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Reading the Blueprint: Educators Debate Proposed Reforms
Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in Education Update, a publication of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) and is being reprinted with permission. Under no circumstances should this article be reproduced or distributed without approval from ASCD.
Nine years after the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) garnered bipartisan support in Congress, the legislation officially known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) is up for reauthorization. For many educators frustrated with how NCLB reshaped the classroom experience, this has been a long wait.
In March, with the release of the Obama administration's road map for revamping ESEA, A Blueprint for Reform: The Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary School Act (the blueprint), the U.S. Department of Education outlined its proposal for overhauling the law.
The blueprint (available at www2.ed.gov/policy/elsec/leg/blueprint) is divided into six sections: College- and Career-Ready Students; Great Teachers and Great Leaders; Meeting the Needs of English Learners and Other Diverse Learners; A Complete Education; Successful, Safe, and Healthy Students; and Fostering Innovation and Excellence.
Several elements of the blueprint have received resounding praise from educators and education organizations that say it offers a more flexible and less punitive policy vision. In a March 29 post on her Teacher Leaders Network blog, TeachMoore, veteran high school English teacher Renee Moore commends the blueprint's acknowledgement of "quality education as the birthright and key to equal opportunity for every citizen."
A focus on the needs of the whole child, not just academic success, and a rounded curriculum have been well received by ASCD leadership, as well. However, sections of the blueprint can get pretty thorny — particularly, those addressing merit pay, common core state standards and using a competitive funding model.
Though it's too soon to tell how these issues will play out, teachers, administrators, researchers, experts, and other education stakeholders are keeping a watchful eye on how the debate around education reform is developing and seeking opportunities to insert their voices into the historic discussion.
Ready or Not
Instead of focusing on schools' ability to achieve adequate yearly progress (as required by NCLB), the blueprint sees preparing college- and career-ready students as the goal, with accountability based on student growth over time. No longer would federal law require only measurement of where students scored in a single year; instead, students would be assessed on both their status and their year-to-year growth.
The blueprint mandates that states report progress toward the goal of developing college- and career-ready graduates by collecting and disaggregating data on (among other measures) graduation rates, college enrollment rates and the rate of college enrollment without need for remediation.
The college- and career-ready agenda requires states to either adopt the common core K-12 standards, created under the guidance of the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers, or develop their own standards in partnership with colleges and universities.
"Personally, I'm all for common standards," says Michael Smith, superintendent in Oakland, IL. Smith notes that students in rural areas should have access to the same high-quality education as students in other areas. But he offers a reality check: "When things like this are dictated by the state or federal government, they invariably come with a financial cost that always seems to be dropped in our lap. Everyone has an idea how to 'fix' public education, but no one has a clue how to pay for it," he says.
But the Department of Education has its own reality check for states that don't play ball: states that adopt the common core standards have a leg up in their Race to the Top applications, and those that don't could face cuts to formula funding in 2015.
In another significant departure from NCLB, the blueprint is focused on turning around each state's lowest-performing five percent, or "Challenge" schools, and to a lesser extent, the next-lowest five percent, or "Warning" schools. Criticism of this approach includes claims the Department of Education is weakening accountability across the board and perpetuating school accountability measures based solely on reading and math tests.
In a March 22 post on the National Journal's Education blog, education expert Diane Ravitch warns that the blueprint is "still deeply rooted in the 'measure and punish' mentality of NCLB," echoing some educators' concerns that failing schools will continue to feel pressure to game the system to avoid punitive measures. Also, school choice advocates are disappointed that the blueprint removes transfer provisions and supplemental education services mandated under NCLB for students in schools that are failing to meet achievement targets.
On the other end of the spectrum, high-performing schools would have more flexibility than they did under NCLB to decide where to spend federal funding and what interventions to use.
More Numbers, Fewer Problems?
Throughout the blueprint, data have a big role to play in tracking student growth and evaluating educators. But how to best get those new data remains unknown. A lot of the blueprint "refers to, and indeed relies upon, more sophisticated student performance data systems which do not yet exist," Moore says.
The current data and accountability systems aren't keeping up with the new ways students are acquiring and using information, says Ann Etchison, executive director of Virginia ASCD.
"Ease of communication offers completely different learning environments than existed in the past, and the ubiquitous nature of information changes how students acquire knowledge and places more emphasis on what they do with content," Etchison explains. "If ESEA intends to hold students and educators accountable for this kind of learning, accountability systems must evolve to include the meaningful assessment of these thinking skills and processes."
Moving from Qualified to Effective
Under the blueprint, states must develop definitions of highly effective teachers and principals based on student achievement scores, among other factors. Teacher and principal preparation programs will also be evaluated based on these criteria.
That's fine with Smith. "Teacher and principal preparation programs are terrible. In far too many colleges and universities, these programs are nothing more than a revenue source. If I had a dollar for every time a college professor said, 'Don't worry; you will learn what you need to know on the job,' I would be a rich man," Smith says.
Overhauling tenure should be a top reform priority, Smith adds. He proposes, "We could improve most schools by a minimum of 25 percent if tenure wasn't so restricting, teachers and principals were better prepared, and students were assigned to grade level by ability, not age."
Under the blueprint's Great Teachers and Leaders tenets, states must ensure equitable distribution of highly effective educators and, every two years, issue report cards detailing statistics on their educators, based on the highly effective criteria.
"Frankly, I don't mind any policy that codifies better teacher evaluation," says middle school English language arts teacher and blogger Dina Strasser. "What I wouldn't give to have some handle on how I teach that comes organically from my c
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