No Child Left Behind Accountability: A Joke

At the signing ceremony for No Child Left Behind (NCLB), President Bush joked, “I don’t intend to read it all.” But he was sure that in NCLB we would “find that it contains some very important principles that will help guide our public school system for the next decades. First principle is accountability.”

The signing of America's first federal education accountability law - No Child Left Behind.

The signing of America’s FIRST federal education “accountability” law – No Child Left Behind.

President Bush didn’t read NCLB before signing it. (How about your representatives?) That’s joke number one. Funny, huh? But what is even more amusing — sarcastically speaking— is trying to find where the word “accountability” was defined in the law. In laws and policies, key words are often defined so as to leave no doubt about the laws’ intentions. I word searched the desk copy and original. Didn’t find “accountability” defined. I could have missed it. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one.

Is the country in this accountable state of being? Definition: Merriam-Webster.com

Is the country in this accountable state of being?
Definition: Merriam-Webster.com

NCLB says it will provide “greater” accountability; it will “increase” the accountability. How exactly this increase would occur based on the dictates of the law was always left to people’s imaginations and driven by emotions because, by God, we want someone “held” accountable for low school “performance.” And the country was led to believe that standardized tests for math and language arts would determine school quality— accurately. That fallacy would be joke number two.

As Bush declared a decade later, “it’s time to celebrate success [mission accomplished, eh?], but it’s also a time to fight off those who would weaken standards or accountability. I don’t think you can solve a problem if you can’t diagnose it.”

Standardized achievement tests don’t “diagnose” problems. They are only one indicator and because of their “nature,” yearly-standardized achievement testing is unnecessary.

It’s like taking an animals temperature and finding they have a fever. Yes, they have a fever but the thermometer reading doesn’t diagnose the problem.

New standardized tests, even so-called “better” tests, only give us information about a school at one moment in time with their given population — a snapshot. That snapshot changes slowly (unless you teach directly to the test). The most consistent finding (over at least five decades) is that standardized test results most strongly correlate to socioeconomic status (schools already have that personal data). More students from low-income families score lower on standardized tests— partially because of the nature of standardized tests.

I once attended a conference where one of the breakout discussions was led by a teacher from a neighboring community with a high-poverty, high-migrant worker population. Over the years, she had made the correlation that her students whose parents only spoke Spanish in the household would (on the average) score 20 percentage points lower on standardized tests.

Some could argue that this demonstrates the value of testing but the reality is, she knew this without the tests. And she didn’t need to keep proving it. She knew her students, knew their family’s background, observed the phenomenon, and test scores made no difference in how she went about teaching. The community situation was out of her control because of the lack of local authority to act on what WAS diagnosed as a problem.

She knew she had to do everything she could to properly educate her students. I know that from what the breakout was really about, how to teach English Language Learners. The test score discussion was an aside. Assessments and interventions designed to help students must take place in the classroom.

So, truth is, test results don’t necessarily give us a diagnosis. And certainly, as we know by now, accountability for math and language arts instruction alone does not make for a well-rounded education. The joke has been on us.

How many of these types of jokes will we take before we quit being amused?

Former President Bush went on to tell us that “people like [former school superintendents] Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee, people who are willing to challenge the status quo, tell you that one thing that made it [NCLB] effective was the accountability.”

Whoa! Klein – former chancellor of N.Y. city schools – and Rhee – former chancellor of D.C. schools – say NCLB accountability made their schools “effective.” We had better ask them to define THAT word. And ask this dynamic duo why they were so central to developing new standards (Common Core) and tests while turning their backs on other needs in their communities. In 2009, were their school districts adequately funded? By what measure did they make that call? Where’s the accounting? If their schools were so effective, why did they push their Smart Options agenda in 2009?

Genuine accountability for educating America’s children is both a shared responsibility and a national necessity because the public has and is demanding it. The only rational way to satisfy the People’s demand is to make it right by using what we know.

No Child Left Behind yearly mandate for nation-wide testing of math and language arts for the purported purpose of “accountability” misled the nation. (That requirement is unchanged in the NCLB replacement called the Every Student Succeeds Act that was signed into law on 12/10/15.)

No Child Left Behind “accountability” was a cruel joke. There is a better way.

Title I & ESEA Reauthorization

Does Congress and President Obama understand how Title I money was meant to be used? Looking at what they have proposed to date, it is a question in need of a good, clear answer.

A requirement in the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) was that a president-appointed advisory council report yearly to the president. The National Advisory Council on the Education of Disadvantaged Children was to review the laws’ progress with the programs and projects Title I funding supports.

In turn, the president was to report the findings to our Congress along with comments and further recommendations.489596

To do this responsibly and hold our government “accountable,” we all need to understand Title I. Title I is the touchstone of the original ESEA.

