Monday, February 16, 2015

The Governors Want Their Schools Back

Last week the National Governor's Association (NGA) released their idea of what the new ESEA should look like. The document is only six pages long, but it has some remarkable features, and while the NGA may not ultimately carry a great deal of weight in this discussion, they certainly don't carry any less weight than Arne Duncan and the USED, and we've talked about their ideas. So fair is fair.

NGA, you may recall, is notable for being the copyright holders of the Common Core as well as being one of the groups that supposedly hired David Coleman, Jason Zimba, and some other gifted amateurs to punch up the nation's education system. So the first thing that we'll note is that the phrase "Common Core" does not appear anywhere in their proposal.

So what's the major upshot of this proposal from the folks who helped start the ball rolling on the federal take-over of fifty separate public education systems? The major upshot is this:

Give us back our schools.

Here are the more specific breakdowns of the proposal.

Governance and Educational Alignment

Governors and state legislatures believe that a student's success is determined by much more than time spent in elementary and high school. Students need a supportive, seamless progression from preschool through college to lifelong learning and successful employment.

So there's your fetus-to-fertilizer pipeline. The NGA loves it-- they just don't think it can be managed very well from DC. After all, he's called Big Brother, not Big Uncle or Big Second Cousin Once Removed on Your Mother's Side. Race to the Top was great for modernizing the approach to education, but "it is time to take the next step" by rewriting ESEA so that it "supports students in all phases of life." Yeah, that's not creepy and stalkery at all.

Does it seem like I'm over-reacting by thinking that this proposes to make the schools a cog in the worker supply chain? Well, here's a quote from their press release:

“The Elementary and Secondary Education Act will allow states to align our needs through early education to higher education with the needs of our innovative businesses, developing a stronger workforce development pipeline, expanding opportunity for all of our people and ensuring that students are prepared for success in all phases of life,” said New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan, vice chair of the committee.”

Specifically, the NGA recommends that ESEA gives state-level leaders the authority to align, leverage, and finance their way to greater efficiency. Give states the tools to lump pre- and post- secondary education into the mix, as well as workforce development; break down silos, and allow flexibility for "public-private partnership." So, loosen up the rules so we can outsource to whatever vendor suits us.

Accountability and Testing

NGA would like to move away from "label and punish" and get with a more supportive framework-- for each student. For accountability to work, "federal prescriptions must be replaced with a federal, state and local partnership that makes certain every child counts."

So keep the public reporting of progress, and keep disaggregating results. But dump the "rigid structure" of Annual Measurable Objectives and Adequate Yearly Progress and let the states come up with their own systems that ensure ambitious targets, use multiple measures, account for college and career readiness, check districts' annual progress, gets public input from all constituencies, and allows states to cut a deal with individual districts.

Also, the state's assessment system should be one that "prohibits the US Secretary of Education from influencing or dictating the state's development of goals under ESEA." So, memo from NGA to Arne Duncan: Suck it.

The states should also get to create their own intervention process that does not necessarily hold Title I funds hostage, allows the state to partner with a failing district, but requires the state to flat out intervene after things stay too bad too long. The Title I non-hostage clause would be enough all by itself to get the federal monkey off the states' back.

Also, states should be able to pick or substitute their own alternatives to any federally-required assessments, and they should be able to do it without seeking the permission of the Secretary of Education. So, again-- Arne, suck it.

High Quality Education for All Students

Governors and state legislators want students to succeed and believe that all can (at high levels). We still think the transparency and disaggregatiness of NCLB are just fine, thanks.

So NGA advocates ensuring a high-quality education for all by continuing testing and reporting results, which is kind of backwards, like saying we'll make sure you get a good meal by cleaning the plates afterwards. NGA also advocates allowing some fancy footwork with aggregating, and getting rid of "cumbersome" government paperwork.

Also (I don't know why this is hiding here), they want you to know that "states" include US territories and outside regions. So, congratulations Kwajalein-- you get a piece of this, too.

NGA also recommends that students with disabilities not be left out of this, as well as English language learners. As with the rest of the high-quality delivery system, the states want flexibility to sort things out.

School Improvement

States have been researching ways to "lift up" failing schools like crazy and even trying ways to keep those that are circling the drain from failing. The feds should help us fund scaling up these various techniques (I presume that NGA meant to add "in case we ever find one that actually works, other than obvious things like getting money and resources to schools in trouble"). "The current limited federal menu of options for school improvement" keeps us from doing what we think we'd rather.

However, the feds should still send money. We may want to change other parts of this, but that sending money part? We would like to keep doing that. Then we will spend the money on turnaround specialists or state partnerships with the district or a menu of strategies. Also, we'd like to let successful districts export their ideas to unsuccessful ones (presumably NGA imagines strategies other than "build your school in a wealthy neighborhood" coming to light).

Districts might also use that funding to recruit some awesome high-quality school leaders and then gift them with flexible resources (aka folding money).

Schools would have three years to turn things around, unless they "partnered" with the state, in which case the time frame is open to negotiation. The state will figure out which data markers will determine success.

Empowering Teachers and School Leaders

Teachers and school leaders and the state should be co-developers of an evaluation system and professional development. Districts should be able to use federal money to build partnerships with postsecondary partners (because we all teach in districts right next to colleges).

