ESEA Reauthorization

Waiver Watch: Let the Renewal Games Begin

August 30, 2013

As Ed Money Watch previously reported, the U.S. Department of Education has placed three states – Kansas, Oregon, and Washington – on “high risk” status for their ESEA waiver plans related to new teacher evaluation systems.  If they don’t get up to speed by the end of 2013-14, these states could face a series of increasing sanctions, from losing state administrative or programmatic Title I funding, to losing ESEA flexibility entirely. With the latter, the state would again be subject to all of the requirements and provisions of No Child Left Behind.

Now, the Department has released initial guidelines for all states seeking to renew their waivers this winter. Waivers granted from the first two application windows (November 2011 and February 2012) expire at the end of the current school year. Without the two-year extension, the consequences for these 35 states are the same as for those on high risk: NCLB, in full effect, in 2014-15I won’t go into the details of the renewal process (yet), but for more analysis take a look at these thorough recaps from Education Week’s Michele McNeil and Politico’s Caitlin Emma.

Instead, I’d like to focus on the challenge the U.S. Department of Education faces in ensuring state compliance with flexibility. The Department has a few tools at its disposal to cajole states into cooperation, but these kinds of punishments are rare, if not unprecedented. Few states have lost Title I funding, administrative or programmatic, under NCLB. And several states have been placed on high risk for their Race to the Top plans, but the Department has yet to follow through on the warning and revoke a portion of states’ funding.

Further, is returning to NCLB even a viable option? After two years of waivers, it would be a nightmare to revert back to NCLB-style accountability. For instance, would a state’s AMOs be applied retroactively to determine which schools were in need of improvement and which sanctions to apply (e.g. corrective action, restructuring)? Or, would every school in the state start with a clean slate and need to miss AYP for two years before sanctions kick in?

So on the one hand, the Department’s recent actions demonstrate that they will, at least symbolically, hold states accountable for the promises they made in their waivers. On the other, as DFER’s Dom Giandomenico notes in this must-read post, it shows just how anemic the Department’s monitoring and enforcement plans are. There will be two official monitoring cycles completed by year’s end, but they don’t cover every component of states’ flexibility plans. And while the Department is gathering data to analyze how states selected schools for improvement under flexibility (and will ask states to respond in their renewals), the data may not be made public, at least initially. The renewals will not face a peer review either.

In short, it’s far from clear how the Department will evaluate the quality of state waiver implementation in the renewal process, or if they’ll have all the information they need to make an informed judgment. But would better information, or a more thorough review procedure, even make a difference?

Let’s play a little game. 

Assume that the Department wants states to comply with the flexibility policy and to gain this compliance through partnerships, not punishments. The latter is particularly important to the Department, since punishing waiver states for non-compliance (by revoking flexibility or rescinding Title I funds) could further hinder effective implementation of the reforms the Department would like to see. In other words, any scenario where the Department must force states to re-comply with NCLB is worse than any scenario where waiver implementation is just so-so.

Now, let’s assume that states with flexibility prefer to have complete control over standards, assessment, and accountability within their states. But their preference for waivers is even stronger. They don't want to revert back to NCLB and comply with its 100% proficiency target for all students and 20% Title I set-aside for school choice and tutoring. For states, any situation where they get to keep their waivers is better than one where they lose flexibility. But the best situation is one where they have as much discretion as possible within the waiver policy. 

Here’s how the game plays out:

Regardless of the monitoring process or the rigor of the renewal guidelines, the only feasible outcome of the game is for states to do what they want, more or less, and for the federal government to work with them and hope states make good choices. In any other scenario, someone could be better off.

What did we learn?

1. U.S. Department of Education: Don't be timid when it comes to asking states to justify the policies in their waiver requests. States will tolerate the paperwork, data analysis, and conference calls if it means keeping flexibility. Yes, states may eventually struggle to implement, or even undermine, the Department's preferred policies, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try to get states to do the right thing.

2. States: Behave responsibly. If states go too far and blatantly ignore the federal guidance, the Department may lose their preference for waivers at all costs – and there could be serious consequences down the line. It may not affect the waiver renewal process, but if states misuse the flexibility and unravel the progress made under NCLB, policymakers will take notice… and the next iteration of waivers (or a reauthorized ESEA) may not be as friendly toward local control.

