EdNET Insight | Duncan’s Plan B

From the Editor

Duncan’s Plan B

Anne Wujcik — Friday, June 17, 2011

It looks like the really big news this week has been Education Secretary Duncan’s talk about his “Plan B” for the ESEA reauthorization. Frustrated by the slow pace of Congressional action on the ESEA, Secretary Duncan has begun talking about using his waiver power to address some of the problems with the current No Child Left Behind legislation. Earlier he had tried to motivate Congressional action by pointing out that without reauthorization large numbers of American schools would soon be labeled as failing. That approach failed to motivate Congress, so the Secretary is taking a new tack, talking about granting states relief from some aspects of the law in return for what he has called “commitments to key reforms.”

NCLB calls for all students to be 100% proficient in math and reading by 2014. Early in the days of NCLB, the states were required to set annual goals detailing how they would move students toward the 100% goal. Many states back loaded their plans, calling for very small annual changes in the percentage of students deemed proficient in the early stages and much larger changes in the last three or four years leading up to 2014. We are now in those final years and the Secretary has been using his bully pulpit to point out that many states would find it very difficult to achieve the dramatic increases their plans outlined.

The exact effect of the threat to increase the use of waivers and regulatory relief is uncertain. Certainly the initial reactions of the lead education players – Sen. Harkin, Rep. Kline, Rep. Miller – were cool. Congress does not like anyone intruding on their turf – but whether the intrusion causes them to work faster or slower remains to be seen. The Senate is close to having a reauthorization bill ready for consideration. The House is breaking the task into smaller bits. It has passed one bill eliminating funding for 43 programs that it found ineffective or duplicative. Next on their agenda is a bill that would give the schools more flexibility in terms of how they use federal dollars.

The Administration is also interested in giving the schools more flexibility. Among potential changes the Secretary has said he is interested in is giving schools more flexibility in terms of how they can use their Title I money. This might involve a blanket waiver that allows schools to opt out of NCLB’s supplemental educational services or school choice requirements. Increased local flexibility holds great promise and some real peril, as there is the potential for money now tied to specific uses that support the education of our most vulnerable students being directed into other priorities.  

The states are very interested in relief around testing and AYP requirements. One of the complicating factors in all this is that the states and districts are in the process of implementing the Common Core State Standards. In some states the transition to the Common Core will start this fall. At the same time, teachers will have to be sure that they are also covering the existing standards, since students will continue to be tested on the existing standards until the new tests aligned to the CCSS come on line in 2014. 

The commitment to accountability at both the Department of Education and in Congress makes it highly unlikely that current testing requirements would just be suspended for the interim. I happen to think that we wouldn’t loose all that much if we just stopped testing for a while or only test a few grades each year. There seems to be pretty widespread agreement that the tests we are using don’t really tell us very much. If teachers didn’t have to worry about the current tests for a few years, they would have the time and freedom to experiment more widely with the best ways to develop the more complex textual analysis or the mathematical practices the CCSS call for. 

But of course, with more states moving to include student test scores as a part of their teacher evaluation systems, we can’t have an absence of test scores. New York City is working on as many as 16 new standardized tests it wants to use as part of its teacher evaluation process. Last year, as part of its effort to win a Race to the Top Grant, New York passed legislation requiring that 40% of each teacher’s be based on standardized test results or another “rigorous, comparable” measure of student performance. Half of that 40% should be based on the state’s accountability testing program and the other half on local measures. The NYC tests would be built around tasks, which moves them closer to the CCSS assessments currently under development. The whole New York state evaluation plan is in flux, but it does seem to illustrate one possible response to the efforts to tie teacher evaluation to student test scores — more tests.

The problem with trying to reform a system is that everything’s connected.  Pushing down in one place can result in odd bumps rising in another.  That’s one of the advantages of having a real debate around the ultimate shape of the ESEA reauthorization. We need to lay out the options and try to anticipate the consequences of any proposed changes, both intended and unintended. It’s hard to know what the Secretary has in mind — there are no real details right now. And it’s not clear that the states will be as anxious to sign on, given the expectation that they will have to adopt a set of reform measures. All that remains to be played out.