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NCLB Outrages

Duncan’s dilemma: What happens to states that don’t get NCLB waiver?

Ohanian Comment: The Vermont Commissioner of Education seems to echo everything Duncan says and currently is urging the board to say "Yes" on his NCLB Waiver Request. Here's the letter I sent to Board of Education members. I know some will find it rude, but I think it's critical for board of ed people to confront the pain and fury of one Vermont Student.

December 18, 2011

Dear Board Members:

I listened in on the phone conference call for the Oct. 3 special Board of Education meeting--and my hosannas were published in several newspapers and blogs when you insisted on seeing the ESEA Flexibility Waiver Request before it went to Washington. I'm hoping that now the obfuscation, circumlocution, and outright harm to students and their teachers are spelled out in the Waiver Request, you will bury it.

I find that I am unable to attend the meeting on December 20th. I just want to let you know how concerned I am about the Waiver Request. It puts those in the NCLB frying pan right into the fire.

Reading the proposal, I find much to worry about but will address only assessment.

c. Consistent application (in Pre-K, K, grades 1, 2, & 3) of formative assessment and progress monitoring methods with evidence of closing identified learning gaps for students in reading and numeracy â applied across all students in all schools and aligned to the learning progressions in math and ELA that lead to CCRSS.

3. Monitoring student progress and access to high quality education opportunities statewide by ensuring that the following elements are provided locally â

I know of no evidence showing that testing poor kids more increases their achievement.
And calling the tests "formative" doesn't change the fact that testing what can be measured crowds out important things that can't be measured.

This child at four knew grebes,
Grosbeaks, finches, buffleheads
And Coots' velvet necks, white beaks.
At five in school,
Only DIBELS speed will count.
--When Childhood Collides with NCLB

I wonder why ALL students would be subject to Accuplacer, ACT, SAT, and Work Keys assessments. I read the online sample questions from Accuplacer. What garbage! Putting ugly old test prep materials online doesn't improve them. Nor does collecting the results in a data warehouse make those results any more useful. I offer the NECAP answer from a Vermont high schooler whose career goal was to be a lumberjack. WARNING: This contain vulgarity. The student spelled out the words.

You f_ _ _ing a_ _holes
I have been taking these f_ _ _ _ing test since first grade. I am f_ _ _ ing sick of it. I know I can't spell. You know I can't spell. I have more important things to do than this bulls_ _ _ test.

This pain and outrage went on for six pages., ending with

This is a f_ _ _ing waste of time. You could spend this time teaching me something.

I send this to you because I think we all need to feel this student's pain. This Waiver Request plan mandates that this boy should spend more time taking more tests. I ask: To whose benefit?

The Waiver Request operates on the principle that teachers and principals are to blame for achievement gaps. I predict that the current federal intention to reduce heating oil subsidies will have a much greater effect on Vermont student test scores than teachers administering another test or attending another professional development session on assessment.

Data driven efficiency and fanatical devotion to test scores can produce one thing-- obedience from people working in schools. There's no evidence that it can produce better learning outcomes. If we want to count things, I suggest counting the number of books for children in the homes of Vermonters--starting at birth. And work on reducing these inequities. Research shows that owning books makes a difference in student school performance. There's no research showing that any of the mandates in the Waiver Request matter.

I thank you for your work for the children of Vermont and I urge you to reject this Waiver Request.


Susan Ohanian

By Anthony Cody

As No Child Left Behind becomes an ever bigger disaster, Secretary Duncan faces a major dilemma. How can he continue to enforce this law he has declared a train wreck?

Last spring, in an attempt to goad Congress into accepting his formula for revising No Child Left Behind, Education Secretary Arne Duncan made some dire predictions.

In his testimony, he said:

"...we did an analysis which shows that -- next year -- the number of schools not meeting their goals under NCLB could double to over 80 percent -- even if we assume that all schools will gain as much as the top quartile in the state.