3. Education researchers and advocates: Pay close attention to the game. States have a lot of discretion within the waiver policy, and there will be significant variation between them in terms of quality and outcomes – especially without strong federal enforcement. Recent reports – like this one from the Campaign for High School Equity – are a good start, but much more analysis is needed to ensure the lessons to be learned from ESEA flexibility are not lost.

Stay tuned to Ed Money Watch for continuing coverage of ESEA flexibility and the upcoming waiver renewals.

At US News' Debate Club: Fix, Don't Eliminate, the Federal Role in Education

July 25, 2013
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Yesterday, US News & World Report asked five experts in its Debate Club whether the Senate should pass the House’s No Child Left Behind rewrite – the Student Success Act. With the last week's House action, the Student Success Act is the first piece of legislation to make it to a floor vote in the six years since NCLB has been due for reauthorization. Sounds like progress, right?

Well I don’t agree. Here’s what I had to say about the Student Success Act: “Unfortunately, the Student Success Act isn't going to fix either policy [NCLB or NCLB waivers]. Because the Student Success Act doesn't want to fix the federal role in education – it wants to eliminate it.”

What does that mean? While the bill would reduce the scope of the federal role in education by freezing funding at sequester levels and eliminating programs and U.S. Department of Education staff, funding isn’t my biggest issue with the Student Success Act. The larger problem is that the bill guts federal accountability for schools and educators at the same time. There are no requirements for states to adopt college- and career-ready standards, no requirements for states to implement rigorous school accountability systems or teacher evaluations, and no requirements for states to meaningfully support school improvement. (You can see a detailed comparison of all the various NCLB reauthorization proposals here.)  

Yes, NCLB was too prescriptive for states in certain areas. But that shouldn’t be an excuse for no federal role whatsoever. As I explain:

"Skeptics say that the federal government can make states do things, but can't make them do things well. But that's the point: without a strong federal role, states may not do anything at all. Instead of giving states slack in the right places (e.g. how to improve schools, how to produce effective teachers), the Student Success Act gives up entirely – no standards, no accountability, no improvement.”

You can read (and vote for) my full response in the Debate Club here, along with commentary from Rep. George Miller (D-CA); president of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten; the Center for American Progress, and the American Enterprise Institute.

Storify: House 'No Child Left Behind' Debate

July 22, 2013

This post also appeared on our sister blog, Early Ed Watch.

On July 18 and 19, members of the U.S. House of Representatives took to the floor for a heated debate on a proposed reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. Rep. John Kline's (R-MN) bill, the Student Success Act, passed 221-207, but the Senate is not expected to take up the measure. We put together this Storify as a quick catch-up on the House debate.

Storify: House 'No Child Left Behind' Debate

July 22, 2013
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This post also appeared on our sister blog, Ed Money Watch.

On July 18 and 19, members of the U.S. House of Representatives took to the floor for a heated debate on a proposed reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. Rep. John Kline's (R-MN) bill, the Student Success Act, passed 221-207, but the Senate is not expected to take up the measure. We put together this Storify as a quick catch-up on the House debate.

The Federal Role in Education: Mend it, Don’t End It

July 22, 2013
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A few weeks ago I asked, “if Congress agrees the era of big government is over, why can’t we get an ESEA deal?” Both the Senate Democrats’ and House Republicans’ proposals to rewrite the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) scale back the federal role in school accountability and improvement and allow for more state autonomy in determining how school performance is evaluated – and what should be done about it when schools don’t measure up. And Friday, for the first time ever, Congress voted on an NCLB reauthorization proposal.

The Student Success Act, sponsored by House Education and Workforce Chairman John Kline (R-MN), passed on a partisan vote of 221-207. But its ultimate chances are slim: a Senate vote is unlikely, and the White House already issued a veto threat. It seems politics (as it often does) stands in the way of Republicans and Democrats in Congress striking a deal. I wrote:

“Unfortunately, with midterm elections fast approaching, lawmakers appear more concerned with scoring political points and toeing the party line than with the give and take of writing complicated policy. And waivers enable the administration to enact its preferred policies, at least temporarily, while simultaneously blaming Congress for inaction. In short, gridlock is a win-win.”

All of that is true. But I didn’t acknowledge that there are, in fact, fundamental disagreements between the parties when it comes to where and how much the federal government should step back. For many Republicans, the answers are everywhere, and as much as possible. Take Rep. Todd Rokita (R-IN): “No Washington bureaucrat cares more about a child than a parent does. And no one in Washington knows what is better for an Indiana school than Indiana families do. That is why the Student Success Act puts an end to the administration’s National School Board by putting state and local school districts back in charge of their own schools.” 

