Thursday, November 03, 2011

The Attack of the Ed Reform Killer Chimeras

A BRILLIANT article by DFER's Charles Barone, included here in its entirety:

October 31, 2011

The Attack of the Ed Reform Killer Chimeras 

By Charles Barone, DFER Director of Federal Policy


I believe in unicorns.


Just so we're clear, don't take me for a pansy or a nut job. Though it may seem counterintuitive, I make this declaration out of sheer Machiavellian calculation. The ESEA debate has turned into a realm of fantasy fiction where one's ability to prevail hinges on weaving a tapestry of cherry-picked truths and sugarcoated nostrums. As a pundit who likes fierce competition as much as the next guy, I share my claim of deep faith in America's favorite chimera out of total self-interest. No one likes to be left behind.


Here are some of the fantastical creatures involved in the current ESEA debate:


NTEA Party: The big daddy chimera right now is the NEA-Tea Party hybrid. During one of NTEA's many jubilant moments at the Senate mark-up, Politics K-12 tweeted: "GOP Senate aide spotted hugging NEA lobbyist Mary Kusler after the vote on the Alexander amendment giving flex to states on turnarounds," a sighting later corroborated by none other than @NEAMedia, one of the organization's (NEA's, that is) Twitter accounts. 


The Alexander amendment, for those of you not following the legislative minutia, was sheer bloodlust, through which turnaround requirements, after having already been hung and eviscerated in the underlying Harkin-Enzi base bill, were decapitated, drawn, and quartered. Judging from the overall debate, NTEA lives in a world where every local school board member, administrator, and mayor is an absolute genius, and an altruist to boot.


Accountability Chickenhawks: Forgive me, Sandy Kress. I love and admire your adherence to factual evidence, but Mike Petrilli is right when he says, "federal accountability hawks have lost this argument." He's also right when he says the federal government should have an education policy that's "tight on results, and loose on means." Is being an accountability hawk and being tight on results all that different? Isn't being one without being the other about as likely as a horse with a spiraled golden horn and iridescent wings? Sure it is. 


Amnesiac Historians: Diane Ravtich, whose claim to credibility is that she is once was a top-notch historian says,"The federal role in K-12 education should return to what Congress envisioned in 1965," by which she means such things as getting rid of achievement testing as one gauge of student and school performance, "providing additional resources for the neediest children;"...and "protecting the civil rights of students." 


Here is what Ravitch neglects to mention:


1. The whole evolution of ESEA is one where policymakers came to understand that billions in federal funds needed to be accompanied by accountability for results. In fact, the original act's primary author, Senator Robert Kennedy, called for "some testing system [emphasis added] that would be established [by] which the people at the local community would know periodically as to what progress had been made."


2. The ESEA reauthorization Ravitch loathes (i.e, NCLB 2002) resulted in more targeting to the neediest children than at any time in the Act's entire history.


3. Last but not least, it is civil rights groups that are among the most vociferous advocates for what Ravitch most strenuously opposes, i.e., strong accountability for schools, districts, and states based predominantly on student achievement.


Washington Knows Best States' Rights Purists: Rick Hess, of the American Enterprise Institute, opines that, "The concern on the right, for many who embrace charters, test-based accountability, and overhauling teacher tenure, evaluation, and pay, is not, as Senator Alexander ably explained, these policies, but the hubris of those who think they can be effectively prescribed or policed from Washington." 


But it is some of the same strong state-level leaders that he elsewhere touts, most notably the right-leaning Chiefs for Change, who are calling for a strong federal role in key areas like, um, test-based accountability, and overhauling teacher tenure, evaluation, and pay. Moreover, Hess' inclusion of "charters" as an area where there is right-wing concern is absolute hogwash, and he knows it. The charter provisions in both the House-passed charter schools bill H.R. 2218 and the HELP Committee bill are among the most prescriptive in federal law (one in five states does not even qualify) yet they have the strongest bipartisan support.


What we have now is not Republican consensus for a limited federal role. Rather, what we have are inside the Beltway conservatives who, for ideological reasons, want to drastically scale back federal accountability and are doing so against the wishes of many of the pragmatic state chief reformers serving under Republican governors who those like Hess frequently cite as the current best hope for national education reform. Got that?


Test-Enlisting Anti-Testing Advocates: Immediately after castigating "NCLB's failed approach to improving schools -- massive over-testing and overreliance on test scores to judge," FAIR Test Deputy Director, Monty Neill, states the claim that "a decade of data shows that this strategy clearly hasn't worked...According to the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP)..." to back up his case. (Suffice to say he cites different data than does Sandy Kress, though the worst he's able to assert in some cases is that the pace of gains is slower). I always find it amusing when anti-testing people accept tests like NAEP as a measure of which states are high-achieving and which aren't, and then try to use those test-driven determinations as an argument against education policies that employ testing.


Scary, ain't it?


Happy Halloween, folks. Have fun, be safe, and embrace your inner chimera. Though, for the sake of school kids, if at all possible, do so, unlike this menagerie, outside of the regular workday.


Prior to joining DFER in early 2009, Charles Barone spent five years working as an independent consultant on education policy issues. His clients, in addition to DFER, included  the Citizens' Commission on Civil Rights, Education Trust, and the National Academies of Sciences. From 1997-2003, Barone was the top education advisor to Congressman George Miller. Read his full bio here.

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