Friday, January 30, 2015

Fixing a broken law

This blog is the third in a series about the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act. My two previous blogs, Let the games begin and Grappling with testing questions  provide additional background information.

This week, it was my honor to represent Kentucky and my fellow chief state school officers at a U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension (HELP) committee meeting. I was one of five individuals to testify. The committee heard from a researcher, local superintendent, high school principal, a teacher and me. Each individual had five minutes to give prepared remarks. Readers may watch a video of the entire hearing – my testimony starts about 41 minutes in – or you may want to access a written text of my testimony.

I was very impressed with the level of preparation of each senator. The committee staff does a great job in organizing the hearings and providing senators with background information. I was also very pleased to see the senators focus a number of questions to the teacher and principal. We all need to do more listening to our teachers and principals.

The Senate hearing was the second in a series of hearings to gain feedback on what the components of a reauthorized NCLB should be. The first hearing focused on annual testing and this week’s hearing focused on supporting teachers and leaders. Next week, the committee will have a roundtable with practitioners to discuss innovation.

As for my predictions on reauthorization based on movement in the House and Senate, I would say that the odds are 50/50 that we will see a reauthorized bill out of Congress before the end of the year. These odds are significantly higher than at any point since 2007. What are the potential stumbling blocks?

Annual testing and accountability seem to be the key issues that must be resolved. It appears there is growing support for continuing the annual testing required by NCLB (reading and math annually in grades 3-8 and once in each in high school; science once in elementary, middle and high school). This is a total of 17 federally required tests. Annual reporting and disaggregation of test results by NCLB subgroups also seems to have strong support. 

The line in the sand will probably be drawn with the accountability component. States and districts have added significantly to the number of tests given and percentage of time dedicated to testing due to federal and state ranking/rating of schools and districts based on test scores and to meet the Race to the Top and NCLB waiver requirements that tie teacher evaluation to test score performance. Teachers focus much more on teaching to the test and assessing students more often due to their evaluations being tied to the tests. 

My prediction on the accountability model is that reauthorization will provide general guidelines on accountability, however, the final accountability models will be developed by states. The United States Department of Education (USED) will be prohibited from approving or disapproving a state-developed model for accountability unless the USED can provide significant research to support why the state model is not a valid model for accountability. This resolution on accountability will support the states that are working to create a more balanced model of accountability that focuses on the skills and outcomes that we need our students to achieve in order to be successful in postsecondary education and training, careers and as a contributing member of society.

My prediction on teacher evaluation models, required by Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind, is that these decisions will be left to states with flexibility to use federal funds to implement meaningful effectiveness systems that support teacher and leader professional growth which, in turn, impact growth in student learning. While the original intent of the NCLB waiver requirement for states to develop teacher and leader evaluation systems was a good idea, the implementation has led to micromanagement of states by USED. Also, there is scant evidence that states who have implemented the required plans have been able to provide any results that the new evaluation plans actually differentiate performance of teachers and/or impact student learning.

As I think back to the last reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), I can recall the debates between Democrats and Republicans as NCLB was moving through Congress in 2001. Republicans were pushing for more state accountability. Democrats were agreeing with the accountability as long as results were disaggregated by subgroup so that the original intent of ESEA was met. It was interesting to me that in the hearing this week, the Republican senators were supporting the reauthorization language that would push accountability back to states with flexibility to merge funding streams. However, Sen. Warren (D – MA) was clear that federal dollars should not flow to states without accountability for how the funds were expended.

So how do the next few months look for reauthorization? The timeline for the Senate would be bill mark-up in February and hopefully floor debate in the spring with possible passage in the summer. The House timeline may be similar. A late summer or fall conference committee where the USED and President Obama would be heavily involved may be possible, with the potential for a bill signing by the end of the year. 

Lots of moving pieces have to come together. Lots of potential pitfalls loom. However, I give it 50/50 odds because it is clear that both sides agree that the law is broken and must be fixed. It is also clear that educators and parents across the nation are disillusioned with the current testing and accountability requirements of NCLB and they are very vocal about the need for change. Stay tuned!!!

Friday, January 23, 2015

Grappling with testing questions

This is the second blog in a series on the reauthorization of the Elementary Secondary Education Act (ESEA), last reauthorized in 2001 as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Last week's blog provides the overview.

Many will look at education reform from 1983-2015 as having four distinct waves. During the period from 1983-1989, several key governors and state legislatures led the way in education reform based on reports like A Nation at Risk. From 1989-2000, these governors were bolstered in their efforts by national legislation supporting the implementation of more rigorous standards for learning and development of optional state assessments and accountability. 2001-2011 was the era of NCLB. The fourth wave began in 2011 with the NCLB waivers made possible through executive action by President Obama and implemented by Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan.

