ESSA: A New Hope?
A long time ago (about 15 years) in a conference between members of two of the wealthiest, private school-educated families in this country (George W. Bush and Ted Kennedy), an Act of Congress was forged to control and ultimately destroy public education as we know it. Known as the No Child Left Behind Act, this new law mandated more high-stakes testing than ever before, leading to teacher shortages, narrowed curriculum, and a boon for publishers and software developers.
After some time, new leaders (President Obama and Secretary Duncan) found this law’s promise of every student reaching proficiency in reading and math to be unreachable. They added their own spin: state waivers and Race to the Top grants. All states would adopt “College and Career Readiness Standards.” Teacher evaluations would be tied to student test scores.
This didn’t work either. Now we have a New Hope…or do we?
Imagine those words scrolling slowly in yellow across a black background at about a 30 degree tilt. It’s much more dramatic that way.
I keep reading all of these “ding dong, the witch is dead” (yes, I’m mixing my pop culture metaphors) posts about the demise of No Child Left Behind and how much better off we are with the Every Student Succeeds Act, but I’m still looking for the part that’s supposed to thrill me. Maybe I’m just tired from doing that victory cartwheel [photo not available].
According this AASA fact sheet, here are a few things we can look forward to:
- No change to third through eighth grade testing – reading and math every year, science once in elementary and middle (sorry social studies);
- One test for reading, math, and science in high school, but the flexibility to meet this requirement with the ACT;
- College and career readiness standards;
- Accountability for schools will still be based on test scores, but with states having much more flexibility in how that will be accomplished;
- States are no longer required to include a quantitative component in teacher evaluations; and
- States will determine what happens to schools and districts that fail to test at least 95 percent of students, as the Opt Out movement continues to build steam.
If you don’t want to read the entire bill (as I don’t), here’s how the Obama administration is framing ESSA:
Peter Greene over at #Eddies15-nominated Curmudgucation has a great takedown of all the points in this image, so I won’t hit all of the same points. Writing standards and testing students over them is the typical political answer to all that ails us.
I have news for those who make education policy – even those I like. Adopting standards does not standardize education. It’s nice that we all want to speak the same language. Of course we want all of our fourth graders to enter any fifth grade classroom in the state ready for what is coming. We want a challenging, well-articulated course of study for all students in all content areas.
Documents don’t make that happen. With all deference to my friends on the Math and English/Language Arts standards writing teams, teachers make that happen. And no, I’m not trying to standardize teachers either. We all bring unique qualities into the classroom. Think about your own time in school. Teachers with personality, creativity, and drive are the ones you remember.
Will the feds accept Oklahoma’s new standards? I hope so. I don’t see why not. They should. Of course, our Legislature needs to do that first. But this isn’t what will ensure that Every Student Succeeds.
For ESSA to give us any meaningful relief, our Legislature has to act. That has been the number one talking point from our congressional delegation, right? States make better decisions than the feds. It’s why our Legislature voted in 2014 to overturn the Common Core standards they adopted in 2010, right? We want to set our own rules. If that’s the case, here are five quick things Oklahoma can do in 2016 to turn my cartwheel into a backflip [picture still not available].
Replace the EOIs with the ACT.
I’ve argued about why we should do this for years. ESSA gives Oklahoma the ability to do this. No high school student cares about the EOIs. No college ever has or ever will care about them either. The ACT is a nationally recognized test that most Oklahoma students take before graduation. This is slightly different than what Superintendent Hofmeister has initiated, but why not give every student two tickets to take the ACT on a national test date? We would have no class disruptions. Students who chose not to test wouldn’t have to. Students who want to improve their score would have a chance to wait and take it again, on their own schedule.
If students choose not to take the ACT, that would also be acceptable. If they’re involved in a career track program, either in high school, or at a Career Tech center, they could pursue industry certification. These students could also still take the ACT.
The point is that high school students are more forward-thinking than we often credit them with being. They can choose from multiple tracks, and they can even choose when they shift between them. Testing, rather than being a gatekeeper for graduation, would then become more of a tool for guiding and informing them as they plan for the future.
Doing this would produce an immediate cost savings for the state, restore weeks of instructional time in high schools, and allow counselors to meet the individual social, psychological, and academic needs of their students. It’s right there, friends. Do this. Do it first.
This would be another way to save money fast. The 2016 budget includes $8 million for ACE Remediation. Put that money in the formula. I know it’s only a drop in the bucket, but at least it’s that.
