What???s at stake in ESEA debate? Not much
Forget Occupy Wall Street. Liberal reformers and prominent editorial pages are steaming mad about the supposedly weak approach to accountability that the Harkin-Enzi ESEA-update bill takes—in comparison to current law and the Administration’s waiver plan. But are they right to be so hot and bothered?
Let’s start by examining the language that’s causing the hullabaloo—the main options on the table today when it comes to determining which schools qualify for interventions:
- The Administration’s waiver package. In order to opt-out of ESEA’s Adequate Yearly Progress metric, states must propose accountability systems that “set new ambitious but achievable [Annual Measurable Objectives] in at least reading/language arts and mathematics for the State and all LEAs, schools, and subgroups.” In other words, states must set a goal for each year in terms of the percentage of students reaching the “proficient” standard on the state test. States must also identify “Title I schools with the greatest achievement gaps, or in which subgroups are furthest behind.”
- The Harkin-Enzi bill (as passed out of committee). Under this version of ESEA, states would have to develop accountability systems that expect “the continuous improvement of all public schools in the State in the academic achievement and outcomes of all students, including… subgroups.”
- The Lamar Alexander-Johnny Isakson bill. Under this bill introduced by several Senate Republicans, states would have to establish “a system of identifying and differentiating among all public elementary schools and secondary schools in the State based on student academic achievement and any other factors determined appropriate by the State [that] also takes into account achievement gaps…and overall performance of all students and of each category of students.”
So the waiver plan, the darling of civil-rights groups, requires states to set annual targets for all kids and subgroups. The Harkin-Enzi bill, on the other hand, just asks for “continuous improvement” (whatever that means). And the Alexander-Isakson bill would leave it up to states to design their own systems—and determine whether they want to use annual targets or not—though such systems must consider subgroup performance, too. Even astute readers will have a hard time discerning what the big-deal differences are among these three options. Observe that none of these approaches maintains AYP as we know it. But none of them eliminates the federal mandate around accountability entirely. This is a debate taking place between the forty-yard lines.
That being said, I favor the Alexander-Isakson approach, for two reasons. First, we know that setting annual (and ever-rising) targets à la NCLB put pressure on states to keep their “cut scores” modest so as not to label every school in their jurisdiction as failing. I worry that the continued use of fixed targets will either encourage the Common Core testing consortia to set their cut scores low—or, if not, that the combination of high cut scores and annual targets will cause lots of states to bail from the Common Core project entirely. And in my view, it’s more important for states to be gunning for high standards (à la Common Core) than it is to have utopian annual targets in place.
The second reason for preferring Alexander-Isakson is more straightforward: We don’t know what the ideal accountability system looks like so why not give states the latitude to innovate? Asking them to consider subgroup performance is appropriate, but there are lots of ways to do that without looking at annual performance targets, per se. Why tie our hands unnecessarily?
Including achievement targets in the next ESEA wouldn’t be the end of the world. Neither would excluding them. Let’s pick one approach and get this reauthorization across the finish line.
|Click to listen to new commentary on ESEA reauthorization from the Education Gadfly Show podcast.
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