Federal

Advocates Worry ESEA Rewrite May Weaken Law

By Alyson Klein — April 01, 2011 9 min read
President Barack Obama greets students during an unannounced stop at the auditorium at Kenmore Middle School in Arlington, Va. Some education advocates are concerned about recent signals from the administration that they see as paving the way for changes that could water down accountability provisions in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
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Civil rights, business, and education advocates are warning that Congress and the Obama administration may defang a key portion of the No Child Left Behind Act in their quest to make the law more flexible—shortchanging racial minorities and other historically overlooked student subgroups in the process.

Their concern comes amid debate about whether the law can be revised to give greater leeway to schools and districts in boosting achievement for minorities, special education students, English-language learners, and other subgroups.

Adding to the intensity, members of the Congressional Black, Hispanic, and Asian Pacific American Caucuses just sent a letter to those responsible for rewriting the law, emphasizing “the federal responsibility to require strong accountability through performance goals for all schools and students.”

Subgroup accountability is one feature of the widely criticized NCLB law that has drawn praise from across the policy and political spectrum for shining a spotlight on students whose performance was often largely ignored in the past.

But advocates worry that the administration’s recent rhetoric and year-old blueprint for retooling the NCLB law, the current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, opens the door to less accountability for states and districts where those students aren’t measuring up.

They also worry that a push in Congress to reduce the federal role in education threatens to ratchet down the pressure on states and districts to make such students a priority.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty,” said Raul Gonzalez, the director of legislative affairs for the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic-advocacy group based in Washington. “It’s important for the administration to clarify what they mean” when it comes to subgroup accountability.

The administration, however, doesn’t see its proposals as walking away from that accountability. Instead, officials believe that the blueprint’s approach—particularly, allowing states to decide the right interventions for most schools—will allow for a more nuanced system that will ultimately benefit the students in the targeted groups.

“Under current law, it’s a one-size-fits-all intervention that we don’t think [is] moving the dime for these students,” said Carmel Martin, the assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development at the U.S. Department of Education. “We think that by allowing states and districts greater flexibility in figuring how to tackle areas of weakness, they’re going to have a better shot at overcoming” challenges for students in subgroups, she said.

But an array of national groups laid out their concerns in a March 29 letter to members of Congress working on the reauthorization of the ESEA.

The groups want Congress to ensure that all students are held to the same achievement standards and that, as a condition of federal funding, states set “annual, measurable, and ambitious” goals for closing achievement gaps and graduation gaps between subgroup students and their peers.

The organizations signing the letter included the Alliance for Excellent Education, the Center for American Progress Action Fund, Democrats for Education Reform, the Education Trust, the National Council of La Raza, the New Teacher Project, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

That same day, members of the congressional Tri-Caucus, representing black, Hispanic, and Asian Pacific American lawmakers, released a six-page letter outlining their priorities for how ESEA can be revised in a way to meet the needs of students of color and others.

The letter emphasized subgroup accountability, research-based methods for closing achievement gaps, and such perennial issues as graduation rates, discipline, and equitable distribution of effective teachers.

Bedeviling Details

Subgroup accountability is an especially complicated piece of the already very complicated NCLB law, which requires that public schools test their students in reading and math in grades 3-8 and once in high school.

Schools first are required to break out student-achievement data to show how racial and ethnic minorities, students from low-income families, English-language learners, and students in special education are doing relative to their peers.

Nearly all observers agree that the collection and disaggregation of data are likely to remain in any new version of the ESEA. But it’s less clear what will happen to two other key elements of subgroup accountability: how schools that fall short are labeled, and the consequences they may face.

Right now, schools that miss achievement targets under the law—for specific subgroups, or for the entire student population—are tagged as failing to make adequate yearly progress, or AYP.

And, under current law, at least initially, schools are subject to the same set of consequences, whether they miss AYP for the whole student population or for a single subgroup. For instance, all schools that miss AYP for any reason must allow students to transfer to a better-performing school and offer free tutoring.

The Obama administration’s blueprint for revising the law calls for very specific remedies only for schools that are perennially struggling—the bottom 5 percent of schools in each state.

And the blueprint would largely allow states to decide the best interventions for most other schools, which often are missing achievement targets because of poor performance by specific student subgroups, rather than because the student body as a whole falls short.

The idea is to create a more holistic system of accountability that includes rewards for schools and districts that are closing achievement gaps between the subgroup students and their peers, Ms. Martin of the Education Department said.

The administration also wants states to identify and use research-based interventions in schools that are in danger of slipping into the bottom 5 percent.