The federal formula funding was distributed for assistance of “children of low-income families.” The directive was to address the needs of “educationally deprived children,” which the architects understood would include more than just the low-income children given that the schools where the most funds would flow were “inherently unequal.” Needs are going to vary from community to community but potentially all students in schools in low-income communities are at risk for being underserved.

Title I was to address the disadvantages CHILDREN face — economically, educationally, mentally, or physically “disadvantaged”— that were being ignored, or in some cases created, by state and local agencies.

The goal of ESEA was to provide equal access to quality education — that is how “equal opportunity” was defined.

To do so, we have to recognize the barriers “disadvantaged” students and their families face in our communities, schools, and classrooms and fully address those problems directly. Title I dollars flowed to meet the needs of CHILDREN from low-income families….PERIOD. The other five titles of ESEA addressed the needs of low-income schools, communities, and states.

This is our ESEA history. In 1966, less than a year into ESEA’s implementation, President Johnson received his first report from the Council. They reviewed and summarized the programs. They gave examples including one district reporting that health examinations had been conducted for the first time showing that 45% of the children tested were anemic.

Now, how do we expect these disadvantaged children to have the same standards-based outcomes at the same time as healthy children?

As President Obama expressed in Selma,

“Americans don’t accept a free ride for anyone, nor do we believe in equality of outcomes. But we do expect equal opportunity,…”

To fulfill our duty to America’s children, effective schools must be established in every community where they do not currently exist. Understanding that those communities with the highest concentrations of poverty have children at greatest risk of being educationally underserved, their needs should be our first priority.

At President Obama’s request, we have identified the lowest performing schools throughout our land. It is our responsibility as a nation to support their improvement, as a short-term goal, while providing a long-term strategy to prevent the wide gaps in opportunities, and therefore educational achievement, that we have experienced in our past and that continue to plague our nation’s children today.

In addition to providing the best in educational opportunities to every child, now is the time for a plan that views appropriation of funds as a national strategic educational investment and expects communities to make wise use of all education resources.

And let it be acknowledged that the urgent need of children begs for some emergency measures.

Let us not lose sight of the purposes of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA):

* To establish equal access to quality education,

* To strengthen and improve all schools.

Here’s the beginning of an alternative a plan to what Congress currently is cooking up:

Title I – Education of Children of Low Income Families to provide formula-funded financial assistance to local education agencies in support of children from low-income families in order expand and improve community efforts to meet their learning needs.

Execution: To address learning needs requires a “needs assessment.” School staff (principals, counselors, aids, and teachers) and parents (or other adults involved in these high-needs children’s lives) will be the first to collectively identify those needs. Those identified needs will then be brought to the attention of the larger group of community stakeholders (civic, non-profit organizations, foundations and concerned individuals) to be further defined, measures for success indicators established, and existing resources in the community identified. “Gaps” in resources will be identified and brought to the attention of state education officials so that no identified need goes unaddressed. State officials will be responsible for identifying their resources and establishing indicators of their success and to continually monitor and report on their ability to meet their responsibility. Needs assessments will be done using the existing government assessment tools.

Emergency measures: Those Title I schools now designated as chronically low-performing or “priority” schools will be guided through the assessment and improvement processes with cooperative funding (“set aside” Title I money) and staff from the state and local districts with a “support team” provided through the U.S. Department of Education.

Schools identified as chronically low-performing need strong, effective, democratic leadership to take these schools through a successful school improvement process. A federal leadership program (Academy) will be

“designed to enable people who are already experienced principals and other school leaders, knowledgeable about how schools work and the special problems they face, to learn how to turn around the expectations, beliefs and practices of school stakeholders in low-performing schools. The expected focus of the Academy would be on how to improve instruction and change schools’ culture” (Ratner, The “Lead Act,” H.R. 5495/S 3469: Briefing Paper).

Accountability: Using the indicators of success as designated for targeted results through the school improvement process, the “appropriate objective measurements” will be used to judge the “effectiveness of the programs in meeting the special educational needs of educationally deprived children.” Local and state officials will have established the parameters (what and how often) of those measurements and will make those facts transparent to the community and state, respectively. An accounting of expenses and results of the uses of Title I money will be reported to federal officials for review. National monitoring of achievement gaps through the random use of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) will continue unchanged. Results of progress by the nation and cost /benefits will be reported annually to the President, Congress, and the Nation.

Currently, with ESEA reauthorization discussion being more about a “national accountability system” and “choice,” and less about disadvantaged children, I worry that we have lost our way on the march towards equal educational opportunity.

But then I remember — “WE the People” and the “highest of ideals” that were put into law in 1965 — there is hope.

[The preceding was a modified excerpt from addendum 1 of The Crucial Voice of the People, Past and Present: Education’s Missing Ingredient, second edition, by Victoria M. Young, © 2012]

Reformer, or Transformer?

To transform means to change the appearance, character of, or function of.  To reform means to make better. Now, what ARE we doing to our education system?

I saw problems in my local schools and I offered solutions. Is there a high poverty rate in my area? Yes, now 83% free & reduced lunch children. Could the solutions not be accomplished because of poverty? No. And let me give you an example.

