March 19, 2010

ESEA reauthorization blueprint, the CliffNotes version

I have several meetings today, but I want to write down my thoughts on Duncan's ESEA reauthorization "blueprint" before I forget them. As I wrote over the weekend, Mike Petrilli is reading the substance of the blueprint correctly; the Obama administration is proposing that federal policy walk back a few steps from NCLB's absolutist mechanisms and disentangle the different issues involved in accountability. Petrilli is also correct in seeing a connection between the administration's ESEA reauthorization proposal and the promises by both Duncan and Russlyn Ali to be more aggressive in the department's Office of Civil Rights (OCR). That's essentially the implicit deal the administration is putting out for review by stakeholders: "We won't force states to label the majority of schools as failing, but we will require states to intervene in the worst 5% of schools in each state, and we will be aggressive in monitoring equity issues in other schools." 

At least in theory, this fits with my argument in Accountability Frankenstein that schools have three different types of challenges: the challenge of truly mismanaged schools in crisis, the challenge of inequality, and the challenge of making sure the next generation is smarter and wiser than we are. I argued that NCLB tried to address all of those challenges with the same mechanisms, and it looks like the Obama administration is recognizing that they need different policy approaches: requiring states to identify 5% of schools in crisis, using OCR to address inequality, and pushing for common curriculum standards for the next-generation challenge. 

That's not saying that the proposed mechanisms are going to work. I am less worried about using testing to screen for schools in crisis than others, but I agree with Diane Ravitch that educational euthanasia is a simplistic response. That doesn't mean that states should allow schools with deep problems to fester but that both states and the federal government need to be much more humble about their ability to "turn around" schools in crisis or even replace them with putatively brand-new schools. It's the proposed four-option turnaround mandate in the blueprint that bears the most resemblance to NCLB's cookie-cutter interventions, and that's a matter of deep concern for me. 

Then there is the effective-teachers piece of the blueprint, which is less bureaucratic than NCLB's "highly qualified teacher" approach and the trigger for NEA's and AFT's critical responses to the blueprints (though I think Andy Rotherham is correct that the Obama administration's pushing of a health-care excise tax, abandonment of the Employee Free Choice Act, and passiveness with regard to NLRB appointments is definitely playing a role). The blueprint is very general with regard to its treatment of teacher effectiveness, and it could be consistent either with something like the Toledo peer-review system and Denver's ProComp, or with the problematic Senate Bill 6 in this year's Florida legislature. 

The generally positive response to Duncan's presentations this week (especially from rural-state senator Tom Harkin) suggests that Duncan's hit a number of right notes, at least politically. That's not the same as effective policy, but it's a long way from a 40-something-page document and a law.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein on March 19, 2010 8:28 AM |