It Could Be Worse: What if Cuomo Had Written the New NCLB?

‘The single best thing that I can do,” Gov. Cuomo said last year, is “break what is in essence one of the only ­remaining public monopolies”: the teachers union. 
Oops: Looks like the union broke him.
That’s the lede for yesterday’s New York Post editorial, which takes New York State Gov. Cuomo to the woodshed for “abandoning the effort to use student scores on state tests to help judge teacher performance.” Just last January, Cuomo celebrated new legislation that would link 50% of teacher ratings to student academic growth.  But after bitter campaigns against data-infused teacher evaluations by NYSUT, AFT,  and affiliated suburban opt-out groups, he’s reconsidered his stance. Now, says Cuomo, maybe 0% would work just fine, even though he once called data-free evaluations “bologna” because New York State’s widely-maligned old system rendered almost every teacher in the state “effective” or “very effective.”

Remember that old New Yorker cartoon that depicts a New Yorker’s view of the world:  Manhattan sprawling across the continent, the Hudson River practically bordering Texas, and the Pacific Ocean a quick hop over a few flyover states? New York indeed is a caricature of  the world, at least in regards to the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), currently on the fast track to pass the U.S. Congress. While some regard the nation’s education law as, per Conor Williams, something conservatives should hate and progressives should fear, it could be worse: Congress could have pulled a Cuomo on those who prize NCLB’s original mandate of spotlighting inequitable education and support for disenfranchised students.

In other words, this current version of ESSA isn’t bologna. Our distinguished representatives in D.C. deserve praise for maintaining annual standardized testing with 95% participation levels (albeit no federal sanctions for higher numbers of opt-outs), disaggregated subgroups (students with disabilities, English Language Learners, economically-disadvantaged, minorities), and required (if unspecified) state intervention in the 5% lowest-performing schools.

And, yet, this version,which President Obama will likely sign, is a tough sell for the cynics among us who don’t trust every state to develop thoughtful accountability systems, maintain strict attention to historically-ignored subgroups, and fess up when things don’t go well.

So it's not quite Cuomo's uber-switcheroo on teacher evaluations or his transparent pander to suburban community voters, for whom initiatives like Common Core and aligned assessments don’t matter so much anyway because their kids inherit entitlements, including, as Megan McArdle put it yesterday, the “ability to navigate the educational system.”

Noteworthy, however, is the loud silence (as of this morning) from the nation’s major civil rights groups in response to ESSA, those who represent students who most benefitted from NCLB’s strong federal authority and now trimmed down to the cuticle.

In a letter this past July from The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights to the U.S. Senate, signatories wrote that the new version of the nation's education law “so restricts the federal enforcement role consistently maintained in ESEA throughout the decades that we do not have confidence that the law would be faithfully implemented or that the interests of our nation’s most vulnerable students would be protected.  The hard-learned lesson of the civil rights community over decades has shown that a strong federal role is crucial to protecting the interests of educationally underserved students.”

The Leadership Conference then acknowledges the fierce pressure on politicians from statists, conservatives, union leaders, and suburban lobbying groups for “flexibility” and “local control.” But, it continues, “these are distractions from the core issue at the center of this law -- to provide quality education opportunities for all of America’s students,” particularly those for whom the 1965 ESEA was originally enacted, i.e., those who lack the lineage of privilege.

So I get Conor Williams’ disdain for what he describes as “a clear system that serves the political needs of most members of Congress and protects a variety of special interest groups," one that "combines a thin veneer of civil rights equity with excruciating complexity and uncertain accountability. It takes a relatively simple federal accountability system, removes the teeth, and layers on a bunch of vague responsibilities for states.”

And, yet, it’s better than what NEA and AFT initially campaigned for, which was grade-level testing (the ESSA maintains annual testing in grades 3-8), less accountability, and more money. (Both unions now express their support. Not so much their rebel outposts, which unleashed a twitter storm last night opposing the bill.)

In other words, the long-gestating, currently-crowning ESSA is not as bad as the caricature-ish, only in New York, Cuomo flip-flop on all things accountable. The U.S. Congress wasn’t “broken” by lobbyists, only weakened. Hence, we have a weakened bill. It’s worse than education reformers like me wanted but not as bad as we feared.

Labels: , , , ,