What House Republicans did right with the education bill

There are many things to oppose in the legislation that the Republican-led House of Representatives just approved to rewrite the much-maligned 2002 No Child Left Behind bill.

The bill, passed on Friday without a single Democratic vote in support, would, if it were to become law, dramatically alter the public education landscape as we have come to know it over the past dozen years.

The legislation slashes the federal role in public schools that, ironically, Republican President George W. Bush ushered in with NCLB, eliminating the system that holds schools accountable according to standardized test scores. It sends back to the states decisions on such matters as what to do with poorly performing schools and how to spend most of the dollars they receive from the federal government to educate poor, disabled and English-language learners.

The bill also cuts public education funding, setting funding authorization for 2014 and five succeeding years at the amount that was being spent — $22.85 billion — after the sequester (which forced automatic across-the-board budget cuts because Republicans and Democrats could not reach a compromise on how to reduce the national deficit).

Democrats opposed the bill, saying it would wind up hurting the most needy children, and they are right. Education funding cuts would do the same thing. The effort to eliminate federal control over public education ignores the fact that federal involvement in affairs traditionally reserved for the states is sometimes beneficial and necessary.

The problem in recent years is that the U.S. Education Department, guided by Arne Duncan, has expanded the federal role in education to unprecedented levels, advancing an agenda for which there is no solid research evidence of success. That has left a sour taste in the mouths of many people who don’t philosophically oppose federal involvement in anything and everything.

So what did the Republicans get right? They eliminated the flawed accountability system of NCLB known as “adequate yearly progress,” which requires that virtually all students score “proficient” on standardized reading and math tests by 2014. However, they also kept insisting that standardized tests in math and reading be given annually to students in grades 3 through 9 and once in high school, with states determining their own academic standards. Why?

In their zeal to cut back as much as possible the federal role in education, the Republicans decided against requiring that teachers be evaluated based in part on standardized test scores. The bill’s author, Rep. John Kline of Minnesota, the chairman of the Committee on Education and the Workforce, had wanted to insist that school districts use “student outcomes” — otherwise known as standardized test scores — in teacher evaluations. Highly conservative House members refused to sign onto the bill if that were kept in, so he gave it up, according to Education Week.

Evaluating teachers on the basis of standardized test scores is highly popular with both Republican and Democrat school reformers, who ignore the advice of psychometricians and other researchers who say it is neither a valid nor a reliable method.

So in the end, Kline did the right thing on this subject for the wrong reason. Unfortunately, many states have already passed laws insisting on evaluating teachers by test score (sometimes by the scores of students they don’t have — really), action taken in an effort to win federal funding dangled before them in the Obama administration’s Race to the Top competition. That initiative offered federal dollars to states and districts that promised to undertake reforms the Education Department supported, including evaluating teachers by test scores.

The GOP rewrite of No Child Left Behind has pretty much no chance of becoming law, because the Democratic-led Senate has vastly different education legislation that, as this post explains, has its own problems.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · July 20, 2013