Dear Senator Gillibrand:
I am writing to you today wearing a number of different hats that I hope you will respect. First, I am a constituent living in New York City who has been pleased to vote for you in the past. Second, I am a life long educator, having studied education at our mutual alma mater, Dartmouth College and having taught at every level of school from junior high school to graduate school since 1993. Third, I am a scholar of public education, having earned my doctorate in 2002 and currently serving as the director of secondary education preparation programs at Seton Hall University. Fourth, and most importantly, I am the father of two public school students whose future education depends heavily upon the incentive systems that you and your fellow lawmakers vote upon in Washington, D.C.
I am writing to you for two reasons in particular. As Jon Stewart noted on your recent appearance on The Daily Show, you have a reputation for working across the aisle on various issues and an ability to find common ground where few believe it exists. I am also writing because you recently voted, along with almost all other Democrats, for Amendment 2241 to the “Every Child Achieves Act” introduced by Senators Coons, Murphy, Booker, Warren, and Durbin. According to Senator Coons’ announcement of the amendment:
Specifically, the amendment would require state accountability systems to provide additional resources and support to local schools identified as any of the following:
In the bottom five percent of public schools as according to the state accountability system
A public high school where two-thirds or fewer students are graduating on time
Any public school where economically disadvantaged, disabled, minority, or English Language Learner students are not meeting state-set goals for achievement.
The sponsors asserted that the amendment was a “serious departure” from the No Child Left Behind accountability system as it mandated no federal consequences and left it to states to determine the interventions and consequences for schools that continue to struggle. Despite these assurances, there remained significant reasons to oppose the amendment, reasons that nearly every member of the Democratic Caucus appeared to discount.
1. The amendment baked test and punish into the ESEA re-authorization. While the announcement made a big deal about about states determining their accountability systems and interventions, the language of the amendment continued to emphasize test based systems and even echoed the “college and career readiness” language that is emblematic of the Common Core State Standards and their accompanying tests. So while the amendment may have been presented as increasing state control of education and accountability, the actual language had significant emphasis on standardized testing, student growth measures, and statewide (standardized) measure(s) “which is consistent with progress toward readiness for postsecondary education or the workforce without the need for postsecondary remediation.” Informed readers of the amendment recognize a continuation of the Common Core State Standards and annual testing with the state’s required to base their accountability upon such testing.
The emphasis on quantified measures is also present in the language requiring states to create interventions for schools in the “bottom 5 percent”. While there is little doubt that many states have significant numbers of schools that struggle and which struggle for years at a time, the need to identify the “bottom 5 percent” each and every year is a kind of trap that means no matter how well a state manages to improve its schools, there will always be a portion of them labeled as failures in need of extra interventions. Further, by emphasizing the quantity, the amendment would have guaranteed the further primacy of testing in accountability.
It may be well-intentioned for you and your Democratic colleagues to insist that states not neglect their most distressed schools and student populations, but it is well past time to move away from annual standardized testing. We are almost a decade and a half in the No Child Left Behind era, and the data could not be clearer: high stakes testing and consequences do not work to substantively improve schools. Kevin Welner and William Mathis of University of Colorado at Boulder brilliantly called for a sharp move away from test based accountability:
The ultimate question we should be asking isn’t whether test scores are good measures of learning, whether growth modeling captures what we want it to, or even whether test scores are increasing; it is whether the overall impact of the reform approach can improve or is improving education. Boosting test scores can, as we have all learned, be accomplished in lots of different ways, some of which focus on real learning but many of which do not. An incremental increase in reading or math scores means almost nothing, particularly if children’s engagement is decreased; if test-prep comes at a substantial cost to science, civics, and the arts; and if the focus of schooling as a whole shifts from learning to testing.
The way forward is not to tinker further with failed test-based accountability mechanisms; it is to learn from the best of our knowledge. We should not give up on reaching the Promised Land of equitable educational opportunities through substantially improved schooling, but we must study our maps and plan a wise path. This calls for a fundamental rebalancing —which requires a sustained, fair, adequate and equitable investment in all our children sufficient to provide them their educational birthright, and an evaluation system that focuses on the quality of the educational opportunities we provide to all of our children. As a nation, we made our greatest progress when we invested in all our children and in our society.
2. We don’t need annual testing of all children to find the problems we know are there. Bruce Baker of Rutgers University makes it very clear that testing for accountability does not need to be a disruptive or annual affair. Using sampling methods it is entirely possible for states to get a very accurate view of what is going on in their schools, and the insistence that we need to test everyone in every school every year, is based upon false premises of how our students are distributed and about how accurately testing can reflect upon individual classrooms. Worse, we already know how tightly coupled test results and the demographic characteristics of a community are so that we likely do not need to test in order to know which schools are likely in need of more assistance. My colleague, Dr. Chris Tienken of Seton Hall University, very neatly demonstrated this recently with a sophisticated regression analysis of different social capital indicators that accurately predicted test scores.
