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Education Opinion

On the Department of Education’s Differentiated Accountability Pilot

March 27, 2008 3 min read
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(If you’ve been sent here from Kevin Carey’s Quick and the Ed post “Lawless Policymaking,” you were sent to the wrong post. My assessment of the Secretary’s legal authority for the pilot - NCLB Section 9401, and the political significance of that authority can be found here. There would have been much less confusion if the Quick and the Ed accepted comments on its posts.)

On March 18, Secretary Spellings offered states in compliance with NCLB requirements the opportunity to propose pilot programs that might better target school improvement options to the specific reasons for a school’s shortfalls under each state’s current approach to Adequate Yearly Progress. The opportunity for “differentiated accountability” is quite open-ended, bounded only by clarity in the process for differentiating schools and in defining the interventions – especially for schools in restructuring status. The Secretary suggested states should:

“think creatively about how to choose which schools will receive intensive help, as well as what types of intervention to provide…. For example, they may send their most experienced and effective teachers to work in the neediest schools - and reward them for doing harder work. They may decide to close some of the lowest performing schools. They may want to partner with the nonprofit and private sectors to develop new approaches.”

While no mention was made of Supplemental Educational Services, political resistance to that program was probably the most compelling reason for the Secretary’s offer. At least in principle, the pilot would allow a state to provide SES only to students in schools that missed AYP, who themselves were not able to demonstrate proficiency on their state tests. It might even permit a state to provide such students with services other than SES. If one starts from the proposition that schools would prefer to keep their Title I funding in-house rather than hand it over to the private sector, it stands to reason that many states will propose pilots that have such an effect. How far they will be permitted to go in this direction remains to be seen, but there can be no doubt that the pilot will shrink the addressable market for SES providers.

Some observations:

1. If the goal of NCLB is to leave no student behind, there are good policy reasons to target educator’s attention and limited financial resources on the students furthest from achieving proficiency.

2. In the context of negotiating a reauthorized NCLB, this Administration has taken a few cards away from a future Republican President. Up until the 18th, “Differentiated Accountability” was on the bargaining table. Those less inclined to a tough accountability regime will now pocket the Secretary’s concession, creating a new status quo. This was unhelpful to those (like me) who still support NCLB I.

3. For example, in the context of SES, differentiated accountability will ease the financial pressure on districts, but handing them this bargainining chip leaves them in a better position to press hard on SES providers currently limited value-added to student performance as an argument to kill the program.

4. Reactions to the proposal do suggest a split in the opposition to NCLB. Senator Kennedy, CCSSO Executive Director Whilhoit, and even NEA President Weaver accepted the offer as overdue but welcome. AFT’s Cortese, Fair Test, and Oregon Superintedant Castillo basically said too little, to late. Whether this gap can be exploited in a way that produces an NCLB II more like NCLB I rather than a gut job remains to be seen.

5. It’s worth remembering that the waiver provision of NCLB I that gave the Secretary the legal authority to offer this pilot - Sec. 9401 (read it) , could just as easily be used by a future (Democratic) Secretary to kill SES outright. Rather than dampen the political risk investors face with firms tied to NCLB, the pilot underlines just how unstable the emerging industry really is. Indeed, I fully expect that a Democratic Secretary of Education will use this approach to amend the law de facto both before serious negotiations over reauthorization are renewed and as a means of pressuring Congress to pass a law more in line with a Democratic President’s campaign promises.

The opinions expressed in edbizbuzz 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.

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