NCLB gets a dose of steroids, or just how bad is Arne Duncan

From the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet

By William J. Mathis

The Council of Chief State School Officers’ (CCSSO) plan for replacing the No Child Left Behind accountability system, hinted to be the recipe for states to win a waiver from the Education Department from the worst provisions of the law, not only retains the most ineffective pieces of NCLB but magnifies them. Contrary to all we have learned, it suggests to additional mandates and testing.

Americans are now well aware of at least four main drawbacks of NCLB, none of which are remedied in the CCSSO plan: (a) the huge inequities in funding and opportunities to learn (b) the neglect of out-of-school and environmental factors, (c) an inordinate and unbalanced emphasis on testing which leads to narrowed and dumb-downed curriculum, and (d) the ineffectiveness of turnaround strategies.

As longtime educator Larry Cuban has noted, despite 20 years of state-based and federal top-down accountability mandates, there is not a single example of a successful urban district reform generated by this type of scheme.

The CCSSO touches on a couple of useful and sound ideas, but the bulk of their plan signals that the authors have learned little from the past decade’s voluminous research. The chiefs’ roadmap provides “references” yet almost all of these can be characterized as speculative documents. Thus, major educational policy would again be determined by ideology rather than research and experience.

The CCSSO organizes its plan around nine principles and processes (its roadmap is organized differently):

1) College and Career Ready Standards

State curricular alignment to uniform national standards (the Common Core) with annual performance benchmarks would be required. Instead of all students reaching proficiency by 2014, all must be proficient on the new standards by graduation. Adequate Yearly Progress, known as AYP, is replaced with an “on-track” interim measure or “school effectiveness targets.” This simply continues the same flawed NCLB practice albeit flowered with new euphemisms. If the standards are truly “rigorous,” then — absent a substantial increase in resources and opportunities­ — all students in all groups will not come close to “success,” while Duncan’s “slow-moving train wreck” careens on toward its destiny.

2) Annual Determinations for Each School and District

This represents no real difference from the current model except a growth aspect is required. As naturally attractive as growth scores are to most everyone, the measurement limitations make this almost impossible. For example, the objectives at grade seven are not the same as the objectives at grade 8. Subtracting one from the other subtracts apples from oranges. To compound the problem, when it comes to testing higher order skills like reasoning and problem solving, the entire “standardized” system gets very unstandardized. Growth models can be very useful but they don’t have enough power to justify attaching high stakes consequences. As one prominent psychometrician wagged, “There are three ways to do growth scores and all of them are wrong.”

3) Focus on Student Outcomes

CCSSO suggests that more tests in more grades and subject areas are needed. Other measures would also be necessary (college entry, remediation rates, etc.). As reading and math tests narrow the curriculum, the chief’s solution is to expand testing to other curriculum areas.

This is probably the biggest conceptual fallacy in the chiefs’ plan. The previous system did not work, so doing more of it is not exactly a logical conclusion. We should, instead, look to areas of greater promise. Schools are not single-handedly responsible for or capable of over-coming all adverse conditions. Setting aside ideological proclamations, we have to face the fact that the differences in social capital is a deeply documented, incontrovertible and sober truth. Any plan with promise for success must simultaneously address social and school issues. The chiefs’ ignore this vast framework.

4) Continued Disaggregation of Sub-Groups

This principle calls for the continued break-out of scores by race, language status and poverty and that these sub-group scores continue to be part of the accountability process. Since all students must reach the new standards, the effect is no different from NCLB. In time, all schools fail.

Perhaps the greatest danger of this thinking is that it continues “the myth of the shining of the light.” That is, if we just shine the light on low scores, things will improve. We have been shining the light on poor sub-group performance for 10 years while we neglected to provide effective and sufficient resources and assistance to solve the problems. Illumination of problems, without providing solutions, may provide sustenance to the failure proclamation industry but it does nothing to solve learning problems.

5) Timely Reporting of Actionable and Accessible Data

This goal is laudable and necessary but has the ring of tokenism. The Institute of Education Sciences reports that the collection and use of data has little evidence of being an effective reform strategy. While additional “input data” and “returns on investment” information may represent new data collections and reporting burdens for schools and/or states, it is not at all clear as to how this will improve children’s learning.

6) Deeper Diagnostic Reviews

State summative tests, because they are designed to have the most power around the cut score, cannot provide useful diagnostics for teachers. They are general survey tests. “Deeper diagnostic reviews” would require the collection of more detailed assessment data. Increased reliance on standardized tests comes at the price of decreased attention to higher order skills, experiential learning and activities designed for advancing the common good. It’s also poor pedagogy. Such a narrow and singular definition of the purposes of education is basically incompatible with the needs of the twenty-first century.

7) Building School and District Capacity

While there would likely be broad consensus favoring increasing the capacity of schools, the roadmap interprets this point as increasing the precision of identifying schools. Specific recommendations are absent other than such phrases as “. . . hold providers of supports and interventions accountable. “ The report says states should be motivational and not just punitive, yet the focus of the section (pp32-33 of the roadmap) is top-down and directive. Students cannot be expected to learn more unless they are given greater opportunities to learn, and these opportunities depend on increasing school and district capacity. The chief’s plan falls well short on this criterion.

8) Targeting Low Performing Schools

Instead of NCLB’s progression through stages of increasing sanctions, the lowest scoring five percent (or more) of schools in each state will be subject to “significant interventions.” Sadly, a review of the literature about the current “turn-around” or intervention strategies shows a remarkable lack of success. Those hoping to find better intervention models will be disappointed. Instead of actions that help children by addressing the community and school needs in our most economically and socially marginalized communities, the emphasis is on changing governance and staffing.

9) Innovation and Continuous Improvement

Continuous improvement is laudable in most every enterprise. “Innovation” in our schools, however, has come to simply mean change, which can be either good or bad. It therefore requires a bit of caution. Moreover, when reform “churn” hits a school, the effects can be extremely disruptive to reforms that are just beginning to take root.

Sadly, the CCSSO plan does not demonstrate a command of the research literature, just as President Obama’s Blueprint for Reform never found a sound evidentiary footing. The chiefs would be well-served to review the recent National Academies report that finds no evidence that such high stakes, test-based models are successful. Accordingly, if this CCSSO plan is widely adopted, the evidence says it will, most likely, also be unsuccessful.

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