Some (Muted) Applause for the NCLB/ESEA Rewrite

Many Americans probably chuckle in agreement when hearing that old Mark Twain quip, “suppose you were an idiot, and suppose you were a member of Congress, but I repeat myself.” However, our national representatives may be on the path to redemption. Yesterday it was widely reported that, according to PoliticsK-12,  "after eight years and at least three serious attempts, Congress is finally moving forward on bipartisan, bicameral legislation to rewrite the almost-universally-despised No Child Left Behind Act, the current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.”

You can read about the details, well, almost anywhere but the bottom line is that the new version, called the Every Child Achieves Act, transfers much control from the U.S. Department of Education to individual states but still maintains requirements regarding disaggregation of data by subgroups, annual student assessments, and some sort of intervention in each state's  5% lowest-performing schools.

In other words, it’s a compromise: there’s something to offend everyone but enough substance to drive consensus. Among the lawmakers who comprise the Senate education committee and a dozen House members, only Rand Paul voted “nay,” so that’s pretty impressive. Civil rights groups will dislike the shrinkage of federal responsibility. Teacher unions will dislike the maintenance of annual testing and the lack of “opt-out” support. State rightists will disdain the continued, if vastly reduced, federal role.

As the mother of a son with multiple disabilities, I’m really happy that states will have to continue to report the academic growth of traditionally-ignored subgroups.  Kati Haycock of the Education Trust put it best: “Kids who are not tested end up not counting.” My son only counts if his school is required to report his academic growth. Under the  proposed ECAA, my son will count.

But I do worry about the delegation of control to states. Call me a cynic, but it’s just too easy for government officials to worm their way out of accountability.

Here’s an example.

In New York City, traditional public schools for children with severe disabilities are grouped within District 75. Under former Mayor Mike Bloomberg, these schools issued annual progress reports, which included data on student growth. But, according to a Chalkbeat article last week,  the De Blasio Administration has decided to leave these schools out of the new School Quality Reports. Also left out were schools that serve students who had once dropped out of high school and those who have fallen far behind.  Altogether, these schools serve over 35,000 students.
“You’re sort of letting those schools off the hook in terms of any accountability measures,” said Kim Nauer, education research director at the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs. The need to come up with fair metrics for those schools should not keep them waiting indefinitely for reports, she added.
“Parents need them,” she said, “and the schools need to know that people are looking at their results.”
“There’s no information for you to make your own assessments outside of visiting the schools in person,” said Lori Podvesker, a policy manager at INCLUDEnyc, a support agency for young people with disabilities, and whose son attends a District 75 school in Manhattan. “That’s so fundamentally wrong.”
In other words, parents of children at risk are at the mercy of the whims of government administrations. We have to trust them to count our kids because, if they don’t, our kids don’t count.
This presumption of trust is a bit of a  reach for those of us who share Mark Twain’s cynicism, and one reason why parents like me worry about the dimunition of federal oversight in the new ECAA. Still, it’s a fair compromise if – and only if – we elect officials who will do the right thing.

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