We come now to 2015 and it appears Congress is finally serious about reauthorization of a law that was due for reauthorization in 2007. Last week, Sen. Lamar Alexander (who served as U.S. Secretary of Education under President George H.W. Bush) presented a discussion draft for a bill called the Every Child College and Career Ready Act of 2015. One of the key elements in the proposed legislation and discussion draft has to do with annual testing requirements. 

NCLB required every student to be tested annually in grades 3-8 in reading and math and once in high school. Also, schools were required to test every student in science at least once in elementary, middle and high school.

Many supporters of annual testing say that it is a civil rights issue and a moral imperative. This concept was supported by the requirement in NCLB that every student make annual yearly progress and the public receive annual information on the progress of certain groups of students who were identified in NCLB.  Supporters of annual testing also say that schools, parents and students need to know if students are learning and if they are not, then teachers, schools, districts, and states should be required to do something to address the learning gaps.

On the other side of the equation, there are many who say that annual testing has narrowed the curriculum in schools, led to reductions in the arts, social studies, science and other curriculum offerings that lead to a balanced curriculum. They focus blame on schools and teachers when the real issue is poverty. Also, many opponents of annual testing fear that the testing regiment has had a negative impact on critical thinking and other 21st-century skills.

Recent NCLB waiver requirements have received significant concern from both sides. Many critics say they support annual testing but do not support the use of test results for evaluation of teachers, principals or schools. Opponents of annual testing also promote more creative and innovative ways of assessing student progress and reporting the annual results of student progress.

Several education writers have said that NCLB worked so we should keep the component of annual testing. Others have said that NCLB did not work. Some critics say that states actually made more progress in 1992-2000 than after NCLB was implemented in 2001.

While many states did make significant reforms to education finance and education processes during the waves of reform, I want to highlight three specific states – Kentucky, North Carolina and Texas. Of course, Kentucky reform efforts were driven by the General Assembly through the passage of the Kentucky Education Reform Act in 1990. North Carolina certainly had strong leadership from Gov. James Hunt to develop and implement the ABC’s of Public Education. Texas, however, was the state that became the eventual model for No Child Left Behind assessment and accountability provisions. Governor George W. Bush certainly championed the efforts in Texas.

I looked at national progress and the progress in KY, NC and Texas on the ONLY independent measure of student learning that we have as nation and is respected as the Nation’s Report Card – National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). NAEP is given every 2 years in 4th grade and 8th grade for reading and mathematics. I looked at scale score gains. One important caveat is that NAEP had adjustments due to implementing more accommodations for special needs students and increasing the percentage of special needs students taking the NAEP during this period.

In reading at 4th grade during the pre-NCLB era of 1992-2000, the nation lost 4 points in reading; KY gained 6; NC gained 10; and Texas gained 4. In 4th grade reading for the post-NCLB era of 2000-2013, the nation gained 9 points; KY gained 5; and NC/TX stayed the same.

In 8th grade reading for the pre-NCLB era, the nation gained 4; KY gained 3; and there were no gains in NC or TX. In the post-NCLB era, the nation gained 4; KY gained 5; NC had no gain; and TX gained 2.

In 4th grade math for the pre-NCLB era, the nation gained 8 points, KY gained 6; NC gained 19; and TX gained 15. In the post-NCLB era, the nation gained 18; KY gained 22; NC gained 15; and TX gained 11.

In 8th grade math for the pre-NCLB era, the nation gained 12; KY gained 15; NC gained 30; and TX gained 17. In the post-NCLB era, the nation gained 12; KY gained 11; NC gained 10; and TX gained 15.

I will leave readers to do their own analysis; however, it does appear that the nation has gained in reading and math during both eras. As is usually the case, schools are able to impact math achievement more than reading achievement.

I used the three states for comparison for a very specific purpose. NC and TX were both states that were implementing strong annual testing and accountability programs well in advance of NCLB. Kentucky had to be dragged into NCLB. The Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990 pushed for more authentic assessment of student progress and Kentucky was leading the nation in development of performance-based assessment through a robust portfolio system. Of course, the annual testing was the route the nation followed due to validity, reliability, and low cost of a multiple choice annual assessment.