In other words, for Republicans the federal role is to distribute money, ask states to report a few data points, and promote school choice. And accountability and transparency are interchangeable terms, despite the fact that research – and past experience – demonstrates that’s not the case. When left to their own devices, states consistently take the easy way out (see here, and here, and here). And real accountability – transparent reporting plus interventions and supports for schools with lackluster results – is more effective than transparency alone.

Public reporting and transparency are well and good, but they are no substitute for meaningful accountability. That’s like saying disclosure of political donations and gifts is the same thing as conflict of interest laws making these activities illegal (just ask Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell to explain the difference). A financial disclosure form isn’t enough to prevent ethical violations, just as school report cards can only identify, not solve, the problems in low-performing schools.

Once the data tell us just how bad (or great) our schools are, doesn’t the federal government have an interest in ensuring state and local officials do something with the results? In the words of Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO), maybe it’s time to mend accountability, not end it.

Even the staunchest Democrats, like Rep. George Miller (D-CA), readily admit that “the federal government will never actually improve a school and nor should it try.” But without micromanaging every aspect of accountability and improvement, the federal government can ensure states set consistent, high standards for academic content and achievement. There should be common – or at least, comparable – measures for things like graduation rates, academic proficiency, and adequate student growth. And poor results, particularly for low-income kids, English language learners, and students with disabilities, cannot be acceptable. As Miller would say, “we must continue to support the simple idea that low-performing schools should be identified and required to improve.” The federal government can assist in school improvement efforts without directing them from Washington, working in partnership with states and districts to support their capacity to turnaround low-performing schools.

Indeed, some of the solutions may even require a more ambitious federal role, not a diminished one.  Instead of ceding more and more ground to states, the federal government could double its investments in assessments, data systems, and education research; overhaul teacher training and development; and redress significant disparities in resources between states and school districts. A recent New York Times editorial on testing noted that other countries with strong educational outcomes didn’t achieve these results because of local control. In fact, it’s the opposite. They “typically have gateway exams that determine, for example, if high school students have met their standards. These countries typically have strong, national curriculums. Perhaps most important, they set a high bar for entry into the teaching profession and make sure that the institutions that train teachers do it exceedingly well.”

That’s not to say these are the right policies for our education system. But maybe policymakers shouldn’t give up on the federal government so easily. States can – and have, in recent years – led the way on many education reforms. But getting a quality education shouldn’t depend on which state a student lives in. And with forty ESEA waivers and counting, there is probably more variation in quality between states than at any point since NCLB became law. This incoherence will not clear without stronger policymaking at the national level.

The Student Success Act won’t get us there. But since it also won’t get past the Senate or President Obama, the good news is that there is be plenty of time to write an education law that expects more, not less, from our education system.

At National Journal: Where Teachers Fit in Today’s ESEA Debate

July 18, 2013

Last week the National Journal Education Expert blog posed a question about teacher provisions in the House (H.R.5) and Senate (S.1094) ESEA reauthorization bills and whether the “highly qualified teacher” credential should be eliminated.

Student Success Act Superlatives: the Best (and Worst) Additions to the House NCLB Overhaul

July 17, 2013

Following the world’s speediest markup, the House of Representatives could begin floor debate on the Student Success Act, the House Republican proposal to rewrite No Child Left Behind (NCLB), tomorrow. That would mark the first time (ever!) that an NCLB reauthorization bill has reached the floor in either chamber of Congress. However, the chances of the House proposal making it out of the Senate and to the President’s desk are non-existent. No Democrats supported the bill in committee, adamantly opposing its changes to accountability, school improvement, and funding requirements. And while every Republican on the committee supported the legislation, it may not be conservative enough for many members of the House Republican caucus – who would like to add Title I vouchers to the bill, eliminate the teacher evaluation provisions, and further diminish the role of the federal government.

Alyson Klein over at PoliticsK-12 has a super-detailed rundown of many of the 74 amendments offered to the legislation. It’s well worth a read. While many of these amendments are likely to be ruled out of order by the House Rules Committee this afternoon, they are still an interesting – and sometimes amusing – read. Here are my picks among them for Student Success Act Superlatives.

Most obvious pet project: Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) would like to add a grant program to support female students in higher education taking STEM courses serving as mentors to high school girls enrolled in STEM dual enrollment programs.Science, it’s a girl thing!

