Is bipartisanship killing the era of school accountability?

Partisan gridlock is something everyone loves to hate. The dysfunction in Washington underscores everything that’s wrong with governing today. That should make moments of bipartisan agreement something to celebrate, glimmers of hope amidst the endless rancor that show leaders can find common cause for the greater good.

But what if it turns out that everyone in Washington is coming together to agree on something that moves the country back, not ahead?

That’s what education policy expert Andrew Rotherham says is happening as Congress moves closer to ending what has been an eight-year stalemate over the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind law. The law, enacted in 2002 in another moment of bipartisan comity — George W. Bush and Ted Kennedy were its biggest champions — signaled a national commitment to bring all students up to at least a basic level of academic proficiency. It has drawn plenty of criticism and was undoubtedly in need of revision. Speaking yesterday at the new Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the US Senate, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell cited the prospects for reauthorization of the law as a positive sign of an easing of partisan tensions.

But Rotherham argues that a reauthorization of the law that unanimously cleared the Senate education committee last month doesn’t provide a necessary course correction so much as it executes a damaging U-turn.

In a nod to civil rights groups and business coalitions, he says, the bill maintains a requirement for annual testing. But it removes most of the accountability that forces districts to take action on chronic low achievement as a condition of receiving federal education dollars.

Pressure to pass this new version of the law is coming from the right and the left. Conservatives want the federal government to butt out of local school policy. Meanwhile, liberals are railing against accountability and new teacher evaluations that have drawn the wrath of teachers’ unions. They say “just leave schools and teachers alone and they’ll do amazing things,” writes Rotherham. “We tried this for much of the second half of the 20th century and it led to widespread inequities and even more pervasive mediocrity, with poor and minority students who need the most being the most likely to get the least.”

The backlash against standards and testing is rippling through many cities and states, finding voice in the “opt-out” movement that has a small number of parents pulling their children from school during standardized testing.

In New York City, many bridled at the approach taken by former mayor Michael Bloomberg and his schools chancellor, Joel Klein, that relied primarily on test score outcomes and growth scores to assign each of the city’s 1,800 schools a letter grade.  A draft of a new policy was released recently by the new regime led by Mayor Bill de Blasio and his chancellor, Carmen Fariña, both of whom are critics of test-based accountability systems.

“Like a driver overcorrecting and losing control,” the proposed new system would “go from focusing almost exclusively on student achievement to making it one of seven areas of reporting,” writes Robert Pondiscio of the Fordham Institute. He says a former city education official complained to him privately that “nearly everyone with data expertise was driven out” of the city education office when Fariña took over. The draft proposal, writes Pondiscio, “says clearly and unambiguously that the days of measuring a school by academic performance in New York City are over.”

Pondiscio is among those who think the era of high-stakes testing has brought with it some negative consequences, including undue focus on test preparation and a narrowing of what should be a broad, rich curriculum. But moves like those contemplated in New York or in Washington with the update of the No Child Left Behind Law seem poised to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

“In practice, for a young person in a city like Baltimore, this compromise [on the No Child law] means the goal of equality of opportunity is moving further away, thanks, perversely enough, to bipartisanship,” writes Rotherham. “We need better policies, yet we’re getting abandonment.”




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