices?

The Republican Bush administration, with bipartisan support, passed No Child Left Behind, the 2003 reauthorization of the Elementary And Secondary Education Act for the first time requiring states to test students in grades 3-8 each year, establish a goal called Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), requiring that all student achieve proficiency by 2014 and set sanctions for schools that failed to show progress. The sanctions included replacing principals and/or staffs, converting to charter or closing.

The explosion of testing resulted in states setting small, easily achievable AYP goals and slowly, inexorably tens of thousands of schools would be stained as ineffective with dire consequences. Efforts to reauthorize NCLB have stalled in Congress as education policy is caught up in sharp partisan differences.

President Obama, without legislation, increased the federal role by offering billions of dollars in competitive grants as well as regulatory requirements to be eligible for Title 1 funding.

Obama-Duncan: An increased emphasis on testing driving teacher evaluation, remuneration and tenure, school success/failure as well as the uncapped growth of public charter schools, both for profit and not for profit. The President’s policies are supported by Republicans and elements within the Democratic Party and vigorously opposed by other Democrats, teachers and many parents.

Both NCLB and Obama policies are not supported by any research. Arne Duncan’s seven years as superintendent in Chicago, the cradle for his current national policies, did not show any significant impact on school improvement.

At last week’s NYC meeting of the Cuomo Commission on Education Reform  a number of speakers called for the expansion of “wraparound services” sometimes referred to as Community Schools. The Children’s Aid Society supports about twenty Community Schools using mostly Medicaid funding. In New York City health and social services are fragmented: federal, state and local rules and regulations create a maze and the Department has done an exceptionally poor job in collecting Medicaid funds.

Once again the problem is alignment and scalability.

Diane Ravitch asks a simple question: why doesn’t the administration support evidence-based programs?

Critics, so-called reformers argue that claims of success after success has not moved schools and offer a range of unproven incentive driven policies, a combination of Milton Friedman and Ayn Rand.

Why are these unproven ideas gaining popularity?

Presidents, governors and mayors are wedded to that magic bullet – that “big idea” that’s going to turn around our nation’s education.

On the ground, in schools, one size does not fit all – in fact – federal policies fit no one.

High wealth districts, districts in which students enter kindergarten reading argue that they are already successful, leave them alone, exempt them from the expensive and onerous federal and state regulations.

Low wealth, high poverty districts with struggling schools argue that the “onerous and expensive” regulations are not financially supportable and there is no evidence that they will create a path to ending the achievement gap.

Amy Wilkins at the Education Trust argues,

We have to stop blaming our measurement tools and start instituting the practices we know will lead to better results for kids. To be sure, if even half the energy some now expend bashing tests was invested in better preparation and support for our teachers, and in ensuring that the kids who most need strong instructors get them, our students and our educators would be much better off.

Wilkins is not alone, in an October 2012 the Chicago Consortium on School Research reported,

Schools that show the largest improvements are those where teachers work collectively on improving instruction, and where school leadership is inclusive and focused on instruction.

Standards movements have come and gone, every decade or so with fanfare some nationwide coalition hails new standards. Teachers are required to post the standards on classroom walls, in hallways, embed in lesson plans, the drumbeat of the new standards rises, ebbs and fades away.

The Common Core, the newest set of standards are not earthshaking, as a teacher at the David Coleman web cast responded in the comment period, “Our current teaching reflects these new standards already.” Maybe in his classroom it is the case. Writing “persuasive or argumentative evidence-based essays” is perfectly reasonable, and, hopefully is reflected in classrooms. Teachers have to believe that embedding the Common Core will be beneficial to students, not be fearful that the Common Core will be used as a club.

Are teachers on a grade, teachers in a school, in a school district able to align their practices, communicate with teachers on their grade, in their subject area, with teachers on other schools? Can they share lesson plans and curriculum maps; are there forums to meet colleagues, teachers, coaches, supervisors and superintendents? Dropboxes into which teachers can share acorss grades, schools and school districts? Why not?

Too many practitioners are isolated, in silos, with no access to other teachers. The failure to align excellent practices is a failure of our system, and, the current federal mantra of “the beatings will continue until you submit” is foolish and counterproductive.

The second failure is scalability -the inability to grow successful practices. A network of schools in the city which teaches high school age students who have been in the country four years or less has excellent data. At the same time state regulations for English Language Learners (ELL) – called Part 154 – have not been changed for thirty years at the same time that data – graduation rates, college readiness are appalling. Why can’t the city and the state scale up successful practices?

Solutions will never originate in Washington or Albany or Tweed – successful practices, successful schools, successful classrooms are created by teachers and principals, not the oligarchs of education.

Many decry the business model in education, however, we can learn from the theories of modern business management.

The bottom-up approach implies proactive team input in the project executing process. Team members are invited to participate in every step of the management process. The decision on a course of action is taken by the whole team. Bottom-up style allows managers to communicate goals and value, e.g. through milestone planning.

No matter how loud the wails of Duncan from the minarets of Washington teachers close their doors and do what teachers do best. A review of the “model” school district teacher evaluation plans call for one announced and one unannounced teacher observations year – not exactly earth shattering!

Leadership, which is currently lacking, can align and scale up successful classroom practices. Unfortunately a kind of educational sharia law dominates educational leadership.

2 responses to “One Size Fits None: Why Federal Educational Polices Will Not Change Classroom Practice

  1. Eric Nadelstern

    “Leadership, which is currently lacking, can align and scale up successful classroom practices.”

    I’m not sure that I ever saw anyone accomplish this feat, except perhaps Tony Alvardo when he was Superintendent of District 2. Tony did scour the city for the best principals, and invested heavily (4% of the district’s budget) to make them better. It didn’t hurt that the district was populated by wealthier, better prepared-kids either.

    Hardly a formula for the kind of systemic change that will close the achievement gap.


  2. While I agree with your article let’s include Education evaluation by zip code. Overlay the census facts of parent education and income and include that as well. It begs for a comprehensive societal investment to prevent the increasing racial/class segregation. This is our biggest civil rights issue today!
    Paul Arden


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