And it wants to see states designate an additional 5 percent of schools that have persistent achievement gaps between subgroups and their more advantaged peers. Those schools would be subject to research-based interventions and would face restrictions on federal funding if the gaps persisted.

“I think if you look at our proposal, there are lots of levers that we’re trying to turn,” Ms. Martin said.

For their part, school districts want to maintain the No Child Left Behind law’s focus on disaggregating data for various subgroups, said Noelle Ellerson, the assistant director of policy analysis and advocacy for the American Association of School Administrators, in Arlington, Va.

“The data is empowering” for district leaders, said Ms. Ellerson, who also favors more flexibility for districts to choose the interventions that best meet the needs of their communities. “I can’t think of a single superintendent that would have that data and decide not to do anything” to help the students, Ms. Ellerson said.

But Laura W. Kaloi, the director of public policy for the National Center for Learning Disabilities, in New York City, said that more than just requirements to report subgroup data are needed.

“Transparency is important,” she said. “But it doesn’t help us to have the conversation about what to do and what time frame it needs to be done.”

Congressional Sentiment

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle seem likely to maintain the reporting of disaggregated data, said a Senate aide. But the aide added that the principles the civil rights and advocacy groups are seeking would amount to “current law with new, pretty names.”

That policy won’t fly with Republicans in Congress, the aide said. The current law’s AYP structure “is fundamentally broken. ... Where it went wrong,” the aide said, “was trying to develop from Washington a system for identifying which schools are doing well and which ones aren’t.”

The administration has sold Republican education leaders in the Senate on the idea that states will identify their lowest-performing schools and that the federal government will prescribe some serious consequences to try to fix those schools, the Senate aide said.

In exchange, the other 95 percent are up to the states. “That’s the attractive grand bargain here,” the Senate aide said.

But Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the top Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, has a different take.

“The size or depth of a learning gap doesn’t matter to a student—the fact that there is what is a threat to their future,” said Mr. Miller, who is seeking the right balance between flexibility and accountability. “Current law provides particular focus on all groups of students because they were invisible for far too long. If we make any steps backward on this issue, we fail those students and the future of our country.”

The chairmen of the House and Senate education committees—Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., and Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa—aren’t tipping their hands yet on where they come down on the subgroup issue. Both said, through spokeswomen, that they welcomed the input from the education community, including the outside advocacy groups that sent the letter on reauthorization.

Administration Signals

Advocates say their fears about where subgroups would end up under the reauthorized law were compounded last month when Secretary Duncan told the House education committee that 82 percent of schools will be labeled as “failing” this year if there are no changes to the current law. In most cases, lack of progress with subgroups is why those schools aren’t meeting achievement targets.

Secretary Duncan’s claims made it sound as if “we have a labeling problem. No, we have an achievement problem. … Low-income kids and kids of color are not doing nearly well enough,” said Amy Wilkins, the vice president for government affairs and communications for the Education Trust, a Washington-based research and advocacy group that seeks to improve achievement for poor and minority students. “That was our first ‘ohmigosh’ moment.”

But Assistant Secretary Martin had a very different interpretation of Secretary Duncan’s remarks.

“The secretary never said” that schools missing targets for particular subgroups “are doing fine,” she said. “He absolutely did not say that.”

What Mr. Duncan was trying to convey is that “a system that identifies all schools [in the same way] doesn’t have any credibility,” Ms. Martin said. “When you get to that level of identification, people will start to dismiss [the system]. That doesn’t serve children well.”

Another symbolic moment that troubled some advocates: President Obama repeated the 82 percent figure in a speech at Kenmore Middle School in Arlington, Va., a school that has not met achievement targets in reading for black students, Hispanic students, or students with disabilities. The only students at Kenmore making AYP in math are white.

“We’ve still got more work to do here at this school to close the achievement gap,” Mr. Obama said in the speech. “But, I mean, we can see here at Kenmore—Kenmore is thriving.”

It would have been awkward for Mr. Obama to chastise Kenmore in his speech, advocates acknowledge.

“No president would go to a school and suggest it’s not doing well,” Mr. Gonzalez of La Raza said. “The children will begin to cry.” But, he added, “this school is an example of why you need subgroup accountability. They’re highlighting a problem they say doesn’t exist.”

Ms. Martin noted that the president acknowledged Kenmore’s challenges in the speech.

“I don’t think by going [to Kenmore] he held the school up as a model,” she said. “I think he applauded the success that they’ve had there, but acknowledged there’s a lot more that needs to be done. … He was very clear … that we needed to make sure all students are successful.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 06, 2011 edition of Education Week

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