Most thrifty: This one’s a tie between Paul Broun (R-GA) and John Culberson (R-TX). Because the Student Success Act would consolidate or eliminate over 70 programs at the Department of Education, Broun would require the Secretary of Education not only to report how many Department employees are terminated, but also their average salary (in addition to the salaries of remaining employees). Further, Broun wants an additional 5% reduction in Department staff after the program consolidation. Ouch.

Culberson’s amendment uses a different tactic to rein in spending. While limiting the Secretary from placing conditions on states to receive federal money, Culberson would also clarify that states could reject federal grants. The rejected funds would then go toward paying down the national debt. Given state reliance on federal education money, I doubt this is the most efficient strategy to tackle the debt problem.

Least changed since 2001: Chris Gibson (R-NY) and Mark Takano (D-CA) have a rare, bipartisan amendment to change the requirements for student assessment… to those that were in place before NCLB in 2001. This would mean students would be tested by grade spans in reading and math (grades 3-5, 6-9, and 10-12). While high school students are only tested once under current law, the amendment could eliminate annual testing in grades 3-8. If successful, say goodbye to loads of student performance data the public has come to rely on and any hope of measuring individual student growth.

Most popular: Maintenance of effort definitely has the Democrats’ votes for prom queen. Four amendments to restore the funding requirement (or delay its elimination) were offered, more than any other single issue.

Most likely to succeed? Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) wants to add Title I funding portability, allocating funds not on the basis of a district’s concentration of poor students, but instead directly following eligible children to the schools where they enroll. Students could attend their assigned public school, a charter school, or an out-of-district school if the state opts-in to the program. In an appearance at a Washington, D.C. charter school, Cantor said he believes his amendment (and the overall bill) could gain bipartisan support. But given reaction to the amendment and the fact that Senate Democrats voted down a similar amendment to their proposal, Cantor’s optimism is more comical than anything.

Class Clown: Speaking of amusing, Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer (R-MO) would like to clarify that the “sense of the Congress” is that Education Secretary Arne Duncan – through Race to the Top and NCLB waivers – “coerced” states to adopt common standards and assessments. Never mind the obvious lack of fact-checking (Alabama, Alaska, Minnesota, Utah, and Virginia have received waivers without adopting the standards and/or joining one of the testing consortia). In pointing out the harmful influence of the federal government on states, the amendment clarifies:

“The Race to the Top Assessment grants awarded to the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium (SMARTER Balance) initiated the development of Common Core State Standards aligned assessments that will, in turn, inform and ultimately influence kindergarten through 12th-grade curriculum and instructional materials.”

And this is an argument against the consortia’s efforts? Because curriculum and instructional materials informed by rigorous, internationally-benchmarked standards sound like a fabulous idea!

Biggest nerd: Disappointing robots everywhere, Tony Cárdenas (D-CA) withdrew an amendment that would have added computer coding as an official “critical foreign language” in the bill.

Stay tuned to Ed Money Watch for continuing coverage of NCLB reauthorization and the Student Success Act (and for more on what the proposal actually does, make sure to download our side-by-side cheat sheet here).

If Congress Agrees the Era of Big Government is Over, Why Can’t We Get an ESEA Deal?

July 2, 2013

UPDATED 7/22: The side-by-side comparison of each proposal now reflects the final version of the Student Success Act, as amended during floor debate on July 18 and 19. For full coverage of the House debate and vote, read the Storify here.

Considering Congress hasn’t figured out how to compromise on student loan interest rates (despite the fact that President Obama and a bipartisan group of Senators proposed shockingly similar plans), it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) remains at a standstill. Sure, the Senate and House of Representatives marked up proposed legislation and moved it out of their respective education committees. But everyone – including Congress itself – knows these bills aren’t going anywhere. How else can you explain a Senate markup so sparsely attended that Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) threatened his fellow members’ subcommittee leadership? Or a House markup so speedy that you missed it if you took a long lunch?

Part of the problem is that there is absolutely no pressure to get a rewrite of ESEA (a.k.a. No Child Left Behind) done, and these days Congress needs a cliff or a crisis (or a rapidly expanding minority population to win over) in order to accomplish anything. The deadline built into NCLB – that 100 percent of students in every Title I school be proficient in reading and math by 2014 or face sanctions – won’t hit until next summer. But the U.S. Department of Education has already leveled this “proficiency cliff” by giving ESEA waivers to 39 states and Washington, D.C. (that number could balloon to 45 states and a handful of districts in California if all remaining requests are approved).