"So let me repeat that: four out of five schools in America many not meet their goals under NCLB by next year. The consequences under the current law are very clear: states and districts all across American may have to intervene in more and more schools each year, implementing the exact same interventions regardless of the schoolsâ individual needs.â

The latest news indicates that Secretary Duncan was a bit off in his prediction. According to an analysis by the Center on Education Policy, âonlyâ 48% of the nationâs schools will be failures according to the NCLB yardstick. There are indications that some states may have softened up their requirements. And clearly we have different measurement systems in place, when we see that 81% of the schools in Massachusetts will fail, while only 22% of those in Louisiana will do so. It is unlikely the schools in Louisiana are that much better than those in Massachusetts. Test scores and proficiency rates are subject to manipulation for political and financial purposes â and that is what has happened with NCLB.

Secretary Duncanâs visit to Congress was similarly a use of test scores for political purposes. But his efforts to intimidate Congress did not get anywhere, and a revised NCLB does not appear to be on the likely to happen any time soon. That left him scrambling for Plan B, which was the NCLB waiver process. States were invited to apply for waivers, which required the submission of reform plans aligned with the Departments vision for reform.

Letâs look at this deal a bit more closely. We have a law that Duncan himself described as a train wreck. In his testimony last spring, Duncan said:

âThis law is fundamentally broken and we need to fix it this year. It has created dozens of ways for schools to fail and very few ways to help them succeed. We want to get out of the business of labeling schools as failures and create a new law that is fair, flexible, and focused on the schools and students most at risk.

âWe need a common-sense law that strikes the right balance between accountability and flexibility -- and the basic problem is that NCLB got it backwards. Instead of being tight on the goals and loose on the means of achieving them, the law is loose on the goals but tight on the means. We need to flip that and states are already leading the way.â

Here is where educators have been crying foul for the past two years. Duncan claims he wishes to grant flexibility. In fact, the requirements for Race to the Top and the NCLB waivers are even MORE prescriptive than NCLB.

In order to be granted a waiver from the onerous effects of the law, states were required to submit plans for teacher and principal evaluations that include student test scores, the embrace of the Common Core standards, and new standards for College and Career Readiness.

Secretary Duncan has repeatedly defended the Common Core Standards from the charge that they are stealth national standards by claiming that they are an initiative of the states that are involved. But does not this become a federal project when essential federal aid is made contingent on implementation of these standards?

But now we have hit a major bump in the road, and Duncan faces a real dilemma. While eleven states have applied for NCLB waivers, another 39 have not. And that 39 includes some of the biggest and most influential states in the nation. The state of California has rejected the waiver process completely, and Gov. Jerry Brown has made it clear he is not on board with the ever-expanding testing craze.

So how can Duncan respond? He has effectively coerced 11 states into applying for waivers, and implementing the changes he wanted, and in exchange they will get relief from NCLB. But how can he justify enforcing this unpopular law â which he has declared âbrokenâ â on the other 39 states?

The chances are that in the short term we will get some compromise, where the states that get waivers will be rewarded with the "flexibility" to do exactly what Duncan has required them to do. The rest will get some compromise -- just enough relief from NCLB to prevent outright rebellion, but not enough to allow states to shift away from the relentless pressure to raise test scores that has been the hallmark of the law.

But in the bigger picture, Duncan's dilemma is an indication of the way the federal government has made itself irrelevant to real school reform.

No Child Left Behind was a do-or-die gambit on the part of "reformers." The year 2014 was supposed to find every child in the nation proficient. All the rhetoric was about civil rights and equal opportunities. But the reality of the past decade has been a systematic shift towards greater economic and racial segregation, and the Department of Education lacks credibility in the minds of teachers and parents.

As the year 2014 approaches, and the schools have been unable to flip a switch and fix the nationâs social problems, we need to take a hard look at how schools go about serving their students. Slogans, standards, and tests have not and will not uplift our communities.

We should shift our focus away from sweeping reforms intended to "force" schools to improve, using penalties for low test scores as the motivator. Our teachers, parents and students working together, school by school, on meaningful projects -- that is how we will resurrect the spirit of American education.

By Valerie Strauss

This was written by educator Anthony Cody, who worked for 24 years in the Oakland schools, 18 years teaching science at a high-needs school and six years as a mentor and coach of teachers. He is a National Board-certified teacher. This post appeared on his Education Week Teacher blog, Living in Dialogue.

— Anthony Cody., with comment by Susan Ohanian
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