If my numbers are right, even with ACE, we are still graduating over 95 percent of our seniors. It’s typically only a gatekeeper for students in special education, English language learners, and students who frequently move. In other words, we’ve spent more than a decade and tens of millions of dollars identifying the students who are most likely to struggle in any system.
ACE isn’t tied to any federal legislation. No, this is a state-inflicted travesty. It does nothing good. End it.
Cut all tests not required by ESSA.
This is where I usually make my social studies friends mad. All I can say to them is that when it’s tested, human nature causes us to limit how we teach it. We want that score.
What I want is for seventh grade geography teachers to decide how they meet the standards and which standards to emphasize in time. I want more project-based learning and less test-centered preparation. I want this for fifth, eighth, and high school US History courses as well.
I understand why there will be some push back to this, but remember, if we can lower the stakes on the tests we keep, then the untested subjects will rise in prominence. The way we teach history will always fall under scrutiny. Tests don’t fix that.
Just last week, I was talking to a friend in another district who had fielded a parent phone call over the fact that we even mention Islam in school. I used to get this question once or twice a semester when I taught in Moore. It gave us a chance to discuss that particular standard in relation to the entire curriculum. Islam is a real thing. It impacts geography and history. So do the world’s other major religions (as well as many of the minor ones). It stays. Each district, school, and teacher decide how much emphasis is placed on discussing the world’s religions, though. Standards, tests, and textbooks don’t do that for us.
As for the writing test, it just needs to go. To make it useful, we’d have to double what we’re willing to pay for it. And if you think that I don’t value writing instruction, then you’re just not paying attention.
Take quantitative measurements out of teacher evaluation.
Remember: no test score has ever been part of the formula for evaluating any teacher in the state. Up to this point, the only information that has been collected through Roster Verification and Value-added Measurements has been for informational purposes only.
I lead with that statement because I still run into teachers who think their students’ Biology I EOI scores are going to count against them in their evaluations. They won’t.
Originally, the plan was to have test scores count for some teachers (and a complicated morass of other data for others) for the current school year. Last year, the legislature gave the state TLE commission a one-year moratorium on putting this in place. This means that right now, teachers are still being evaluated under a qualitative system. Unless the Legislature acts, that changes in August.
They should simply eliminate the component. If administrators want to use test scores, growth models, or any other metric to proscribe professional development, I can live with that. If student performance contradicts everything our observations tell us, though, then we have bigger problems.
We know that students don’t learn when they’re paralyzed by fear. We should also realize that teachers don’t perform well that way. This is probably why a few teachers are still confused about the impact testing might have on them.
More importantly, we need to be realistic. If I have principals who recommend teachers for rehire based on observations and conferences, I’m not going to look at test data and countermand that decision. Teachers are with the students day in and day out. Principals are with the teachers day in and day out. I get to schools where I can, when I can. I don’t see what they see. I’m not firing teachers and replacing them with the candidates I don’t have in our personnel office.
There is no accurate measure of teacher effectiveness. You can’t put a number on it. No matter what mental gymnastics you do, this won’t change.
Create an accountability system that would make Arne Duncan cringe.
We’ve already established our contempt for the feds, right? Then let’s really stick it to them.
Let’s take our newfound freedom and go crazy. If a minimum of 51 percent of the school accountability model has to be tests, let’s limit it to that. And let’s have some fun with the other 49 percent. If you have students who go to academic, band, vocal music, speech and debate, or any other kind of contest, you get points. If they win, you get points. If your football team earns an academic state championship, you get points. If you get half your middle school to participate in science fair, you get points. There are a lot of things we can do to show how great our schools are. Few of them require testing.
As Meghan Loyd wrote this week:
Another thing that I’m a fan of is new the flexibility accountability system. Music and Fine Arts in general don’t really fit the mold of most evaluation tools. Being able to include areas of evaluation such as student and parent engagement and school climate and culture as measurable tools is pretty exciting!
We can come up with some really good tools to tell our story. We don’t even have to fall into the trap of taking all of that information and distilling it down into letter grades.
In the end, I’m like that line in the Schoolhouse Rock song, Interjections, about the word being set apart by a comma when the feeling’s not that strong. I’m glad Congress got rid of NCLB. I’m glad ESSA passed. I’m just not exclamation point glad. Let’s see what happens in the next few months.