While states – via the National Governor’s Association, Council of Chief State School Officers, and other groups – claim they want a reauthorization, surely they’d prefer to stick with waivers if a new ESEA meant additional federal requirements or any significant changes to their Department-approved plans. This makes reauthorization more difficult than ever. Waivers are complicated, involve dozens of policy choices for states, and vary tremendously. Bellwether’s Andy Rotherham put it best: “It’s hard to overstate how completely incoherent federal policy on K-12 schools now is. States are all over the place on timelines, approaches, and so forth with little rhyme or reason.” Accordingly, any ESEA reauthorization proposal that seeks to win over state education officials or build off of existing waiver policies has to envision such a weak federal role that states can pretty much do whatever they want.

And that’s exactly what we got… and not just from the usual suspects (i.e. congressional Republicans). Even the Democrats’ proposals envision an incredibly limited federal role in education. You can see for yourself by downloading our complete cheat sheet here. The central ESEA reauthorization question today isn’t “what is the appropriate federal role?” but rather “how weak a federal role can we live with?”

Take Senator Harkin’s proposal. Yes, states must adopt college- and career ready standards, test students annually in reading and math, establish an accountability system with performance targets, identify at least 15 percent of schools for improvement, and implement performance-based evaluation system for teachers and principals. But all of the details (with the exception of federal reporting, where the requirements are quite specific) are left up to states. Waivers can remain in effect, and for nearly every provision there’s an option to design and get approval for states’ preferred policy choices.

The Ranking Member on the House education committee, Rep. George Miller (D-CA), would give states slightly less leeway. For example, Miller’s proposal defines what adequate student growth means, gives states fewer choices in setting performance targets, and requires states to get approval for their academic standards from institutions of higher education unless they are common to several states. Still, Miller wouldn’t require states to intervene in a certain number or percentage of schools (just particular categories of schools), and it gives states flexibility to design their own accountability systems and teacher evaluations.

What’s incredible is that the Republican proposals cede even more authority to states – significantly curbing the Secretary of Education’s authority, eliminating (or consolidating, depending on your point of view) funding and programs like those for English language learners, and dismantling nearly every federal guideline for standards and accountability. Their plans also eschew many of the lessons learned from NCLB, including bipartisan, commonsense ideas like uniform graduation rates and using a balance of proficiency and growth for accountability. Is it intrusive to ask states to set some kind of school performance goals? Is it so burdensome for states to also take student growth into account? And is it really that unreasonable to expect states to report school data in a comparable way?

None of the ESEA reauthorization proposals are perfect. But if you actually read them – and I have – it seems like there should be more room to compromise. Everyone envisions a limited federal role! (To be clear, I’m not arguing that this is the best policy choice, only that it should make the politics easier.)

If Congress seriously wanted to make a deal, perhaps Republicans could get on board with a few more state requirements – performance targets or interventions in some number of schools, a measure of student growth, graduation rate accountability, and performance-based teacher evaluations that guide professional development – as long as states still had flexibility to make their own choices. Democrats could appease Republicans by streamlining reporting requirements, eliminating some of the required actions for schools in improvement, allowing teacher evaluations to be used only for professional development, or working on language to clarify the Secretary’s authority to grant waivers or encourage Common Core participation.

Yes, there would still be big differences to iron out (maintenance of effort, funding comparability, etc.), but the two parties aren’t nearly as far apart on policy as the political rhetoric might suggest. Unfortunately, with midterm elections fast approaching, lawmakers appear more concerned with scoring political points and toeing the party line than with the give and take of writing complicated policy. And waivers enable the administration to enact its preferred policies, at least temporarily, while simultaneously blaming Congress for inaction. In short, gridlock is a win-win. Despite two markups, four proposals, and thousands of pages of legislation, nobody in Washington benefits from making a deal. So get ready for those waiver renewals because ESEA isn’t going anywhere, anytime soon.

Storify: House Ed & Workforce Committee ESEA Markup

June 19, 2013

On Wednesday, the House Education & Workforce Committee convened to debate Chairman John Kline's (R-MN) proposed Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization. Ranking Member George Miller (D-CA) also proposed his own version of the bill. ICYMI, here's the play-by-play.

Click here for the Storify of last week's Senate HELP Committee markup.

Storify: House Ed & Workforce Committee ESEA Markup

June 19, 2013

Click here for the Storify of last week's Senate HELP Committee markup.

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