Note: Andrew Saultz, assistant professor of educational leadership at Miami University of Ohio, is guest posting this week.
The holiday season brings families together, provides great college football, and stirs up the now-annual discussion of whether ESEA will be reauthorized by the new Congress. ESEA, last reauthorized in 2002 as NCLB, is normally reauthorized every 5 years. Alas, 2014 will end without Congress taking action on the most important federal education law. I know you are all shocked that Congress once again failed to act.
But we should have hope for 2015. It is a not an election year, and a new Congress will take over in January. More importantly, Senator Lamar Alexander will chair the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee. Senator Alexander has prioritized education throughout his career in the Senate, as governor of Tennessee, and as Secretary of Education in the early 1990s. I am looking forward to seeing him at the helm of the HELP Committee next session.
Below, I highlight a couple of the major areas that the new ESEA should address.
Allow states to develop accountability systems
When I first read that the NCLB waivers would allow states to develop their own accountability systems, I was thrilled. As a believer in states’ rights, I was hopeful that the federal government was moving in the right direction. However, some states developed systems that will make tracking achievement gaps more difficult. Using the term “super subgroup,” 17 states decided to collapse many historically underperforming groups (by race, income, etc.) into one large category. One state policymaker explained, “we didn’t want one student to count against us in more than one way.” The problem with this logic, beyond the deficit thinking, is that collapsing subgroups makes identifying what schools need to work on more difficult. It is easy to imagine a school that is skilled at working with students across race, but has large gaps between students who are living in poverty and those who aren’t. Super subgroups would make these gaps nearly impossible to identify. Check out Morgan Polikoff and Andrew McEachin’s paper here for more on the new accountability systems under the NCLB waivers. I favor giving states the ability to reform their accountability systems, but I don’t think that the feds should bend on reporting detailed subgroup data.
I have no faith in tying teacher evaluations to student test scores. These systems are not reliable or valid, and I worry that we are implementing sophisticated tools without understanding their complexity. Teacher evaluation reform is necessary, but I don’t see why the federal government should mandate any one system. States and/or districts should work to improve teacher evaluations. Washington State is a great example of a state that has taken the time to get stakeholder buy-in and allow for districts to develop evaluation systems. But Washington did so well that the USDOE decided to revoke its waiver. Building capacity should be applauded, not punished. Policymakers should learn from the mistakes of the waiver process and not mandate one specific teacher evaluation system in the new ESEA.
High quality pre-K programs improve equity and decrease social costs over time. As a country, we should invest in early childhood at a much higher rate and extend full day kindergarten. However, I’m not convinced that the federal government should be taking either of these things on. Congress should look for ways to integrate pre-K language into ESEA without dictating how states implement preschool programs.
Yesterday, a story broke about how GOP staffers were developing a reauthorization plan to eliminate the federal mandate for annual testing. I have no idea about the political viability of this plan, or the details of it. What I do know is that testing helps identify inequities and tracks progress over time. Do we spend too much time as a country testing our children? Perhaps. Does that mean we should abolish testing? That seems like overcompensating to me. In my blog post yesterday, I argued that the federal government should focus on providing an equitable system. I worry that eliminating testing would remove a key tool in that effort.
Thanks, Rick, for inviting me into the blogosphere this week (and his RA Jenn for your help). I encourage anyone to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or @andysaultz on Twitter to continue these important conversations. Have a safe and peaceful holiday season.
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.