The feds should scrap their definition of a highly qualified teacher and let the states go back to determining that for themselves. The evaluation system will likewise be a state thing that would give "meaningful weight" to "multiple-measures of teacher and principal performance" (I do not know what the hyphen is doing in there) as well as evidence of student learning and "contributing factors" to student growth. The state, working with educators at all levels, would decide what to do with evaluation results.

Also, "the Secretary may not dictate or require any methodology as part of a state's teacher and school leader evaluation system." So, a third time, NGA says suck it, Arne.

NGA says fine on retaining the requirement to distribute teachers equitably across the state (an requirement that nobody has ever even pretended to implement) but they would like the freedom to spend the money for that on, well, pretty much anything. "Efforts" to increase number of great teachers in a school-- heck, I can fob anything of as an "effort" to do anything.

State and Local Flexibility

States and schools must be given increased flexibility to meet the individual needs of students and prepare them to compete in a highly-skilled workforce.

Well, that certainly lowers the bar for what we want from an educated public, doesn't it. Just get 'em ready for a job. If their future employers are happy, that's all we need? The entire US public education system isn't here to serve students or parents or taxpayers-- it's here to serve businesses?

This part of the proposal is about flexibility in how states have to deal with the feds.

For instance, we spend a third of a page talking about federal approval of the state plan request. The Secretary must have a team to review these plans. The Secretary may not add academic requirements. The Secretary get the plan reviewed and back in sixty days or it is automatically approved. And the Secretary cannot disapprove a plan unless he can "provide substantive, research-based evidence that the plan will negatively affect children's education."

And in the event that we're still doing waivers, the Secretary is again given a list of restrictions, finishing with being forbidden to deny a waiver "for conditions outside the scope of the waiver request," nor may he add additional requirements not covered in ESEA. So in other words, under NGA's version of the law, the current waiver requirements that Arne has saddled everyone with would be illegal (or, if you like, more clearly illegal than they already are). 

So, once more, and with gusto, Arne is cordially invited to suck it.

Two Thoughts

Two things occur to me reading this document (well, three, if you count how very much the governors want Arne to get bent).

One is that the governors don't seem to have a great deal of faith in the authority of the state. It seems that if they were really feeling their oats, they would just do some of the things on this list instead of asking if the feds might allow them a small cup of rights. "Please, sir, may I have some more," hardly seems like the stance for a full-scale American governor.

Second, the NGA seems surprised to be here, as if they can't imagine how education ever got in such a heavily-federalized mess. They've tried selling this "Who, us?" narrative before, but it was the governors who laid out what would be the framework of Race to the Top, and they did it back in 2008, before Duncan and Obama had made their unsuccessful attempt to get ESEA rewritten, before Race to the Top was devised as an end run around it. If the governor's don't like the current reformy scenery, well, we've arrived exactly where they wanted to take us. A piece of my heart will go out to any US Congress member who calls the governors on that.

The best final word on the NGA Christmas list comes from Anne Gassel at Missouri Education Watchdog, so I'll let her wrap this up by putting this newest reformy proposal in its proper context:

Outcome Based Education, School To Work, Goals 2000, NCLB are all signs that the federal government is incapable of drafting workable or effective laws regarding education. Reform at this level will not work. Such laws, by the very fact that they  require central control (and accountability), are destined not to work for education and need to be eliminated. Unfortunately our Governors don’t recognize that they already have all the authority they need to do what they want and instead are asking for permission, thereby granting control to the feds. This is not leadership Governors. This is middle management at best.


  1. Back in the 1950-60s, when I was in parochial schools, the nuns used the bogeyman of our "permanent records" to keep us in line. We were constantly threatened with what might end up on said records. Now, thanks to Big Data, this bogeyman can be a reality. We can track individuals from conception to cadaver without their consent.

    And re the "pipeline" metaphor, my black, female engineering work-studies in the 1990s absolutely loathed it. Put aside the association with sewage conveyance, and it's still unpleasant. It's dark in there! Once you are loaded in at one end, you cannot see any alternatives and you cannot escape until you reach the predesignated end. Those in the pipeline have zero choices. They have likely been recruited because fields need bodies, and not because of their own passions, interests, or aptitudes (they were double minorities -- kaching!). But the metaphor is perfect for supplying precisely formed cogs to businesses that cannot be bothered to train their own employees. The pipeline will squish them all into exactly the same shape.

    1. It's true! A pipeline is a horrible metaphor for a place to put human beings.

  2. I guess it's good they mention "local" and "teachers" several times. I noticed that school improvement plans have to be "research-based" - what exactly does that mean - but "innovative" (like BRIGHT?) strategies can be used to recruit, retain, and develop high-quality teachers and school leaders, which is okay because that's not part of specific improvement plans for at-risk schools? I really don't understand what the language means in their minds or how the whole process works, but I'm afraid the kool-aid's still being drunk and the Pandora's box of VAMs/close schools/privatization has created a Frankenstein monster that isn't going to die any time soon (could I have mixed in any more metaphors? : )
    but it does kind of show the jumble in my mind). I mean, look at Cuomo and New York.

    I guess it's a little easier to fight at the state level since governors are elected and Arne isn't, but I don't know why they can't just get rid of the whole thing. I also don't see the Feds handing out money stringless.

  3. There is nothing particularly local (or special) about state control of education as opposed to federal, other than the fact that there are 50 of them not just one. I suspect most local school system view the state in the same way the governors do the feds: give us the money and leave us alone.

    With respect to Rebecca DeCoca's point: Arne Duncan isn't elected, but I don't think most State Commissioners of Education are either and that's his role at the federal level.