January 1, 2006


Six years ago (minus one day), my article America Y2K predicted that the obsolescence of the "America 2000" national education goals would mean neither the absence of political pressure on schools nor necessarily thoughtful reflection about what expectations we should hold of schools. I think those predictions have been validated by the first five years of George W. Bush's administration and NCLB's fantasy goal of 100% proficiency for all students by 2014.

More after the jump.

As I wrote in the article, the nominal unreasonableness of a goal is not inherently silly but should be a subject of analysis:

First, one should measure a policy discussion not only by the realities one can observe on the ground but also in the agenda it sets for the future. Whether one agrees with the specific goals or the notion of a national education agenda, the summit in 1989 did help frame the policy debate that has ensued. Second, the deadline itself was primarily an instrument of political rhetoric, in the eyes of its creators a useful goad for change....

Still, the deadline reflects what the rest of the world often sees as prototypically optimistic boasting of the United States.... We in the U.S. often feel pressured by the assumption of affluence to individual and collective acts of hype and disappointment.... The failure to meet the national education goals was the result of a common dynamic in school reform. The problem with the national education goals was not that they set virtually unreachable goals but that they were not unusual in attempting to push change by setting impossible standards.

With the potential erosion of political support for NCLB and pressures by administrators and state politicians for waivers and other modifications, the debate has turned to how those legal expectations should change (e.g., growth models), not whether they should. And while I've been out of town, some of Andrew Rotherham's correspondents (Emily and Bryan Hassel) have hit on an idea similar (in some ways—added 1/4/06)) to that proposed by Bob Linn last year. In both cases, the proposal is for two sets of expectations, a rock-bottom all must meet this standard requirement, on the one hand, and a bonus if you can jump higher part. In the case of the Hassels, NCLB would retain the AYP standard but also give bonuses to schools who can show growth for the highest-achieving students. In Linn's case, NCLB would adjust AYP standards to have improvement pegged to the growth of the best-achieving schools in a state (who then presumably could be encouraged with carrots to push themselves further—I'm extrapolating here from Linn's article).

On the one hand, there is much to be said for this split approach, especially Linn's implicitly inductive way of setting expectations. It's the policy application of the old Ron Edwards school-effectiveness argument: if students in some schools can achieve well, then we can expect the same of all schools. It also defuses the fantasy of 100% proficiency by a set date and could replace it with a healthier long-term expectation: whatever students in the better schools do today, we should expect students in all schools to do in the medium term (say, 6-10 years down the road), and we should expect some schools to continue to improve and set the standard for the next cohorts of students.

On the other hand, there are two equity concerns from such differentiation. One is how it would cater to and reward predominantly already-advantaged communities. You're still special will be the message to the schools who are identified as the educational vanguard, and unfortunately it fits all too well into U.S. education's history of differentiation (see the David Labaree 1988 history of Philadelphia's Central High School for the best explanation). The other equity concern is with the potential for such identified "vanguard" schools to be hiding considerable inequality within the school. If a school in a wealthy community has relatively few students with disabilities, few students from non-English-speaking households, few poor students, and few students of color, then in many states the school is not AYP-accountable for those sub-populations. In other words, differentiation could reward segregation.

No solutions—I have a serious head cold and can't think straight today. But I think I'm right on some of the key political and institutional dilemmas involved here.

Update (January 4): In retrospect, it may not have been clear in the original post that I do understand the difference between proposals to add on rewards for some schools to the AYP construct, on the one hand, and Bob Linn's suggestions for changing it. I side more with Linn than with the Hassels.

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Posted in Education policy on January 1, 2006 1:34 PM |