The scene in January 2002 was a civics text come to life. Flanked by jubilant members of Congress and standing in front of a cheering crowd, President George W. Bush declared the start of a “new era” in American public education with the signing of the No Child Left Behind Act.
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., shared the president’s enthusiasm. “This is a defining issue about the future of our nation and about the future of democracy, the future of liberty, and the future of the United States in leading the free world,” the legislative icon had proclaimed on the Senate floor. “No piece of legislation will have a greater impact or influence on that.”
from Education Next
Unfortunately Kennedy was correct, the legislation had enormous impact, an enormously negative impact. NCLB created a testing empire, classrooms became focused on test prep; art and music disappeared; recruiting high achieving kids became de rigueur as well as ridding schools of lower achieving kids. Chasing test scores replaced a well-rounded school curriculum. Year after year the dems and the repubs dueled and the law remained unchanged.
Finally, a few years ago Senators Alexander (R) and Murray (D) began to work on a new law, a law called the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). While the law still requires grades 3-8 testing the law also grants states wide discretion in creating an accountability plan as well as addressing school improvement.
New York State employed two of the most widely respected educators in the nation as consultants, Linda Darling-Hammond, the Learning Policy Institute and Scott Marion, The Center for Assessment; they guided the process.
I’ve sat through hours and hours of meetings, occasionally participating in outreach sessions. On Monday the State Education Department released a draft of the plan to be followed by two months of public comment, review and edits by the governor and an approval vote in September.
There is no jubilation, no standing in the streets cheering; however, the accountability section plan is a step in the right direction.
The accountability section of the plan still requires the identification of the lowest 5% of Title 1 schools. Under NCLB we only “measured” schools by results on grades 3-8 tests and high school graduation rates. The draft plan will add “growth” (also referred to as “progress”) as well as a number of other metrics. The results will be reported in a dashboard, a matrix; there will no letter or number grades.
I believe a much fairer plan.
Let’s be honest, the overriding reason for low achievement is beyond the ability of schools to overcome. School cannot erase the stain of poverty. How many kids are faced with health problems caused by physical, social and environmental degradations?
A little math problem:
You intend to travel to meet a friend who lives 100 miles away. Each day you get halfway there, how many days will it take to meet your friend?
The answer: you never meet him, you keep getting closer, you never get there.
Schools make “progress;” however you cannot overcome the external factors. You get better for a year or two and fall back for a year or two. Schools do not control funding, school don’t control foreclosures, schools don’t control the movement of immigrants, yet, we hold schools fully responsible for kids reaching “proficiency.”
These are not excuses, schools matter, school leaders and teachers matter, they impact the lives of kids, unfortunately we do not hold the feds or the state or the local government accountable, only schools, school leaders and teachers.
The members of the Board of Regents debated, suggested, asked questions for three and a half hours. One of the board members pointed out a crucial factor: the 700 school districts in the state have independent, elected school boards who hire superintendents and principals. The commissioner can only intervene if the district commits malfeasance, a crime. How do you hold the local education bureaucracy accountable?
A number of other Board members asked: how do we hold ourselves responsible?
The Regents have no control over funding, the formulas are set by the legislature and the governor and the system is among the most inequitable in the nation.
In spite of the inadequacies in the larger picture the plan is fairer: progress will be acknowledged.
The second part of the plan is disappointing, how the state will assist the schools in the lowest 5%. Write a plan reflecting data that includes “evidence-based” approaches to improving teaching and learning. I knew, I know, the plan is simply following the requirements of the law. We’ve been writing school improvement plans for decades, we’re good at it, we’re not good at improving schools.
As the lengthy discussion moved along a number of the Regents asked whether the state was planning to design pilots that explored the use of performance tasks or portfolios as assessment tools. The law, ESSA, does require that the US Department of Education, somewhere down the road, select seven states to conduct pilot assessment programs. A few states, New Hampshire, Vermont and a few others are currently conducting pilot programs approved under NCLB waivers. New York State can create pilots; however, not in lieu of the current testing, in addition to current testing.
The State Education Department has learned from the Common Core fiasco and conducted innumerable meetings around the state, I participated in one meeting, the outreach has been unprecedented.
First steps are crucial, the introduction of the Common Core was mishandled, alienating instead of building consensus, it was dead on arrival. The current efforts give stakeholders, in fact, anyone who pleases the opportunity to participate.
At the same time the commissioner is revising and renaming the Common Core State Standards, now called Next Generation ELA and Math Standards. Once again, the outreach was significant – see the Next Generation Standards here.
Standards are statements of what skills students should be able to exhibit in each grade. One of the recommendations states: “Establish a transparent and open process by which New York standards are periodically reviewed by educators and content area specialists.” I’m baffled, should English and Math standards vary from state to state, change every few years within in a state? I passed the Next Generation Standards on to a few folk who I consider experts. The Math folk were highly critical and ELA folk mildly critical. Standards are subjective,
For me, the underlying core problem: we do not have curriculum aligned to state standards. State Ed maintains that curriculum is the responsibility of school districts. School districts do not have the technical expertise or the funding to create curriculum, they have adopted the EngageNY curriculum modules, and, as the commissioner acknowledged at the last meeting, the curriculum modules became a script.
One state has consistently led the nation in NAEP scores, the state of Massachusetts, referred to as the Massachusetts Education Miracle, If Massachusetts was a nation it would rank among the highest achieving in the world, New York State falls well below the midpoint of states.
Massachusetts aligned standards to curriculum to professional development to teacher preparation to testing, with spectacular consistent results.
Ashley Berner, Deputy Director, Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy in “The Promise of Curriculum: Recent Research on Louisiana’s Instructional Reforms” cuts to the core of the question of improving student outcomes. (Read full paper here).
Berner explains in detail why America has been reticent, if not hostile to the concept of a common curriculum, in spite of the fact that high achieving nations around the world all have content rich national curriculum.
And so the curriculum rarely rises to the level of action. Massachusetts is an exception: the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993 required the creation of coherent, intellectually challenging curricular frameworks. The state then created an entire system around curriculum that influenced teacher preparation, professional development, assessments, and student learning.
The one state that recently has made significant progress is Louisiana.
Louisiana was among the top five states in narrowing several achievement gaps: the white-black gap in 4th-grade math, the white-Hispanic gap in 4th grade math and reading; the white-Hispanic gap in 8th grade math and reading (“NAEP 2015: Mathematics and Reading Assessments” 2015).
In an Education Next article (“Why Curriculum Matters“) Charles Sahm writes,
There are no silver bullets in education. But a growing body of both empirical and real-world evidence makes a compelling case that curriculum is a key component of student success.
I am concerned that New York State, in spite of their best intentions, in spite of the dedication of the commissioner and her staff, are not moving in the right direction. ESSA opens a window, a rare opportunity, to change direction, I fear we may missing the opportunity.