When we were in the process of expanding into a brand new school building, our district was going to have empty classrooms. Having helped in first grade classes with 28 students and seen the behavioral distractions that then led to decreased instructional time, decreased personalized attention, and the creation of at-risk students — I didn’t give a damn what research said or didn’t say — it makes good sense to start kids off on the right foot! Race of life and all that, ya know?

So, I did my math and brought a proposal to the school board to decrease only first grade class size; not as an experiment, but because it was the right thing to do at the right time. Before this, limited facilities had always been the excuse for the crowded classrooms. Could we not afford to do it? No, we could at the time. “We” just chose not to. Proposal rejected; no explanation.

Enter what Diane Ravitch in Reign of Error called the “’reform’ agenda including high-stakes testing, test-based accountability, competition, and school choice.” Did these efforts make the public education system better? NO – they are not reforms. Did they change the appearance of the system? YES – it appears more dysfunctional than ever. Did they change the character of schools? YES – much more test-based. Did they change the function of the system? Let me answer using Ravitch’s words here: “What began as a movement for testing and accountability has turned into a privatization movement.” The function of policies and practices did change.

The people pushing the privatization movement are transformers, transforming public institutions into private profits.

I am a reformer. They have not earned the right nor deserve the privilege to wear that label. Reformers work to make things better, not destroy them.

Call them what they are - TRANSFORMERS.

Call them what they are – TRANSFORMERS.

 

Transformational change is not the change we need. STOP the Dismantling of the PUBLIC SYSTEM so we may begin to make things better.

Understand what reform is and is not.

Principles as a Foundation

What principlesfundamental truths upon which we act— do we stand upon when judging education laws and practices?

In the 1960’s, the country saw the value in improving the quality of education and believed all children in America deserved access to educational opportunities, equally.

Many understood that civil rights mean citizen’s rights – even our youngest citizens were included in the consideration of equal rights under the law. Thus, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 encouraged desegregation of schools as a means of equalizing opportunity.

Segregated schools were discouraged - equality was encouraged.

Segregated schools were discouraged – equality was encouraged.

Back then, we believed we were capable of delivery on the ideal of equal opportunity, at least to children. And the lawmakers of that time saw a different way, other than forced busing, to do it.

Education law stood on this fundamental truth; it is deemed imperative to put in place within the system the dissemination of “promising educational practices” to better ensure their use.

So the “educational brain trust” in Washington D.C. at that time, including longtime Republican and founder of Common Cause, John W. Gardner – along with other lesser-known people from both political parties – wrote the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).

Title I, the touchstone of ESEA, is a particularly complex idea. The federal funding was for assistance of “children of low-income families.” But the architects of the law understood that it was more than just the low-income children affected by low-income community schools because schools in poverty-ridden areas are “inherently unequal” when compared to schools in more affluent areas —the children in them are disadvantaged. But they also understood that the focus must always stay on meeting the needs of the identified children.

When you add in the other educational supports of ESEA—material resources, additional applicable services, proven practices, teacher and counselor development, and training to develop responsive state leadership—you do improve the quality of education for all but it begins with addressing a known disadvantage, poverty.

But with each reauthorization of ESEA, the law was modified further and further from its original focus – disadvantaged children living in poorer communities.

Today, I’m not sure that we stand on the ideal of equal opportunity at all. I’m not sure we understand what equal educational opportunity means. I don’t think the country has any vision for what that concept might look like, or, mean for them, or, its importance for the United States.

Part 8 of ten blogs on The Road to Educational Quality and Equality that started with The March Begins.

The March Begins

Think back to the early 1960’s or if you are too young to recall, go read about the history of that era and try to imagine what it was like. The United States had intentionally racially segregated schools. And much like today, we had a gaping socioeconomic divide that left poor children and rich children with very different schools.

Go back a bit further in our history to 1896 and the Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson that was based on the doctrine of “separate but equal.” That legal segregation of public schools by the states stood for 58 years until the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 which stated that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” The door for the Civil Rights Movement and the resultant Civil Rights Act of 1964 was opened.

As a republic, we saw the value in improving the quality of education and believed all children in America deserved access to opportunities, equally. We believed education was a “hand up,” out of poverty, and that we were capable of delivery on the ideal of equal opportunity, at least to children. And we saw a way to do it through materials and services that support teaching and learning, better university training of teachers and counselors, and better distribution of “best practices” to the communities where they were most needed. We once focused federal education law on providing the needed “inputs” for educating the disadvantaged.

And it seems we need reminding that the March on Washington in 1963 was organized to urge Congress to pass John F. Kennedy’s civil rights bill calling for equal opportunity in employment and education.

The March down the road to equal educational opportunity began.

Marching Towards a Dream

Marching Towards a Dream

This is the first in a series of ten blogs on The Road to Educational Quality and Equality. Read on, march on!