The public boo-hooing has already begun over the first tangible outputs of President Bush’s education reform package in Tennessee. Large numbers of schools are reporting failing grades in the first set of results to come in under testing required for the No Child Left Behind program.
The great thing about such results for all the regular players in the education debate is that they get to present their same old arguments without appearing to be contradicted by reality. Public school bashers get to bash. Conservatives get to talk about school choice and lambast the teachers’ unions. Teachers get to say it proves that they need pay raises. Liberals get to make points about economic determinism.
About the only group left holding the bag are the school administrators who’ve been in charge of these schools for years. They get to say it proves the need to change the school reform program.
No Child Left Behind was Bush’s big education package back in the days of compassionate conservatism, and it passed Congress with bipartisan support after the roughest conservative edges got filed off and a few liberal concerns were addressed. Overall, it was a decent attempt to find a middle ground in an educational battlefield that frequently has little to do with helping children.
The centerpiece of the program is “enhanced accountability,” which is a hairy-chested way of saying more testing. The idea is to identify those schools with problems and force them to make changes, while offering additional help for the children who attend those schools. Schools are graded on a binary pass or fail basis, which can be harsh in its absolutism, but then sometimes you need to get people’s attention.
When the results came in, 47 percent of Tennessee public schools were reported as having failed to meet the federal standards. But, in reality, it’s not all that bad.
The new testing regimen calls not just for overall testing, but also for reporting scores for nine different subgroupsincluding whites, blacks, Hispanics, poor, disabled and limited English proficiency students. If a school fails in a single one of the nine categories, it’s considered to have failed to meet federal standards.
Moreover, the law shuts a significant loophole. Bush proclaimed great results from a similar type of program he initiated when governor of Texas, although subsequent scrutiny showed that much of the progress came from schools finding ways to avoid testing students who were likely to drag down averages. The new law requires that 95 percent of students in each subgroup be tested, and schools can be rated as failing if they fail to reach the threshold in a single subgroup.
This last point explains a lot about the high failure rate. About two-thirds of the schools that failed did so because they missed the requirements on a single measurement, frequently by small margins. From a management standpoint, that’s good news because a lot of schools will be able to declare victory by focusing on rectifying a small problem.
Some others may find themselves with a “whack-a-mole” kind of problemeach time they knock down one nagging little deficiency, they find they have slipped just below the mark in another area. On one level, this is kind of comical, but it’s going to drain a lot of energy and attention from the really big problems that matter more.
Tennessee, after all, already has a pretty good handle on the school accountability issue. The state has one of the better testing programs in the nation, and it has identified a list of schools with serious problems and targeted them for remediation. The state’s program had only about 70 schools in the crosshairs, but that’s because the program was more focused. By definition, most schools are mediocre, and sending administrators into a tizzy over patching up those at the low end of mediocre is a less pressing issue than dealing with the schools in a state of crisis.
The advent of the new federal program invites leaders to focus on solving the easy problems first. The initial public metrics in Year Two or Year Three or Year Four will be how many schools get off the listeven though being on the list isn’t that big a problem for most of the schools to begin with. The academies of despair will have to wait in line, again.
The virtue in the federal program lies in its universality. The requirement for every school to do right by every child is a powerful moral imperative in keeping with the most eloquent line of Bush’s election campaigna determination not to give in to “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”
There are still questions remaining about the federal government’s commitment to follow through with the high-minded promises. Actual funding in support of the legislation has been much stingier than its bright promise would indicate. Schools that fail are supposed to get more assistance to meet goals, while children forced to attend such schools are supposed to get more options.
Bush’s visit to Kirkpatrick Elementary School in Nashville school this week was ostensibly to celebrate the availability of tutoring services for poor children at that school.
The reality of relief may fall more heavily on state and local governments, who pay for 90 percent of the education tab anyway. What the federal program will do is make it possible for a wider range of politicians to claim credit for improvements in the schools even though little is being added on a substantive level to what is already in place in Tennessee. Politics is all about getting credit.
Of course, progress will be made. Schools will focus on test performance if that’s how they’re going to be evaluated. One of the lessons management science has learned over the last two decades is this: Whatever is being measured will exhibit improvement. It’s in the nature of the bureaucratic beast.
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