WASHINGTON – Listen to the contours of the debate on how to overhaul public education and it would be easy to conclude that most everyone is in a calm state of agreement.
Republican Rep. John Kline, chair of the House Education Committee, says the 2002 No Child Left Behind law has outlived its usefulness. He doesn’t like the federally imposed, one-size-fits-all approach to how schools are treated and thinks decisions about how to measure student achievement and growth should be shifted back to local teachers, parents and schools.
In many ways, the national teachers union thinks much the same thing. Mary Kusler, the top lobbyist there, said, “The one common denominator … is that the educator’s voice is part of the solution.”
President Obama’s Education Secretary Arne Duncan echoed a similar sentiment.
“I believe all teachers deserve fair, genuinely helpful systems for evaluation and professional growth,” Duncan said. “I am absolutely convinced that we need to know how much progress students are making.”
In this most partisan, polarizing place, all this rare comity could be viewed as a breath of fresh air. Maybe in an era of deeply divided government, a Republican Congress and a Democratic White House, education can be a bastion where everyone can work together.
Of course, it is rarely that simple.
This spring, Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill are girding for one of the biggest showdowns in a decade on how to revamp the 13-year-old No Child Left Behind law that fundamentally challenged norms in public education by requiring schools prove students were effectively learning core subjects.
On testing and accountability, most everyone agrees some tests are good and that schools should be required to be transparent on how well students are doing in reading and math.
The tension among the two political parties, the unions, the Obama administration, governors, state lawmakers and parent groups centers on what should happen after the tests show a school is failing large numbers of students. Whose responsibility is that? Is that a state problem? Or a federal one?
The old requirements that held schools accountable for annual progress have been neutered for many by the waivers issued to 43 states — including Minnesota — that free them from a number of No Child’s rules.
Pre-waiver, No Child imposed stringent, federally prescribed sanctions on schools where students showed little improvement. The sanctions drew criticism for comparing third-graders to other third-graders, rather than following one set of students to gauge whether they were actually improving relative to where they had been. The federal sanctions were hard to follow for some rural school districts and required a lot of money, including that districts offer students buses to other better-performing schools.
Kline plans to throw much of that out in the new bill he is crafting. He thinks states should take control and decide what to do with failing schools. He would like to eliminate the federal requirement that all schools meet “adequate yearly progress,” and he would wipe out many of the federally required interventions into poorly performing schools. Kline still believes in annual testing, accountability and publishing testing results, broken down by student groups. But beyond requiring districts and schools to test and to be transparent with the results, he thinks the feds should get out of the way.
“It is entirely wrong for the federal government to try and manage that,” he said.
Needed changes aren’t clear
Kline’s new Republican counterpart in the Senate mostly agrees with him. Tennessee Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander’s draft proposals on No Child reforms are similar in tone to Kline’s, though Alexander’s proposal may offer more wiggle room for districts to get out of the annual testing requirements altogether.
That could be a deal-breaker for the Obama administration.
“We must begin every conversation by looking at student achievement. Nothing matters more,” Duncan said earlier this month at a Washington, D.C., school. “For all of our children, for their families … let’s choose the path that makes good on the original promise of this law.”
Too much state control deeply worries Khulia Pringle, a St. Paul mother who, along with a handful of other Minnesota parents, flew to Washington this month to hear arguments from a Senate panel about federal testing requirements.
“I don’t think it should completely be left to states,” said Pringle, who is involved with the group Students for Education Reform. “When the lives of children and poor people of color are left to states it doesn’t always work out. We want justice for all enforced.”
The highest-ranking Democrat on the House education committee agreed with Pringle.
“After you have ascertained that a school is failing, what is the legislation to cure that problem?” Virginia Rep. Bobby Scott said. “If a school knew what to do to improve itself, it would be doing it already.”
Under No Child, about half of Minnesota schools were rated “failures.” Educators complained the ratings were meaningless and unfairly punished schools that served poor students.
The new school ratings system, established as a result of Minnesota’s No Child waiver, is more nuanced and puts a premium on students’ annual improvement and whether a school is closing the achievement gap between white and minority students.
The state, which has received accolades from the U.S. Department of Education for its new school accountability system, plans to renew its waiver this year. Minnesota students between third- and 11th-grade can take up to three required standardized tests a year to gauge competency in reading, math and science. Some school districts elect to give more tests.
The mixed bedfellows calling for the end of high-stakes standardized tests in Minnesota have grown increasingly louder in recent years and include Republican lawmakers, the powerful state teachers union, Education Minnesota and a growing number of Minneapolis parents.
Tests can inundate students
Some parents, fed up with the amount of testing, are yanking their children from testing altogether. Last year, 1,082 students “opted out” of the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments (MCAs). That’s up from just over 200 who refused the exam in 2009.
“When parents are looking at their child’s student calendar, what they see starting in November or sometimes October, are days marked ‘test day,’ ” said Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, who chairs the House Education Innovation Policy Committee. “The sheer quantity of those days concerns them.”
Gov. Mark Dayton, a former teacher, also has frequently voiced his dissatisfaction about how many tests Minnesota students take each year.
“Many children come to school terrified on test days; then go home demoralized,” Dayton said during his 2014 State of the State address. “What purpose does it serve to send a third-grader home believing she has failed life because she may have performed poorly on a test?”
During that same speech, Dayton announced plans for the Minnesota Department of Education to evaluate every required test and make recommendations about those that might be streamlined, combined or eliminated. A group is expected to issue its report to lawmakers next month.
Back in Washington, what remains unclear is how a Republican-controlled Congress will craft a bill that may be palatable to a White House whose education secretary has admitted No Child’s old failures but who feels strongly about keeping a federal hand on schools and districts that receive billions in federal tax dollars annually.
Among No Child’s original mothers is former Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, who acknowledges the law needs improvements but wants Republican lawmakers to remember the original intent.
“We truly had a belief that all children could learn at high levels,” said Spellings, who now is president of the George W. Bush Presidential Center. “What I worry about, just generally as a country, is that we sort of don’t really believe that anymore. Or not all of us do.”