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COMMENTARY
Every Student Succeeds Act
(Morguefile.com)
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(Correction: This commentary was updated at 11:26 a.m. Friday, Jan. 5, to note the correct overall score given to Oklahoma in the Bellwether report. NonDoc regrets the error.)

Last week, The Oklahoman’s Ben Felder described two opposing analyses of Oklahoma’s Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Felder reported that the conservative Fordham Institute concluded that, “Oklahoma’s plan was one of seven to receive a perfect score.” Meanwhile, archetypal neo-liberal think tank Bellwether Education Partners has “… criticized Oklahoma’s plan for lacking details on how it plans to reach specific academic targets set for 2025.”

I’ve had years of discussions with the prime authors of the Fordham and Bellwether reports. It pains me to say that both reports illustrate the reasons why I’m not nearly as offended by conservative school reformers (with whom I disagree) as I am by the Democrats (whom I otherwise support) for imposing corporate school-reform mandates.

As Oklahoma Department of Education spokesman Phil Bacharach was quoted in Felder’s story, the U.S. Department of Education is requesting more information on Oklahoma’s ESSA, and that was “not unexpected.” According to his report, the Oklahoma plan,

… sets a goal to become a top 20 state in fourth- and eighth-grade academic performance (currently ranking below the national average), cut in half the need for math and English language arts remediation after high school and rank in the top 10 nationally in graduation rates.

It also focuses on decreasing childhood hunger and the number of emergency certified teachers.

Before tackling the big issue, I’d note a couple of inconsistencies that illustrate the difficulties involved in articulating doable plans. Even though the Feds have questions about Oklahoma’s goals for English-language learners, Bellwether describes the goals as “both ambitious and attainable.” At the same time, Bellwether warns that the state’s growth measures may encourage an unfortunate “focus on students right on the cusp of a given level.” Meanwhile, Fordham concludes the opposite: Oklahoma’s use of scale scores “encourages schools to look beyond those pupils who are near the cutoff for proficiency.”

Bellwether clings to failed bubble-in accountability

Bellwether grades Oklahoma down with an overall grade on goals of a “2” (the second-to-the-lowest category) but gives the state a “4” on “accountability indicators aligned to ensure targets and goals are met and likely to lead to improved educational outcomes for students.” It praises Oklahoma’s focus on college readiness, work-based internships and apprenticeships, and other programs that can be measured objectively, as opposed to using growth models. It concludes, “The state takes a very thoughtful approach in this area that should be a model for other states.” It rightly congratulates the Oklahoma State Department of Education for its thoughtfulness and professionalism. Bellwether also notes, “The overall uncertainty and lack of detail in Oklahoma’s plan makes it difficult to tell how attainable its long-term goals are.” Even if the Oklahoma plan had more detail, however, would that mean that such goals are attainable?

In other words, Bellwether is still devoted to the micromanaging that doomed the Race to the Top and other Obama-era programs that coerced states into adopting unreliable and invalid growth models (for holding individuals accountable) and committing to “transformative” change (i.e. huge test score increases) in three years. Bellwether wants a detailed plan for successfully implementing the bubble-in accountability that it promotes, even though this state’s politics make it impossible for schools to address the poverty that makes utopian goals unreachable.

Fordham realizes state goals ‘unrealistic,’ ‘functionally meaningless’

While the progressive Bellwether wants a plan for making sure that students in every demographic group in our underfunded system are ensured of success, the conservatives at Fordham face no such constraint. When they demand a “focus on all students,” they desire a focus on high-performing schools, “not just low performers.” Similarly, Fordham is less concerned about the reliability and validity of accountability metrics because they have basically given up on that unobtainable goal (at least in terms of an education-improvement tool as opposed to a political weapon.)

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Fordham settles for “clear and intuitive” school grades as opposed to a fair, apples-to-apples estimate of how well schools are doing their jobs, because that is all that is needed to encourage more school choice. Because social justice isn’t its issue, Fordham is free to say, “… we’ve come to believe that the best fix may be to let chronically failing schools die, mostly by giving their students better school options, especially new high quality charters.”

Fordham’s Mike Petrilli says that their evaluation is different from Bellwether’s because his think tank realizes that these ESSA proposals are “… basically big, complex compliance exercises. They comprise lots of blather and paperwork that culminate in pretty words across many realms, words that often don’t amount to much.” That is why, “We did not, for example, look at long-term state goals, most of which we fear represent lofty, unrealistic, and functionally meaningless promises.”

Fordham and other conservatives don’t have to explain away the scandals involving attendance, graduation rates and test scores, which became common after No Child Left Behind and continue to be documented. When traditional public schools embarrass themselves, charter schools win politically. As conservative magazine The Weekly Standard is free to acknowledge, scandals recently reported by NPR about Washington, D.C.’s Ballou High School show that teachers’ unions’ worst nightmares have been realized: D.C.’s rigorous, top-down teacher-evaluation system prevented teachers from opposing schemes for falsifying attendance and graduation rates.

It is up to school systems themselves

In contrast, the prime author of the Bellwether report, Chad Aldeman, who served in the Obama administration, now acknowledges that the teacher evaluations they promoted, which depended on test score-growth models, have failed — but he blames unions for opposing them. He now concentrates on undermining teacher pensions. (Although he denies it, I suspect Aldeman is using attacks on pensions as the new weapon for defeating teachers who oppose his corporate reforms.)

Fordham’s conservatives might or might not believe that high-performing charters like KIPP will try to tackle challenges such as those facing Oklahoma City’s neighborhood schools. Personally, I don’t think they really believe that charters will retain the highest-challenge students, but that’s unimportant for them. As opposed to equity, they want competition in order to defeat unions and spur economic competition.

It is the liberal and neo-liberal reformers who cling to their theory that accountability-driven, competition-driven reform can improve the educational outcomes of poor children of color. Meanwhile, they admit that test-driven, charter-driven reform will hurt poor kids unless it is successfully monitored by a detailed accountability system. That is why Bellwether wants the Oklahoma ESSA to lay out a precise road map toward reaching goals that Fordham – and common sense – say are unreachable.

I suspect that the Oklahoma SDE has done about as good of a job as possible in listening to practitioners and drafting a new ESSA. Under State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister, it has freed systems from the most onerous regulations that have been dumped on our schools. Now, it is up to school systems themselves to put failed corporate reforms behind them. To do that, they must learn to ignore as much as possible the “pretty words,” the “blather” and the “complex compliance exercises” known as data-driven accountability.

(Author’s note: Bellwether hosted me at an outstanding conference on social networking, and the prime author of the Fordham report invited me to a conservative education-reform conference in Oklahoma. Both organizations have published at least one of my guest posts.)