Standardized testing, then, is an endeavor that is best done is the least intrusive ways possible to keep one very broad eye on the community and to use the results to see if further, more detailed, analysis is necessary or not. By attempting to retain them as a tool of high stakes accountability, Senate Democrats sought to maintain a lever which has failed to create significant results for an entire generation of students.
3. Resources matters — Democrats’ language on that was weak. Just as we know that schools with high percentages of students in poverty indicate schools likely to struggle, we also know that our communities with poor families tend to have large percentages of them and lack community resources as well. The language of the amendment called for states to identify struggling schools and to ensure “identified schools have access to resources, such as adequate facilities, funding, and technology” but the federal role in assisting this remains weak even as the federal government makes requirements upon states and municipalities. While the amendment had references to many grant programs, it lay primary responsibility with the states while leaving one of the core inequalities in American education intact: how we fund schools and distribute resources.
Local funding by property taxation is an inherently unequal form of funding, and we rely upon state aid to provide additional funding, aid that is inadequate to the task. Consider our home state of New York. Commissioner Elia has identified 144 schools statewide that are struggling or persistently struggling as measured by state test scores. These include schools in Albany, Buffalo, Hempstead, Mount Vernon, New York City, Rochester, Utica, and Yonkers. It should come as no surprise that all of these districts are on the list of our most underfunded high need school districts in the state. Based on the state’s own, inadequate, foundational aid formula, Hempstead should be getting $6,426 per pupil MORE this year than it is getting, and such accounting trickery has been played on every district in the state for years.
If the federal government were truly interested in helping our schools by holding states accountable, it would do better to focus upon how the different 50 states raise and distribute funds to our highest needs schools.
4. Test based accountability misses the real issues. We can test and test and test some more. We can gather as much data from those tests as we like. But they will never tell us the underlying reasons for the gaps in test performance among our population. Assuming that the tests are measuring worthwhile skills and knowledge, the existence of a gap in test measured performance tells us nothing about why it exists. At its best, testing gives us an idea of where to examine more closely, but when raising the test score become a paramount concern for schools and districts, the consequences are not inherently desirable.
Can the federal government assist states and municipalities in the pursuit of an equitable education for all? Certainly, but it would mean shifting the focus to resources and funding and away from test scores. For example, the federal government could finally fulfill its promise of providing 40% of the cost to implement the Individuals With Disabilities in Education Act which it has never done. The federal government could listen to its own data that suggests our nation’s schools need $197 billion in capital improvements and that a full quarter of schools with more than half of students qualifying for free and reduced lunch are in either fair or poor condition. The federal government could focus improvement efforts on questions of teacher retention in our most struggling schools which, contrary to the rhetoric of those opposing teacher tenure, is a much greater problem than teachers staying too long.
The federal government could also learn from history. After 14 years of testing and punishment, some tiny gains in the National Assessment of Educational Progress can be seen, but those gains are dwarfed by the closing of the student achievement gap measured through the 1970s and into the early 1980s:
As you can see, from 1973 until 1986, the gap between White and Black 13 year-olds in mathematics shrank by 22 percentage points, at which point it began to rise again, slowly over the next decade, then decreased slightly after the passage of NCLB but at nowhere near the rate we saw from 1978 until 1986. What explains this? There are, of course, many possible reasons, but one that stands out in policy is that by the early 1980s we largely abandoned efforts to integrate our schools and to integrate our communities via fair housing policies. Since the 1980s, our communities have become even more segregated by income levels, and our schools have re-segregated as well so that today, a typical African American student in 2007 attended a school where 59% of his peers were low income, up from 43% in 1989.
For almost 4 decades we have increasingly concentrated children with very great needs within communities that struggle to provide basic services and in schools that are consistently deprived to the resources and personnel they need to give the children in their care what they need to thrive. We do not need more federal accountability measures of this. We require action aimed at the opportunity gap.
You have a deserved reputation for fairness and for finding ways to work with colleagues when others prefer to fight. I challenge you to research these issues and bring them to your fellow lawmakers in bipartisan fashion. I challenge to craft a federal education policy that emphasizes support and growth over test and punish. Use federal leverage with states to make sure state aid to local schools is up to their needs. Propose the full funding of IDEA for the first time in its history. Challenge colleagues to invest in the capital improvement needed so our children learn in buildings that are well equipped and safe. Find federal resources that will help urban schools with recruitment, development, and retention of teachers.
And recognize that threatening schools with standardized test results cannot overcome our society-wide abandonment of integrated schools and communities. Our public schools need advocates in Washington, not an entire caucus ready to reassert policies that distort education’s focus and ignore the real funding needs of our children’s schools.
Daniel Katz, Ph.D.