Note: Our guest-blogger this week will be Max Eden, a senior fellow of education policy at the Manhattan Institute.
We’re leaving the era of No Child Left Behind and entering the Every Student Succeeds Act epoch. Will we just see more (or less) of the same? Or will state and system leaders make the most of their newfound flexibility? Much will hinge on whether we can move beyond an exclusive policy focus on disadvantaged students, and embrace the idea that All Kids Matter.
For the past 15 years, the idea that education reform is the “civil rights struggle of our time,” has engaged the passions of a generation to do good and noble work for our nation’s least fortunate children. But this passion has also come at a cost. In National Affairs in 2011, Rick Hess argued, “The truth is that achievement-gap mania has led to education policy that has shortchanged many children. It has narrowed the scope of schooling. It has hollowed out public support for school reform. It has stifled educational innovation. It has distorted the way we approach educational choice, accountability, and reform.” This critique has only grown more trenchant over the past five years, and public concern about the side-effects of “achievement-gap mania” propelled ESSA’s pivot to greater flexibility and autonomy.
The good news is that a new focus on academic excellence need not necessarily come at the cost of a commitment to social justice. Rick and I just wrapped up a book on ESSA (coming out early 2017 from Harvard Education Press), and I’m optimistic that ESSA can enable an agenda to help all schools and all students. Here are five ideas, for starters:
1. Use Title I Competitive Grants to Expand Course Access
ESSA gives states a 7 percent set-aside of Title I funds for school improvement. States could simply rubber-stamp district efforts and distribute these funds by formula, or they could use competitive grants to expand opportunity by piloting a state-wide course access program and incentivizing districts to buy in.
Course access allows students to take online courses from state-approved providers for school credit. It would allow a student in a rural area the opportunity to take advanced coursework that no one there teaches, allow a gifted student to accelerate his education, or allow any student to take an enriching course on, say, art history.
This reform has been slower to catch on than some advocates hoped, partly due to bureaucratic inertia and partly due to the fact that the district bears some cost. A competitive grant could overcome that inertia, and the state-level Title I set-aside combined with federally funded district-level supplemental services money could make course access all but free for districts and states. If a state leader wanted to, he could dramatically expand the academic opportunities available to students.
2. Introduce School Climate Surveys
Reading and math scores are not the alpha and omega of education; but that’s what we’ve been measuring so that’s what we’ve been managing. Introducing school climate surveys, which ask students, teachers, and parents a wider range of questions would not only help parents see a bit more inside the “black box” of schooling, but also help principals manage their schools with greater insight and creativity. Companies like Panorama Education offer high-quality climate surveys, and state and district leaders should give such products a careful look.
(However, these services should NOT be used for accountability, lest per Campbell’s Law we corrupt the thing we’re trying to measure.)
3. Measure “Excellence” in Addition to “Proficiency”
There’s been a lot of discussion around tweaks to ESSA’s school accountability system. But the system will by definition catch the lowest 5 percent of schools, and it is unclear how Department of Education’s regulations or the various third-party comments thereon would help the median school.
What might help bring schools from good to great, though, is collecting and distributing information on excellence. How many AP courses does a school offer? How many extra-curriculars are offered and how many students participate? Do students have a chance to learn Mandarin in addition to Spanish? How good are the arts programs? Just collecting and publicizing some data on this would not only help schools expand their focus, it would also give public school parents a more richly informed choice, perhaps bringing a tad of productive competition into public schools.
(Campbell’s Law, of course, applies here as well.)
4. Bust Open the Teacher Pipeline to Attract More Talent
There is extensive literature on the inefficacy of teacher-prep programs, which rarely improve teacher quality but often hinder talent from teaching. States can bust open the teacher pipeline with a little-noticed ESSA provision that enables them to use Title II funding to develop new “teacher preparation academies” sponsored by non-profits and other public entities.
As Ashley Jochim points out in her excellent chapter in Rick’s and my forthcoming ESSA book: “In addition to providing funding, the law also dictates requirements for these programs that ensure that they do not face unnecessary regulatory requirements (e.g., ‘obligating the academy’s faculty to hold advanced degrees or conduct academic research’) and that teachers (or principals) trained through these academies are recognized with degrees that are similar to other programs (e.g., a master’s degree). These provisions will position SEAs that remain independent from higher education institutions to re-shape K-12 teacher and principal pipelines using Title II, rather than engaging in protracted fights.”
State leaders could use these to train and place talented STEM teachers from untraditional backgrounds; charter management organizations could use them to fast-track human capital; school districts could use them to ease teacher shortages; in short, this provision opens up a world of possibilities.
5. Combine Weighted Student Funding with Public School Choice
Chad Aldeman lamented that although NCLB’s public school choice program never reached its potential, it still helped some kids and the fact that it was scrapped from ESSA was still a step back. For my part, I lamented that ESSA didn’t take a step forward by including Title I portability.
Yet the law did include a provision allowing districts to pilot a weighted student funding system, where money follows a student, back-pack style, to whatever public school they attend. ESSA’s competitive grants could also allow a state to incent and monitor a district public school choice initiative. Innovative state and system leaders could work together to create a system where the money follows a student who is totally free to attend any district school. It would be quite exciting to see a district try that out.
Combine this, for example, with Andy Smarick’s fascinating intra-district charter-style accountability proposal, and that sure sounds like a school system for the 21st century to me.
These ideas are just a handful of possibilities. If state and system leaders seize the opportunity and think creatively, they could craft an education agenda dedicated to the proposition that All Kids Matter, to improve all schools and help all students.
The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.