Barring substantial shifts in the political landscape, both houses of Congress are expected to vote on the re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act which has just come out of the conference committee. If passed in both the House and the Senate, the bill, dubbed the Every Student Succeeds Act, is expected to be signed into law by President Obama before the end of the year. This will officially usher us into the post No Child Left Behind era, and, as is typical with legislation nowadays, there is something in the final product to frustrate and worry pretty much everyone. While ESSA represents tangible improvements over the widely hated NCLB, there are worrisome elements in it and a great deal of larger and more fundamental aspects are handed over to the states where we can probably expect prolonged fights over implementation.
Nineteenth Century lawyer-poet John Godfrey Saxe noted, “Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made.” He probably had something like the agonizing and lengthy wrangling over rewriting the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in mind when he said it, especially this final stretch when lawmakers will vote on a 1000 page long conference bill they have not read thoroughly. And, indeed, it seems some choice bits got chopped up and inserted into this final version, notably a chance for private financial interests to make money on public education dollars.
Consider language for Title I, Part D for prevention and intervention programs for children and youth who are neglected, delinquent, and at risk, section 1424 allowing funds to go to “pay for success initiatives,” and similar language in Title IV, Part A. ESSA defines a “pay for success initiative” as a “performance-based grant, contract, or cooperative agreement awarded by a public entity in which a commitment is made to pay for improved outcomes that result in social benefit and direct cost savings or cost avoidance to the public sector.” The gist is that private entities can put up money as a loan for a public program and if they save money in the process of being more effective or more efficient than the public sector, they can keep a portion of the money saved. This is the kind of creative use of private philanthropy and financing that is supposed to incentivize deep pocketed entities to do good – and end up doing right well in the process.
Goldman Sachs experimented with the model in Utah by financing preschool for 595 additional children in a well regarded program, 110 of whom were expected to need special education services. After a year in the Goldman sponsored intervention, only 1 student entering Kindergarten was found to need those services, and the financial giant will now be paid $2500 per pupil per grade without special education services until students reach sixth grade when the amount of money will go down. That’ll come to $1.9 million dollars on top of the original money loaned and paid back.
Fred Klonsky, a retired Chicago teacher and current blogger, is highly skeptical both of the payments back to Goldman and of the claim that 109 students out of 110 were no longer in need of special education services after a year in preschool. I have to admit that I share that skepticism and certainly think that social impact bond financing allowed in ESSA will require very vigilant monitoring to make certain outfits like Goldman Sachs are not creating perverse incentives to simply overlook a need and “save” money. They are a largely unproven vehicle for creating social change, although some are organized to minimize risk for private capital while giving them a lucrative upside. It isn’t hard to imagine who lobbied to get that language inserted into the Title I and Title IV changes then.
For that matter, as Mercedes Schneider notes in her first assessment of the bill, charter schools get a big, wet kiss, and there are grants that read as friendly to Teach for America’s role in “teacher preparation”.
So – sausage.
That said, there are many changes to the current education landscape contained in ESSA, many of them positive. The Badass Teachers Association has a solid look of the good and the far less than good in the bill. On the troubling side, ESL students are potentially labeled using very crude means, encouragement of merit pay, misplaced confidence in adaptive assessments and misgivings that “individualized instruction” will lead to more time in front of screens rather than with teachers, and, of greatest concern, continuation of NCLB’s requirement of annual testing of every child each year between grades 3 and 8 and once in high school and it caps alternate assessments for disabled students. However, ESSA spins much more authority for accountability and assessments to the states, includes mechanisms to improve teacher workplace conditions, prohibits the federal DOE from interfering in state laws regarding parents opting children out of state assessments, and there are positive developments for homeless children, impact aid, Native American education, state innovation and local flexibility.
Most notable, however, are the repeated smack downs of the federal Department of Education and clear prohibitions on the Secretary of Education taking an active role in shaping state policies regarding standards, assessments, and accountability systems. Consider this from Title VIII, section 8526:
No officer or employee of the Federal Government shall, through grants, contracts, or other cooperative agreements, mandate, direct, or control a State, local educational agency, or school’s specific instructional content, academic standards and assessments, curricula, or program of instruction developed and implemented to meet the requirements of this Act (including any requirement, direction, or mandate to adopt the Common Core State Standards developed under the Common Core State Standards Initiative, any other academic standards common to a significant number of States, or any assessment, instructional content, or curriculum aligned to such standards), nor shall anything in this Act be construed to authorize such officer or employee to do so.
I believe that when historians write the story of the Test and Punish Era of public school reform, this language will be noted as the “Take A Seat, Arne” Act of 2015.
Education Week noted a week ago that “accountability hawks” were already unhappy with the information coming out of the conference committee. Sandy Kress, an original designer of NCLB, worried that states were going to be allowed to create accountability systems not based on student learning. Chad Aldeman, a partner at Bellweather Education Partners, worries that states will give in to inertia and not push for improvements for their most at risk students. Meanwhile, the National Association of Secondary Schools Principals applauded the available framework, noting the removal of Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) requirements and “unworkable” school turnaround models. The National Governors Association announced full approval for the conference bill, saying that it “restored the balance” between Washington, D.C. and the states.
So – is NCLB well and truly dead?
Not exactly, no.
While some of the worst provisions of NCLB have finally had a stake driven into their hearts, the states are still required to test and the create accountability systems, so the upshot is that making sure both those tests and the systems are fair and based upon what schools and children need will now have to be done state by state. Monty Neill of FairTest notes that this will not be a simple matter: States still have to rank schools largely on test scores, there is ambiguity on how “additional indicators” for English Language Learners will be weighted compared to test scores, states have to identify the bottom 5% of schools based on test scores and intervene with measures designed by the state. In other words: whether or not schools find themselves under a test and punish regime or in a monitoring and support system will largely depend upon how states treat their newly reclaimed authority.
There is no reason to believe that the advocates of test and punish will pack up shop now that the Secretary of Education has been severely limited. After all, federal help was useful for the spread of the Common Core State Standards, the testing consortia, and the adoption of growth measures in teacher evaluation, but it was hardly to only entity to help. Both the National Governors Association and the National Council of Chief State School Officers were on board with the Common Core State Standards and the shared assessments. The Gates Foundation is certainly active in state and local education policy, using grants and other leverage to push through favored policies. Powerful private interests have financial stakes in declaring public schools failures and turning them over to private management. They give lavishly to their allies in state government. Think about governors like Andrew Cuomo of New York, Dannel Malloy of Connecticut, Chris Christie of New Jersey, and Scott Walker of Wisconsin – advocates of our fully public schools have our work cut out for us.
So – roll up your sleeves wherever you live and work. This has only just started.