My key point – there are many methods that states could use to provide annual determinations of student progress and report the results for individual students, groups of students, parents, schools and districts. Annual low cost multiple choice tests are not the only answer. In the 1990s Kentucky made significant progress in providing more performance-based assessments that informed instruction, however, the efforts were lost because the performance assessments lacked the validity and reliability of multiple choice tests. Also, performance assessments are more expensive due to teacher training and assessment scoring.

My concern is that advocates of annual testing are trying to paint anyone who proposes an alternative model such as grade span testing with more formative assessments that drive instructional improvement as being an opponent of civil rights and equity for all students. This seems to be a false dichotomy since more formative assessment could better inform instruction and allow for earlier interventions for students who have learning gaps.

As states, our problems stem from our own lack of leadership in the pre- and post-NCLB era. Our track record in closing achievement gaps and pushing for higher standards has been mixed from state to state. Many believe that without federal requirements that states will go back to an era of “bigotry of low expectations.” They may be right. The debate will continue.

My hope is that all parties will engage in serious dialogue utilizing the rich research that we have built since the 1980s on education reform rather than engage in hyperbole and casting opponents in a negative light.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Let the games begin

For the first time in years, it appears there may be serious talk of trying to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. It’s most recent iteration, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001 was due for reauthorization in 2007, but like its predecessor, political acrimony has held up progress.  

However, recent activity in Congress signals the best chance for reauthorization in the last 8 years. Of course, if we are to see reauthorization, both the Senate and House must agree, which will take some Democrats in the Senate crossing the aisle, and the president would have to agree to sign the bill. So it is not a slam dunk.

Over the next few weeks, I will use this blog to keep readers up to date on the progress toward reauthorization and discuss some of the key issues that must be resolved.

The first question is, why do we need reauthorization? 

No Child Left Behind aspired to ensure all children would become proficient in reading and math. To reach this noble yet lofty goal, all states would adopt high standards, assess those standards, and hold schools accountable for helping all children reach proficiency. It was a great goal and a great strategy that was championed by both Democrats and Republicans. Yet, history has shown that excessive federal involvement in education has always been problematic.

The problems began almost immediately upon passage of NCLB in 2001. It became more about the numbers of kids who crossed the proficiency finish line than about teaching kids the skills they needed for success. 

Some states actually lowered standards and set the cut point for proficiency very low. Schools started teaching to the test and in many cases there were cuts to student opportunities for the arts, physical education, science, social studies, world language and other activities that ensure a balanced education. Many schools began teaching only to the “bubble kids” – those students closest to meeting the state proficiency score. Students who had already reached the state proficiency level or who were well below it were often ignored. 

The result? In some states, 90 percent of students performed at the proficient level on state tests. Yet on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a uniform test given across the country as a means of comparison between the states, only 20 percent of that same state’s students performed at the proficient level. A study of state cut scores compared with NAEP cut scores revealed a huge discrepancy in what was considered proficient among the states. U.S. Chamber of Commerce reports showed the truth in labeling of each state based on the NAEP comparisons. In Tennessee, the Governor and other policy makers basically said the state was lying to parents and students. The very law that was supposed to make sure no child was left behind was, in fact, leaving masses of children behind.

By 2004, it became clear that there were big problems with the implementation of No Child Left Behind. While the vision and strategy were excellent, the implementation was very poor and had an unpredictable, pernicious impact on students.

In attempting to respond to the inaction of Congress to right the wrongs of NCLB through reauthorization, Secretary Duncan and President Obama worked through executive action to allow states to seek flexibility and waivers from some of the requirements of No Child Left Behind. Again, on the surface, this sounded like a great idea. Chief state school officers appreciated this relief and the opportunity to improve schools – more than 40 states requested a waiver. I have written previous blogs (The good news and bad news on NCLB waivers; USED action contrary to state, federal law; Politics as usual or not?) that have provided the developing concerns and problems with the waiver process and my true hope and desire for reauthorization.

Now, Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), chair of the Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee, has laid out a plan for reauthorization of No Child Left Behind. Rep. John Kline (R-MN), chair of the House Education Committee, has done the same. Every education organization and think tank in Washington, D.C. and many civil rights organizations have brought forth guiding principles for reauthorization. The next 3 – 6 months could be very interesting. 

So, let the games begin and let’s hope everyone can set aside the political acrimony in favor of our children. 

Next week, I will address the top issue that must be considered with ESEA/NCLB reauthorization – standardized testing.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Education and the State of the Commonwealth

It was my honor to attend the State of the Commonwealth speech this week when Gov.Steve Beshear made his 8th and final such address. A written copy of the full speech is available online, as is a video and audio recording courtesy of KET.

