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Thursday, December 10, 2015

New ESEA Returns Power to States. But is that a Good Thing?

It looks like the federal government is going to back off and let states handle more education policy. This is a direct response to the uproar over testing, No Child Left Behind, Common Core, Race to the Top and other heavy-handed, top-down federal initiatives.

To be clear, this doesn't mean testing is going away; it's just that states can limit the time it takes to do them. It also limits the stakes inherent in the tests and no longer requires test scores to be tied to teacher evaluations, which I have always considered a mistake because of year-to-year fluctuations in test results.

But I have to admit that I'm concerned about leaving stuff this important up to the states. Now in some states, it will be fine -- states that have a history of valuing and committing to public education. But in other states, especially those in the least-educated corners of our nation, I fear they will see this and wipe their brows, knowing they will no longer be held to account for failing to properly serve kids.

This whole accountability regime has me flummoxed, I must admit. I like that AYP forces wealthy districts to have to figure out how to serve even small numbers of at-risk youth. I like that my 1st grader is learning tougher math concepts than even my 5th grader did four years ago.

But I hate all the testing and what it's done to the anxiety many kids (including my own) feel, not to mention teachers, administrators, and even entire communities as they get rated based on these things. I want my kids learning cool things. But I hate that it's taken tests to stimulate it.

This concern stretches now nationally with the federal government's step back. Without the high-stakes tests, will kids still be learning these concepts? In some states yes, others no. Without the federal hammer, will at-risk kids be served in all districts? In some states yes, others no. Without as much testing, will we be able to determine if kids are learning all they'll need in the 21st Century world? In some states yes, others no.

This is the problem with the federal government stepping back -- it will lead to the Balkanization of American education. I remember when kids would move here from Tennessee or Kentucky when I was a kid and they'd be 6 months to a year behind what we were learning. That's not good.

I also remember that when we let states handle important civil rights issues previously, it was not our nation's proudest moment. That's also not good.

But I also know that the federal government went too far, overtested and created in many ways a poisonous, high-stakes atmosphere that turned talented teachers away from the profession and created test-anxiety in 8 year olds. This is also not good.

I would hope this policy shift would grant our nation the opportunity to find a better balance. There is little question that basing so much upon how 8 year olds do on a test one day out of 180 does not give a full or complete picture of a school's worth. But it does grant us at least some window into what's going on at the school. If we're going to have tests, they should measure more than analytic ability, but also a kid's creative and practical abilities too, which will drive curriculum to be more creative and practical. The results of these more comprehensive assessments are far less driven by demographics than our current batch.

But learning involves more than tests. As Einstein said, "Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted." There are skills that are far more predictive of a child's ultimate success than how well they do on a standardized math test in 4th grade. Things like a love of learning -- what I contend is the most powerful predictor -- grit, independence, critical thinking, teamwork, and a host of other measures should also be valued. I don't know if it's possible to assess these through a quantitative test. But these are all things we want our kids to know and learn how to do. Yet the recent focus on the three Rs had been so intense that kids are only learning the other important concepts by chance.

Getting the federal government out of the picture in many ways will free up states to innovate on these ideas. However, only a handful probably will. And kids in those states will be really lucky. My fear is the rest of our kids won't be. They'll be stuck in a watered-down version of today's accountability structure that will be somewhat less onerous, but also filled with far fewer, and lower expectations.

I have always thought that the best role for the federal government in education is funding. The feds are in the position to provide enough revenue so that, for example, Ohio can finally live up to its funding requirements under the Ohio Constitution. If I had been President, Race to the Top would have been a call to provide adequate and equitable funding to establish a world-class education system throughout the United States. In order to receive this funding, states would have to show their funding formula equitably distributes funding to every child in the state. Then the feds would make up the shortfall on adequacy, if states didn't have enough funding to adequately pay for the formula.

The problem with No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top was both provided far too few resources for the far too many strings that came attached with them. My concept is kind of the opposite: A few strings dealing with funding formulas (you can only keep getting the money if your formula continues to equitably distribute the funds so every kid gets what they need to succeed) and far greater resourcing.

Perhaps this step back will give our leaders the chance to re-think the federal government's role in the national education sphere. I doubt that it will, but with each new turn, there's always fresh hope.

What I pray does not happen is that kids in some states and regions of the country now fall further behind because their local leaders care less about public education than leaders in other states. That, I fear, may be even worse than high-stakes testing. Though not much.