Legislation to renew the Elementary and Secondary Education Act has garnered a bipartisan seal of approval, thanks to a last-minute change scaling back the teacher-evaluation mandate in the bill introduced by U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, last week. But civil rights groups still have major concerns about some of the proposal’s accountability provisions.
A revised version of the bill, put forth Monday by Sen. Harkin, chairman of the Senate education committee, and Sen. Michael B. Enzi, R-Wyo., the panel’s top Republican, largely would let states and districts decide whether and how to evaluate teachers. Districts that want to tap the federal Teacher Incentive Fund, a voluntary pot of money aimed at helping schools create alternative pay programs, would have to craft evaluations, but all others would simply have the option.
Under the original draft, states would have had to craft evaluations systems, using student academic performance as one key factor.
The change won support from key Republicans on the committee, who saw the initial requirement as a federal intrusion into what they think should be a state and local responsibility. The committee is set to begin marking up the bill on Oct. 19.
“I intend to vote to move this bill out of committee,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., a former secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush, who earlier had introduced his own ESEA reauthorization proposal. He said he would not vote to move the bill to the president, but, added “it’s a good place to start.”
And the National Education Association, a 3.2 million-member union, lauded the latest revised proposal. The NEA and four other organizations, including the American Association of School Administrators and the National School Boards Association, identified the evaluation language as one key area of concern in a letter sent to leaders of the education committee on Oct. 16.
“We commend the leadership of Chairman Harkin and Ranking Member Enzi in conducting bipartisan negotiations around this legislation that will have a significant effect on the quality of education students receive in our nation’s public schools,” Dennis Van Roekel, the president of the NEA, said in a statement Monday.
But Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was displeased with the change.
“I appreciate the efforts of Senators Harkin and Enzi to build into the reauthorization bill more flexibility for states and districts while maintaining accountability at every level,” Secretary Duncan said in a statement Monday. “I believe, however, that a comprehensive evaluation system based on multiple measures, including student achievement, is essential for education reform to move forward.”
Meanwhile, civil rights groups and advocates for students with disabilities are stung by what they view as a watered-down commitment to such students in the proposed overhaul.
Advocates are angry that the measure would scrap a requirement that states be held accountable for meeting specific student-achievement goals, including for long-ignored student populations, such as racial minorities, students in special education, and English-language learners. The goals, known as adequate yearly progress, or AYP, are a hallmark of the ESEA’s current version, the No Child Left Behind Act, which became law in 2002.
“It is deeply disappointing that a Republican president could be more forceful on gap-closing than is the Democratic chairman of the HELP Committee,” Amy Wilkins, the vice president for government affairs and communications at the Education Trust, a Washington advocacy group for poor and minority children, said in a reference to President George W. Bush, who championed the NCLB law. “There’s some good stuff in [the draft]. But it’s undercut by the lack of goals. That’s a total deal-breaker.”
Such concerns were outlined in a letter to Sen. Harkin and Sen. Enzi criticizing the draft the day it was released. Four advocacy groups—the Center for American Progress Action Fund, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the National Center for Learning Disabilities, and the National Council of La Raza—singled out provisions that they say would shift the federal focus away from holding states accountable for improving the performance of economically disadvantaged and minority students, as well as English-learners and students in special education.
“Congress, parents, taxpayers would have no meaningful mechanism by which to hold schools, districts, or states accountable for improving outcomes at the pace our economy demands,” the letter said. “It is not the federal government’s role to dictate how states, districts, or educators get their students to higher levels of success. But the federal government must—in exchange for scarce financial resources—be firm, ambitious, and unequivocal in its demands for higher achievement, high school graduation, and gap closing.”
On the Table
The Harkin bill is the first comprehensive proposed rewrite of the NCLB law, whose reauthorization has been pending since 2007, and it would include a number of significant changes. Among them:
• Although states would continue to test students in reading and math annually in grades 3-8 and once in high school, as under current law, they would be permitted to use either one summative assessment or smaller interim assessments to determine progress. Schools also would continue to report results showing how different groups of students performed.
• Unlike the current law, which has a specific timetable of sanctions for all schools that fail to meet state achievement goals, the Harkin draft calls for a strong federal focus on only the 5 percent of lowest-performing schools and the 5 percent of schools with persistent achievement gaps. States would get to decide what steps, if any, they would take to help struggling schools.
• States would have to adopt standards for college and career readiness, but they would not have to sign on to the Common Core State Standards Initiative, already adopted by the vast majority of states.
• The Obama administration’s core education redesign programs would be authorized to continue, including the Race to the Top and Investing in Innovation grant competitions and the Promise Neighborhoods initiative.
The biggest changes would be to the accountability system, which state and local officials have described as too prescriptive and too punitive, but which civil rights advocates say has shone a spotlight on student populations most likely to be at risk academically.
In comments after unveiling his initial proposal, Sen. Harkin said he would have liked to have achievement targets in the bill, but scrapped them in part to keep the measure bipartisan.
Sen. Harkin told reporters Oct. 11, the day the draft was released, that the moment was right for a move away from achievement targets, in part because nearly all states have signed on to the common core, whose development was spearheaded by the Council of Chief State Schools Officers and the National Governors Association. That means that all states will be striving to hit a high bar, he said.
“There’s a subtle shift here,” Sen. Harkin. “We are moving into a partnership role with the states.”
Lowest 5 Percent
Unlike the current law, which has a specific timetable of sanctions for all schools that fail to meet state achievement goals, the Harkin draft called for a strong federal focus on only the 5 percent of lowest-performing schools and the 5 percent of schools with persistent achievement gaps.
But the bill would allow states to decide how—and whether—to intervene in most schools.
That worries Raul Gonzalez, the director of legislative affairs for the Washington-based National Council of La Raza, whose advocacy focus includes English-language learners and Hispanic students.
“Clearly, NCLB was a kind of high-water mark as far as accountability [for all students]. ... I think we’re moving in the reverse direction,” Mr. Gonzalez said. “Without strong accountability, we’ll have two education systems, one for poor and minority kids” and one for others.
Advocates for students in special education are particularly concerned about the legislation because students with disabilities are spread throughout a state’s population, not just concentrated in the lowest-performing schools, said Laura W. Kaloi, the public-policy director at the National Center for Learning Disabilities in New York.
Some in the business community also expressed concerns with parts of the draft, while praising the standards and teacher-evaluation portions.
“Limiting accountability and improvement to just the nation’s lowest-performing schools will overlook thousands of schools and millions of students that deserve more from the education system,” wrote Craig Barrett, the former chairman of Intel Corp.; William D. Green, the chairman of Accenture; and Edward B. Rust Jr., the chairman of State Farm. All three co-chair the Business Coalition for Student Achievement.
The Harkin bill comes less than a month after the Obama administration outlined a plan to offer states flexibility under key parts of the NCLB law—including the accountability system—in exchange for agreeing to embrace certain school improvement priorities, such as adopting college- and career-ready standards.
But under the administration’s waiver package, states would still have to set annual goals for all schools, although they would be given significantly more leeway to craft their accountability systems than they have under the current law.
Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, is also moving a series of bills to overhaul different parts of the law. He has released proposals on funding flexibility, program elimination, and charter schools, but has yet to tackle the sticky issues of accountability at the heart of the NCLB law.
A version of this article appeared in the October 19, 2011 edition of Education Week as Teacher Evaluation Scaled Back in Revised ESEA Draft