It was very exciting to have the Governor list the amazing accomplishments in Kentucky that have taken place over the last seven years. He emphasized health care, workforce development and business climate accomplishments in the speech. And when citing progress, he often mentioned education, which has been realized with the vision and hard work of many – from the Capitol to the classroom. Some of the education highlights can be found below. 

“In education, we have energized reform efforts to focus on rigorous standards, aligned assessments and better preparing students for life after high school.  Unfortunately, for decades our education performance was cause for embarrassment.  And universities and employers alike were sounding the alarm: Kentucky students, they warned, were simply not prepared.  Today, student performance has improved tremendously, college and career readiness has skyrocketed and our graduation rates are climbing. 

“Back in 2011, education experts measured our college and career readiness rate at 38 percent.  In 2012, it jumped to 47 percent ;in 2013, 54 percent; and in 2014, to 62 percent. Meanwhile, our high school graduation rate in 2013 improved to 86.1 percent. That’s 12th, nationwide. And it’s better than all but two of our neighbors.” 

Note: in 2014, our graduation rate climbed to 87.4 percent and most certainly will place KY in top ten of states.

Gov. Beshear went on to talk about the significance of early childhood initiatives and the importance of education to the state’s economy.

“Step one in building a stronger workforce has focused on our youngest children. Too many Kentucky children were getting a poor start in life. Too many children were entering school with preventable health problems, undeveloped minds and little engagement in life around them. And as we all know, kids who start out behind rarely catch up. 

“So we worked to create an environment where every child – regardless of whether he or she is born in the inner city, in a mountain hollow, on a farm or in the suburbs – every child is given the opportunity to succeed. 

“To do this, we dramatically improved access to health care for children in low-income families. We targeted dental problems. We increased enrollment in preschool programs. And we developed a screener to gauge whether early education programs were preparing our kids to hit the ground running on day one of kindergarten. 

“In this session, we need to continue our momentum by adding accountability and transparency to all of our early childcare facilities. I will again seek legislation to implement the goals of what’s called the All-STARS plan – Accelerating Learning Statewide Through an Advanced Rating System. All-STARS addresses safety, continuing education for staff members, nutrition and age-appropriate curriculum. Look, we have health ratings for restaurants. Aren’t our children just as important? All parents deserve to know the quality of the place where they drop off their kids. 

“Step two in building a stronger workforce has been improving our schools so every graduate is prepared for success. That means tougher classes, and keeping kids in class. We were the first state to adopt rigorous Common Core academic standards. We were the second to adopt the Next Generation Science Standards. With Senate Bill 1 in 2009, we changed our testing system to make our schools more accountable. And we raised our graduation age from 16 to 18. We’ve also smoothed the transition from two-year colleges to four-year degree programs to save students time and money. 

“And recognizing that the four-year university path isn’t the best route for everyone, we’ve made our career and technical programs more rigorous and applicable to real-life jobs that demand high-level technical knowledge. These aren’t the so-called ‘shop classes’ of yesterday but modern training with a tough academic foundation. 

“We’re also working to improve the talent pipeline through modern apprentice programs like KY FAME, which combines work experience in advanced manufacturing with college classes. More than a dozen Central Kentucky manufacturers are participating in KY FAME, and it will be expanding soon. 

“We need to move quickly to implement the recommendations of the Dual Credit Task Force, helping students earn their degrees quicker and at less cost.”

In closing, the Governor talked about how to build a stronger Kentucky and the excitement about the progress Kentucky has made.

“A stronger Kentucky is also why the First Lady and I worked with Representatives Jeff Greer, Carl Rollins and Derrick Graham and Senators Mike Wilson, David Givens and Jimmy Higdon to raise Kentucky’s drop-out age and keep our kids in school. …

“My friends, we can hold our heads high once again. Because Kentucky is back, and we’re back with a vengeance. Once again, we are the talk of the nation.  And I’m not referring only to things like basketball, bourbon and horse-racing.  In the public and private halls of power, where the issues of today are being hammered out, Kentucky has become – once again – a national example of leadership and success. 

“In education, we’re the state that has completely turned its school system around – and other states continue to seek help in following in our footsteps. …

“So during this legislative session, we have a choice. 

“We can let ourselves get way-laid by things like partisan bickering, pending elections and Twitter-feed rhetoric. We can retreat, back-track or second-guess our progress.  Or we can accelerate Kentucky’s considerable momentum by remaining focused on the job before us. Join with me in continuing to improve our health, our workforce, our families and our economy. Join with me in continuing to build a Kentucky that is strong, vibrant, competitive and innovative. 

“Kentucky is back – and we’re not going to let up now.”