Home > Uncategorized > NCLB… RTTT… and now ESSA: The Factory School Prevails

NCLB… RTTT… and now ESSA: The Factory School Prevails

November 25, 2015

Let me begin this post by sharing an essay I wrote in 2002, lamenting the passage of NCLB:

The Bush bill to improve public schools is deeply flawed for the following reasons:

  • NCLB perpetuates the school factory: Grade levels, seat time, and sorting of students and schools based on standardized test results— key elements of the factory school— are incorporated in the legislation.

  • NCLB relies on tests that measure what’s easy to test instead of what’s important to test: The time line for implementation of the NCLB testing effectively requires the use of existing off-the-shelf pencil and paper tests.

  • NCLB will channel limited resources to underachieving students: The ranking of schools based on average yearly progress will compel school boards, administrators, and teachers to work on improving the performance of low achieving students to the detriment of average and above average students.

  • NCLB assumes that the private sector can accomplish better results than the public sector with the same amount of money: The ultimate “school choice” is not between public schools and sectarian schools, it is between public schools and for-profit schools. The for-profit schools and for-profit tutoring services are eagerly awaiting the lists of failing schools to target their services. We will learn soon that the problem with low achieving public school students has less to do with the instruction that occurs six hours per day than with the environment students live in 18 hours per day. In order to leave no child behind, we will need to coordinate student resources the same way we are now coordinating our law enforcement resources.

That was written shortly after NCLB was passed, and I’m sad to say the predictions in that essay were 100% accurate… and even worse, it exacerbated the divide between affluent school districts and those with limited resources. Following the passage of NCLB I had the good fortune to work from 2003-2011 in one of the highest performing school districts in the nation and NCLB had no impact whatsoever on our day-to-day instruction in the classroom. With the exception of two years where students in the special education cohort fell short, the schools in the district all exceeded the minimum test scores required without any modifications to our curriculum or instruction. Upon my retirement when I consulted in less affluent districts I saw a completely different and unsurprising world: a world where test results dominated the instructional practices. It was unsettling to realize that the children in these districts received a completely different (and much more dispiriting) education than the children in the affluent district I led.

I’ve read several analyses of the recently passed reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act a.k.a. the “Every Student Succeeds Act” or ESSA and I’m afraid we are not only stuck in the factory school rut for the coming decade but also likely to see a marked decline in the support for public schools as a result. The “victories” won by the Democrats, as described by Casey Quinlan in Think Progress, were basically stopping the Republicans from short-changing the bill or reallocating funds in a fashion that defeated ESEA’s original purpose, which was to direct supplemental funds to poverty stricken districts. Their losses, on the other hand, were substantive, including guarantees for assistance for students with disabilities, students of color, and English language learners who fall short of the standards set by States and universal pre-K.

The losses for those of us who seek an end to the factory school model and seek social justice in public education are significant. According to Politico reporter Caitlin Emma the Fordham Institute’s President Michael Petrilli was “especially glad” to see an adaptive testing provision included in ESSA because:

…it “should open the door to true adaptive tests, which will lead to lots more accuracy for kids way above or below grade level (and thus more accuracy in their growth scores — important for schools and teachers)”

The bill’s continuation of testing that facilitates VAM is ironic because ESSA also includes language requiring Title I schools to adhere to “evidence based” instructional practices while effectively encouraging teacher evaluation practices that are NOT based on any evidence whatsoever.

Both articles noted that ESSA shifts responsibilities “back to the States”, which is an enormous step backward when the majority of states are under the control of Republican legislatures who favor the model of “running schools like a business” and privatization as the ultimate solution when schools are found to be “failing”. Astonishingly, I found myself concurring with Margaret Spelling’s assessment of the consequences of giving States and local school boards more autonomy in setting minimum standards:

“This is the era of local control where we lack state and federal frameworks that can keep school districts and superintendents and all of us on track and honest with ourselves about where we’re headed,” Spellings said. “With all these school out of the net, underperformance will reign.”

Without national standards states like TX and school districts like Jefferson County CO can adopt curricula that re-write history and ignore science…. and other southern states can crow about high performance on State tests while downplaying low scores on NAEP… and we will restore the separate but equal school systems that existed following Plessy v. Ferguson in the late 1800s.


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