Education Trust or bust?

Is it possible that the greatness and longevity of a social movement are determined more by the excesses it avoids than the successes it achieves? That to stand the test of time, reforms need to embrace mid-course corrections and shun the temptation to overreach?

If so, then the life expectancy and ultimate impact of No Child Left Behind will be determined by its current reauthorization, when Congress has a chance to walk the law back from the brink of backlash--a backlash that could bring down standards--based reform in general, not only the federal version.

Education Trust, a leading advocacy group and NCLB's chief architect, moral guide, and cheerleader, appears to sense what's at stake--but only to a point. Its newly released reauthorization proposal would bring some welcome rationality to the law's aspirational accountability system. However, its love affair with a heavy-handed federal role may put the entire NCLB enterprise at risk.

If history is a guide, there's every reason to believe that Congress will follow Ed Trust's lead. After all, its president (and recent Fordham excellence-in-education prizewinner), Kati Haycock, was voted the most influential individual in American education save for President Bush and Secretary Spellings (see here). She and her organization are respected by many Republicans and worshipped by lots of Democrats. Their pronouncements are taken seriously. But should this one be?

Let's start with the good part. Education Trust has finally admitted that "every child proficient in reading and math by 2014" is much better as a slogan and aspiration than as the operating principle for a serious accountability regime. It's the classic overreach, the epitome of excess. This pronouncement-cum-policy has encouraged states to play games: mucking around with "n-sizes" and "confidence intervals" to avoid the "every child" component, racing to the bottom with their definitions of "proficiency," and back-loading their timelines in the expectation of a miracle in the last year or two before the 2014 deadline.

Ed Trust appears to have gotten the picture. Regarding "every child," its proposal would allow states with high standards (those that indicate readiness for college and work) to aim for 80 percent of students in every subgroup achieving proficiency rather than 100 percent. (Ninety-five percent of students would have to achieve a "new basic" level, "indicating preparation for active citizenship, military service, and entry into postsecondary education or formal employment training.") Furthermore, it would differentiate between those schools that miss their performance targets by a mile and those that fall short by a few inches. Regarding "proficiency," it would provide incentives for states to boost their standards and require those with particularly weak-kneed definitions of "proficiency" to get at least 50 percent more of their kids to the "advanced" level. Plus, it would count as "proficient" those students who are "on a trajectory to meet proficiency in three years"--an acceptance of student growth as a cornerstone of any sensible accountability system. As for the 2014 deadline, Ed Trust would allow high-standards states to reset NCLB's 12-year timeline, giving them until 2019 to achieve the law's goals.

This isn't perfect. Giving states incentives to sign on to rigorous national standards would be better, as would adding science and history to the mix. And yes, it's wonky and complex. Still, the menu of options Ed Trust offers the states would move NCLB's accountability system in the right direction.

That might save the law from faltering under its own weight. But not if some of Ed Trust's other recommendations become law. For they are chock-full of Washington-knows-best requirements that drive educators crazy with red tape and inflame those who believe that state and local officials deserve a little freedom to figure a few things out for themselves. Consider:

  • Ed Trust would dictate the contours of every state's data system, including elements such as teachers' "professional development program participation" and the "ability to link data systems to data from workforce development, unemployment insurance, and military services information systems." States that don't comply would lose Title I funding.
  • Ed Trust would limit states' and districts' already-meager ability to move funds from one federal account to another, specifically barring them from using their Title II (teacher quality) grants for Title I (school improvement) purposes.
  • Ed Trust would require a litany of needs assessments, data collections, and state plans that "must describe the state's procedures for reviewing and monitoring compliance with LEA obligations."
  • Ed Trust would maintain the law's next-to-useless "highly qualified teachers" mandate, indeed would make it more restrictive.
  • Ed Trust would require each Comprehensive Restructuring Plan (mandated for failing schools) to be "reviewed by a peer review committee, which shall include a principal of a high-performing Title I school, distinguished educators in the subject(s) that caused the school to be identified as In Need of Comprehensive Improvement, and at least one designee of the governor."

What happens if a state decides it doesn't care to track professional development in its data system, or doesn't want to link its education data up with the Pentagon? What if states and districts want to spend all of their federal funds on Title I improvement activities? What if schools are getting great results with instructors who don't meet the paperwork requirements of the highly qualified teachers provisions? What if the governor never gets around to designating a member of the Comprehensive Restructuring Plan peer review committee?

Once upon a time, advocates for standards-based reform promised local schools greater authority and autonomy in return for more rigorous results-based accountability. That's still the right bargain, especially when Uncle Sam is involved. Obviously Education Trust disagrees, and believes in trying to change behavior both through incentives and through old-fashioned rules and regulations. That's its prerogative. It's a liberal advocacy group, after all. But that doesn't mean that members of Congress--Republicans especially--have to go along.

For the sake of Ed Trust's baby, its cherished NCLB, let's hope it wins the day on accountability and loses the fight on federal micromanagement. Otherwise get ready for No Backlash Left Behind--and another promising reform washed away by the errors of its excess.

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