Thursday, July 18, 2013

Epic Fail: The Student "Success" Act (H.R. 5)

I received a call from the AFT this afternoon asking me to contact my congressman to urge him not to support H.R. 5 The Student Success Act. I declined to be connected directly to my congressman's office, but decided to take a look to see what the fuss was about.

H.R. 5 is an attempt at a reauthorization and overhaul of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (more commonly known as the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, NCLB), which has desperately been in need of attention for years. Section 1111 of the Act outlines the plans that States have to put together in order to receive Federal funds to support improving education for disadvantaged children. In NCLB, this included stipulations about Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) and required sanctions for schools that failed to make AYP for a certain number of consequtive years. Certainly, the accountability portion of sec. 1111 is a big part of what has needed an extreme make-over, but I certainly wasn't expecting what H.R. 5 proposes.

The bill stipulates that States must come up with an accountability system "to ensure that all public school students graduate from high school prepared for postsecondary education or the workforce without the need for remediation." This accountability system must:

  • identify the performance of every public school based on both individual student achievement and achievement gaps between groups of students; and
  • include a system for school improvement for low-performing public schools that implements interventions designed to address the schools' weaknesses.
And that's about it.

No, really, that's pretty much it. In particular, there are no indications about:

  • how rigorous the academic standards must be (other than the vague reference to college/career readiness, and I don't think anyone has agreed on what that means);
  • how to identify low-performing schools;
  • how to determine whether low-performing schools are improving satisfactorily;
  • what to do with schools that are chronically failing to improve; or
  • anything else of substance.

Moreover (and here's the kicker!), Sec. 1111(b)(3)(C) explicitly states:
Nothing in this section shall be construed to permit the Secretary to establish any criteria that specifies, defines, or prescribes any aspect of a State's accountability system developed and implemented in accordance with this paragraph.
In other words, States would have completely free reign to do whatever they want and call it "accountability," and the Secretary of Education can't do anything about it.

I suppose the Secretary of Education could simply start rejecting State plans under some vague notion about not ensuring that schools are graduating college/career ready students, but this would hardly be desirable, since the Secretary would be prohibited from providing any guidance to States about what kinds of plans would be accepted.

The short of it is that the AFT is right on this time about the abysmal state H.R. 5 (as reported to the House) would leave educational policy in. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) was supposed to bring us closer to equitable educational opportunity, but decades of pumping money through its programs to States did little to shift broad educational inequities. For the first time, NCLB gave ESEA teeth to require that States demonstrate that their use of the funds was getting results. Certainly, the accountability provisions in NCLB had a number of major flaws, but what was needed was some "orthodontics" (not a massive tooth extraction) to straighten out ill advised provisions while keeping a strong stance on demonstrating results.

For more information on the shortcomings of H.R. 5, see the minority committee report, starting on p. 949 of House Report 113-150.

H.R. 5 was debated on the floor of the House this afternoon, but they only got through 20 of the 26 proposed amendments. I presume they'll continue tomorrow. The last amendment, proposed by Rep. George Miller of California, is a complete replacement of the bill (starting on p. 62 of House Report 113-158). I haven't looked at it in detail, but surely it has more reasonable accountability provisions than the current bill.

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