Home > Uncategorized > NYTimes Editorial on ESSA Misses the Mark by Overlooking ESEA’s Original Intent

NYTimes Editorial on ESSA Misses the Mark by Overlooking ESEA’s Original Intent

Somewhere in the PR department of a conservative think tank, a political operative is beaming. The NYTimes has forgotten the original intent of ESEA, which, according to a 2000 Brookings Institute white paper, “…to close the skill gap in reading, writing and mathematics between children from low-income households who attend urban or rural school systems and children from the middle-class who attend suburban school systems.” I was in high school when this act passed and was familiar with social justice issues at that time thanks to the opportunities I had in our local church’s Youth Fellowship. The act was originally a cornerstone of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty and was intended to provide supplementary funds to the neediest school districts.

Fast forward to 2000 when George W. Bush introduced No Child Left Behind, reauthorization of ESEA that shifted the emphasis of the legislation away from “equity of opportunity” toward “accountability”. Mr. Bush, whose supposedly rigorous testing protocols were instituted when he was Governor of  Texas, insists that annual high-stakes tests would address the “soft bigotry of low expectations” that permeated public education, conveniently shifting the spotlight from poverty, that was and still is the root cause of the gross differences in educational opportunity, to schools which are forced to deal with the adverse consequences that result from poverty.

Now comes the NYTimes editorial’s version of the rationale for NCLB and, by extension, NAEP:

Historically, the federal government kept doling out education money to the states no matter how abysmally their schools systems performed. Alarmed that American students were falling behind their counterparts abroad, Congress in 2002 required states to give annual math and reading tests in grades three through eight (and once in high school) to make sure that students in all districts were making progress and that poor and minority students were being educated.

This “doling out education money to States”, the lack of international competitiveness, and the sense that there was no testing done at a national level is an echo of the thinking of every conservative think tank in the country… and it is a completely bogus argument. The ESEA funds declined over the decades following Reagan’s election and their allocation was often “skewed” thanks to flawed legislation that resulted in states and districts getting unequal levels of finding for each needy child. As Diane Ravitch has noted the US link between international test scores and our economic well-being is a canard given that it has been in place since the international comparisons were first done in the 1960s and in the decades since that time our economy has strengthened.  As for national testing, we’ve administered the National Assessment for Educational Progress for decades and, contrary to what the conservative think tanks want the public to believe, we were on a trajectory to close the gap between schools serving children in poverty and those in affluent communities until funding for Title One stared to diminish.

The Times, like most mainstream media, completely miss the boat on the purported diminishment of high stakes testing. In one paragraph they acknowledge that over-testing is a problem, particularly in large urban schools. They recount the findings of the Great City Schools  that “…the typical student takes about eight standardized tests per year — only two of which are federally required — and an astonishing 112 standardized tests between prekindergarten and 12th grade.” But they fail to acknowledge that this emphasis is NOT the result of federal legislation: it is the result of State and city legislation that uses test result as the basis for avoiding school closures and for setting teacher compensation. In overlooking this reality, the Times editorial board sees no problem with the continuation of testing as is:

The compromise bill still requires annual math and reading tests in grades three through eight (and once in high school) to make sure that students are progressing. But it takes some emphasis away from testing by requiring states to rate schools on other measures of student progress, including graduation rates, advance courses and so on. States are still required to take steps to improve the lowest performing schools and to make clear when subgroups are performing poorly in any school. The bill also permits states to use federal money for audits that will eliminate useless or excessive tests. And it discourages the testing opt-out movement by making it clear that schools must test at least 95 percent of students to achieve the highest ratings under the accountability system.

How anyone outside of a handful of progressive minded states can see this as “progress” is hard to fathom… and how an editorial board in a state whose Governor until recently insisted that tests would be the primary basis for teacher compensation could see this as a positive is even more astonishing.

As one who worked in NH and VT I can see the benefits of ESSA. Both states bridled at the federal mandates that required the linkage between testing and teacher evaluation and each has embraced reforms in schooling that focus on the disparities that are the consequence of poverty. As one who looks at public education from a national perspective, I fear that ESSA will move us in the wrong direction, a direction that will result in more disparities between states and more disparities within states who are indifferent to the need to address the effects of poverty.



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