Sunday, March 21, 2010

Four Concerns with NCLB 2.0 the Obama Administration’s Blueprint for the Reauthorization of ESEA

During the last week, the web has been abuzz with talk about the Blueprint for NCLB 2.0 the Obama administration’s reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Most of the talk is mixed. Perhaps this mostly due to the largely vague phrases and broad generalizations found throughout most of the document. Still, my repeated read-throughs of the document have basically made me concerned about four themes found in its language.

1. The tying of tests to teacher and principal performance. I have no problem with accountability, and honestly I have no problem with testing, but testing is an imperfect business. Anyone who has taken a graduate level testing and assessment class knows that there many things that can go wrong with testing data, and many of those things are beyond the control of teachers and administrators. Making sure students get sleep the night before. Ensuring that students have breakfast that morning. Ensuring that students have regular attendance in the days leading up to the test. The list is endless. There are just too many factors that can influence a child’s score on a test given in a single moment in time. Now, if someone could develop a test and testing procedures that can control all these variables and the unknown ones, then let’s talk about using tests to measure teacher and principal effectiveness. The equation in the blueprint has basically be redefined. Under the Bush administration, High Test Scores=Student Achievement and Effective Schools. Under the Obama administration, High Test Scores=Effective Teachers and principals.

2. The fact that in all four turnaround plans for failing schools, the principal gets the ax. In a Twitter exchange last week with someone, they specifically pointed out that in the business world, the CEO or even a manager gets the ax if the business does not show a profit, so what is wrong with a principal getting the ax when a school fails to meet expectations? There is actually nothing wrong with it, if schools were like businesses, but they are not. CEO’s enjoy a great deal more autonomy than school principals and they have greater control over the factors that control the organization’s performance. CEOs have a great deal to say about budgets. They have a great deal to say about hiring and firing. They even have more control over the planning process. The degree of freedom CEOs have permits them to control many aspects of their company. A school principal does not enjoy that same level of control. She does not have great control over the budget. Very often, she is told what amounts of money is available, and even told where and how that money can be spent. As far as hiring, principals can have decisions in hiring, but these decisions are subject to all manner of restrictions and in some cases directives coming from all levels of the educational system. And firing, well even in a non-union state like mine, there are processes that must be followed, and specific reasons for firing are defined by state law, so firing is no simple matter, and is certainly not left up to the principal entirely. The principal does not even control the planning process for his own school. In North Carolina, state policy and state law guide the planning process so that school improvement plans are created and presented in a prescribed way, even if that way is not entirely conducive to effective planning. Sometimes the state requirements on the format the plan has to take, makes the plan itself utterly useless at the school level. So, to hold the principal absolutely accountable for a school he does not fully have control over, seems to be unfair. Who would want to take responsibility for a school then be told every time he tries to make a decision that he can’t do that? Principals just do not enjoy the same operational freedom that CEOs have, so to pretend that they control the school is ludicrous.

3. There’s a lot of talk in the blueprint about encouraging “new generations of tests” but no actual language to make sure states follow through with designing these tests. Those of us who have been educators for awhile know that if it “ain’t written down” then it “ain’t gonna happen.” The language of the blueprint and the language from Secretary Duncan talks big about having tests that more accurately measure what students need to be able to do if they are “college and career ready.” In reality, if there are not specific guidelines, what would prevent states from just taking their current testing programs and continue them? Many states see nothing wrong with their testing, and might just choose to make their testing programs fit the new federal guidelines, especially if it is going to be costly to design those new tests. The reality of state testing programs is that they have financial restrictions too, and if it costs too much to change them, they won’t, especially if they have lots of money already invested in their current testing programs. I honestly don’t have a great deal of faith in the idea that states are going to change their testing too much.

4. The idea that states can arrive at a definition of effective teacher, highly effective teacher, effective principal, and highly effective principal. Buried in the blueprint is this idea of having states define each of these levels of performance. It does say teachers, principals, and other stakeholders should be involved in creating these definitions, but what is going to prevent these definitions from becoming too narrowly defined on things like increased test scores and low drop-out rates? A too-narrow definition will result in principals whose focus is on those specific things, often at the expense of other things. Besides, when you ask someone to tell you why they thought a particular teacher or principal was good, they often struggle to find an answer. If states can arrive at definitions of these that are fair and acceptable without being too narrow, then my concern is not quite as strong.

I am sure as the ESEA reauthorization process continues, and as I continue to read through the blueprint I will find more areas of concern. Based on my readings so far, the four concerns above are my main ones for now. At this point in time, I am not sure that NCLB 2.0 is the radical transformation that Secretary Duncan says it is. Much of what it says seems to me to be faithful to the core of NCLB 1.0.


  1. Michael JosefowiczMarch 21, 2010 at 7:40 PM

    Just a quibbble. My argument on twitter about principals and getting fired was put in the context of government not business.

    If a public official does not act as an effective steward of the area under his/her responsibility, they are asked to find another job. As far as I can tell the comparison is reasonable.

  2. I would agree whole-heartedly. If I abuse my position as principal and waste money, I should be replaced. I am in control of that. However, to decide the fate of an individual based on test scores that depend on a lot of factors out of my control, well not so sure about that.