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Posted at 02:32 PM ET, 04/23/2011

NCLB: Is there common ground for change?

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This was written by Anne Geiger, who served on the Orange County School Board in Orlando, Fl., from 2004-2008. A Virginia native, she lives in Arlington and blogs at www.publicpolicyblogger.com, where a version of this appeared.

By Anne Geiger

The fate of former President George W. Bush’s signature education policy, the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act ( the latest incarnation of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, or ESEA), is unclear these days. Although crafted through bipartisan support to much fanfare, and arguably well-intentioned, NCLB provoked controversy just as soon as it was implemented. It had too many unreasonable, unrealistic, unfunded mandates, and it was unpopular with most everyone: teachers, principals, superintendents, school boards, parents, children’s advocates, and politicians on both sides of the aisle. And although most people agree that it needs needs to be fixed, there is little agreement on how best to do it.

The disagreements is really about how one defines the role of the federal government in public education. It’s a sensitive subject but I still believe there is common ground — if everyone starts genuinely and respectfully listening to one other, and if they acknowledge the complexities and nuances of the politics involved.

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In a recent edition of The Washington Post, columnist George F. Will wrotes about Rep. John Kline (R-MN) and his new duty as chair of the House Education and the Workforce Committee. Kline is a former Marine who wants a “greatly reduced federal footprint in primary and secondary education,” and “promises” that the current system of adequate yearly progress “will not exist when we are done.” Believing “highly qualified teacher” should become “highly effective teacher,” he also wants to see more charter schools. Will ends his column this way:


“There are 14,000 more or less autonomous school districts. Kline knows that at this moment of waning confidence in the federal government, it is strange to assume that leverage from a combination of national tests and national money can efficiently improve the system. And it is stranger still to assume that even if this combination could do so, Washington has the knowledge to move all 14,000 in the right direction. In this Marine from Minnesota, the man and the moment have met.”

Will suggests that he thinks this is easy. That all it takes is a Marine to get it done. To get what done? To simply give authority and flexibility back to the local school districts.

But actually, like most things, it’s more complicated than that.

My personal experience as a school board member also proves untrue Wills’ apparent belief that teachers unions have some sort of universal power. They dont. There is great variance in districts across the country as to how much power unions really exercise.

Besides, bigger obstacles to improving schools are NCLB and too many reformers who don’t understand the complexities of educating our very diverse children in our widely varying school districts.

In her blog, Living and Thinking on Education, Joanne Jacobs recently posted this,

“Despite the president’s call for action, House Education Chair John Kline won’t “rush” reauthorization, notes Rick Hess on his Straight Up blog at Education Week. “I’m not going to rush this and do it wrong,” Kline told The Hill (in early March).

NEA-friendly Democrats and small-government Republicans could block action in the Senate, predicts Hess, while ‘House Republicans who promised to dramatically shrink the federal footprint’ aren’t ‘eager to pass an education bill that retains any federal role when it comes to school improvement or teacher effectiveness.’ ”

Nonetheless, editorials still imply that there are easy fixes, such as this recent one in the Charleston (SC) Post and Courier:


“The president has asked Congress to fix NCLB in time to reauthorize it by fall. While he opposes the Republican House’s relatively modest $5 billion cut in education, he has some key GOP allies on the overriding mission of improving NCLB. House Education Committee Chairman John Kline, R-Minn., said this week that he would work with the administration to craft “targeted, fiscally responsible reforms” to the law -- though he added that the task might not be completed by September.

Congress should get started on this vital assignment. And with school administrators across the nation struggling to make ends meet, the more flexibility a new NCLB can give them, the better.”

But the politics are complex and nuanced. There are the moderate Republicans, what’s left of them, that is, and moderate Democrats, who generally believe in a healthy balance between federal government and local control. They tend to support the Common Core standards, generally from a what’s-good-for the-economy perspective, and think it’s important for the federal government to play an active role in alleviating poverty, addressing funding inequities and monitoring discrimination.

They are generally supportive of school choice and charter schools, but mainly focus on maintaining the strength of the traditional public school system. But... They’ve also jumped on the bandwagon for merit pay, and they talk way too much about standardized test scores. Risky and controversial, this rhetoric plays well politically with the business crowd, who don’t seem to grasp the fact that educating children is really not like running a business. It nonetheless persists.

Interestingly, views of the opposite extremes of the political spectrum are not as clear as one might assume. Those on the right have up until now been the biggest promoter of charter schools and vouchers, and would just as soon eliminate the Department of Education. Some would even like to get rid of what they call “government schools” altogether.

Those on the left continue to support a robust, interventionist federal government, strong teachers’ unions, and increased funding to address poverty and funding inequities. But most do not favor NCLB and are uncomfortable with some of President Obama’s education policies, like the Race to the Top competitive grant program.

However, an increasing number of liberals and progressives, especially among civil rights advocates, are supporters of charter schools and even vouchers.

