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Senate Guts School Accountability

The U.S. Senate is finally getting around to reauthorizing the controversial No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), something that was supposed to happen in 2007. Unfortunately, instead of fixing NCLB’s evident flaws, there’s a bipartisan push to fatally weaken the law as a credible tool for educational accountability.

A bill to renew the bill (known again by its historic title, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act) crafted by Sens. Harkin (D-Iowa) and Enzi (R-Wyo.) is being widely panned by education reformers. As Michelle Rhee points out, “by removing meaningful evaluations, the country would be taking huge step backward in the effort to reform our schools.”

In a rare moment of bipartisanship, Congress passed NCLB in 2002. It was designed to tie federal support to education (mostly through the Title I program of aid to schools in low-income areas) to improvements in student performance. Its signal achievement was to require local school authorities to measure the academic achievements of all students, including racial and ethnic subgroups. This provision meant that schools could no longer hide their failure to educate all students behind averages.

But NCLB’s critics pointed to several glaring flaws. One was the requirement that 100 percent of public school students reach proficiency in reading and math by the 2013-2014 school year. Not only is this standard deemed unattainable, but it puts too much weight on standardized assessments of widely varying quality.

Another problem with NCLB is its requirement that schools have “highly qualified teachers”. That sounds innocuous, but in practice it has led schools to hire teachers based on their academic credentials rather than their actual ability to teach. An abundance of data has shown that one of the quickest ways to achieve student growth is through an effective teacher. A “highly qualified teacher” by NCLB definition is one that is simply “certified and proficient” in the subject matter taught—regardless of how well those credentials translate into student learning, achievement, or growth.

The Harkin-Enzi bill kills the “100 percent proficiency” target, but doesn’t replace it with a better yardstick. Instead, it vaguely charges states to strive for “continual growth.” The bill is thus a throwback to NCLB’s predecessor, 1994’s weak Improving America’s Schools Act (IASA). This toothless measure paved the way for such lax accountability standards as Tennessee’s goal to “improve mean performance level(s) across grades by [an] average of .05” for grade-levels three through eight—hardly a worthy goal for true reform.

Harkin’s original draft required the states to adopt teacher and principal evaluations which would focus on both in-class observations and student achievements. Unfortunately, it was watered down in a redraft on Monday.

After the rewrite all the meaningful elements—save perhaps the mandate that states enforce a college-readiness standard—went by the wayside. The weaker version of the bill closely tracks a letter sent to the senators by teacher and principal advocacy groups, including the National Education Association. The gist of their message to the Senate was, “We appreciate the great reform ideas you’re proposing here but just please don’t implement them.” Also, the new version is clearly intended to assuage the “federal overreach” fears of GOP local control advocates.

In short, the bill not only omits concrete accountability standards, it also disregards the policy prescription that effective teachers—effective in the sense that the teacher actually impacts the student—are the key to true education reform. This ESEA reauthorization does nothing to positively impact an education system that is consistently failing the future of this country. The redrafting effort headed by Sen. Enzi on Monday is a clear message to reform-minded advocacy groups that the letters they are sending urging the federal government to do more in the way of education standards—such as the ones published by EdWeek and EdTrust—are not as effective as those sent by the teachers’ unions. In other words, you can speak loudly but you better carry a larger voting contingency.


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