And if you listen carefully, the nascent tea party movement, a loose, ultra-conservative, even libertarian, coalition, isn’t necessarily in lockstep with the charter/voucher/ “government-school” crowd. Some are, no doubt, but many are more focused on smaller federal government in general and reinvigorated local control. Very much in line with what local school districts have been clamoring for. Back off, federal government. Give us the flexibility and autonomy to teach the children we know best.

Or listen to newly elected Sen. Michael Bennett (D-CO) whose recent op-ed in The Washington Post laid out proposals for revising NCLB. A former teacher and superintendent, he aligns himself with moderate colleagues, Kline and the conservative bloc, President Obama and his reform allies, and civil rights groups...all in one fell swoop.

To paraphrase:

He calls for reworking the way teachers are recruited, hired and retained (this primarily means merit pay). Moderate/Conservative. Business-friendly.

“Increase local flexibility by setting fewer, clearer and higher standards and providing teachers and schools the support necessary to meet them.” Semi-conservative. Local control. Music to the ears of Rep. Kline and others, and shows support for local school districts in his state.

Calls for more incentives for innovation, and uses the Obama administration’s Race to the Top competitive grant program as a prime example. Shows allegiance to the President and his reform agenda.

Recommends action to address the fact that, “We are one of only three countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development that invests more money into the most advantaged schools and less money into our least advantaged schools.” Liberal. Shows support for urban and rural, high-poverty school districts in his state and the nation.

This last one is compatible with recommendations of civil-rights advocacy organizations who have called for reauthorization, such as the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, within a broader, more distinct framework:

* ESEA should provide support for school districts that seek to promote diversity.

* ESEA should hold schools accountable for educating all students by discouraging reliance on exclusionary disciplinary policies and encouraging proactive steps to improve graduation rates.

* “Common Resource Standards” should be created to track whether states and districts provide adequate and equitable instructional resources to all student populations.

* Development of a pipeline of highly effective teachers, especially for those school districts serving low-income communities of color.

* Congress should require that ESEA and other federal laws apply fully to all schools, including alternative schools, charter schools, and preschools.

So, is there common ground? Is broad buy-in possible? Yes and yes.

First. One thing missing in much of the political discourse is worth mentioning. Again. Many...most... teachers, parents and students are weary of the focus on test scores. They instinctively sense and viscerally experience the negative impacts of high-stakes testing. They know that it skews instruction and creates unhealthy learning environments.

But, none of the politicians involved in the reauthorization debate have the nerve to say anything about it. Nor do the pundits or editorial writers. They only encourage more talk about test scores as the end-all and be-all, instead of stating the obvious. That they are one tool. Only.

With these thoughts in mind.....I’ll take a stab at a workable path:

1. Strengthened local control with flexibility and autonomy. Local communities know their own children best. This is becoming a shared goal of many. Most actually. (With an important caveat. This is where the Department of Justice and all of us come in. Local control cannot become a license to allow what the Wake County (NC) School Board is doing to reverse its highly regarded, highly successful diversity plan. Or allow parochial efforts to reverse course on educational or social progress. Anywhere.)

2. Federal role that is clearly defined and strictly limited. In cooperation and collaboration with states and local communities, focus on funding inequities, justice issues like discrimination and re-segregation, and anti-poverty programs such as early intervention, preschool, technology infrastructure, universal health care and school meals.

3. Common Core standards are the states’ responsibility to set and monitor. Testing and scoring more for baseline and diagnostic purposes, less high stakes. A means, not an end. Focus on teaching the whole child from kindergarten through 12th grade. Dynamic, rich instruction. All subjects. All disciplines. Preparation for real-life, 21st-century problem solving. In traditional public schools and public charter schools. Universal preschool with whole-child standards a national goal, but the states’ responsibility to fund and monitor, with federal assistance in high-poverty school districts.

4. Equal treatment of traditional schools and charter schools, with reasonable, fair accountability standards for both. (Voucher compromises are less clear. I understand the rationale of supporters and criticism of opponents. I frankly think the issue gets too much attention. The parochial and private school network has not the capacity, capability or goal to teach all children, and I tend to agree with critics that vouchers fray the community fabric that public schools have always helped provide. As do charters in some instances, but that’s more solvable.)

5. Improving teacher education, recruitment, hiring and retention established as a national goal, but innovations developed at the state and local levels, in close collaboration with schools of education and classroom teachers. Assisted by private-sector partners with a proven track record and authentic goal to improve education, not just benefit financially from a reform agenda. Any merit pay programs should be fair and comprehensive, and set up to promote collaboration, not weaken it. No federal competitive grants. They distort public policy and create new inequities.

It’s a start. We can’t afford to keep kicking the can down the road, like with so many other important issues. Don’t rush but don’t take forever either. I am hoping for sound leadership. Those who will listen. Those who will act with reason and compassion. And mutual respect. For the sake of our children’s everyday school experience and their future. And the health of the teaching profession and our democratic public school system.

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By  |  02:32 PM ET, 04/23/2011

 
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