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Rutland Herald: New Education Law: A Lot of Suds

You know the store is pushing it when they stack it at the end of the aisle. That’s where I found the bright orange, red and yellow jug of liquid detergent proclaiming its “New! Mountain Fresh!” formula which now has “Ultra Deep Cleaning” with “Quadra- Power.” But it took a closer look to see that the 100-ounce jug was now 92 ounces and last month’s $8.99 was this month’s $9.99.

In December, Washington rejoiced over the bipartisan replacement of the near universally disliked No Child Left Behind Act with the similarly named Every Student Succeeds Act. Lots of mutually congratulatory back-slapping took place. Even the stuffy think tanks and education organizations floated in euphoria. Spin merchants gloried in boasting about the “progress” — at least from their organizations’ perspective.

But as the New Year’s parties spun down, they woke to headaches from soberly appraising whether these changes were such a good thing. In the blinding light of the morning after, things didn’t look so pretty.

  • Testing: The issue of greatest public concern was too much standardized testing, which generated a parents’ rebellion. The administration said the onerous requirements should be relieved. So what got relieved? Well, nothing. The same grades still have the same tests. In addition, some states are developing “interim” assessments. Psychometricians are getting apoplexy trying to figure out how such Rube Goldberg contraptions can work. Tighter restrictions are placed on testing severely handicapped children and on those who do not speak English. The quadra-power may not be so mountain fresh.
  • Standards: The Common Core State Standards were reviled on both the left and the right. So the new law contains tough, unequivocal “ultra deep” language prohibiting the U. S. secretary from forcing or even encouraging states to adopt the common core or any other particular set of state standards. Instead, states must still adopt federally approved “challenging,” state standards, at a “comparable” level.
  • Accountability: Previously, schools had to meet ever-increasing goals for each year or be subject to state intervention. Whereas the new system requires the state to intervene in the lowest performing 5 percent, any high school that has a low graduation rate, and those schools that are not making sufficient progress in closing the achievement gap. In the old system, all schools faced sanctions if every student could not meet very high standards. In the new system, since every state has a lowest 5 percent, schools in high-scoring states will be subject to intervention no matter how high they score. (You may be having problems telling the difference between the 100- and the 92-ounce jugs).
  • Federal spending: Here’s where the price increase slides in. Much was hurrahed about the increase in federal spending of $1.4 billion. That’s a nice piece of change until you consider that the nation currently spends about $650 billion per year on education — which makes the increase a touch over one-fifth of 1 percent. Not mentioned is that federal education spending was cut 20 percent over the past five years. We haven’t caught up with where we were before the recession. The new law also slips $333 million of the money to charter schools.

As weak and inadequate as this effort is, we can be pleased our federal government was able to act on something. We can also take some limited comfort in this token effort to address the needs of our economically deprived and children of color.

Unfortunately, the new suds look disappointingly like the old suds. But it isn’t the similarity of the old and new that is the problem — it is the mindless repetition and continuation of an utterly ineffective test-based reform system that must concern us.

The achievement gap has grown between 20 and 40 percent larger for children born in 2001 than among those born 25 years earlier. We already spend less on our neediest children. We must look to our needs as a society and recognize that the great economic bifurcation has resulted in the middle class now being less than one-half of the population, opening a chasm between the haves and the have-nots. When the share of wealth owned by the top one-tenth of 1 percent equals the bottom 90 percent, we can expect the achievement gap to get larger. We must soberly see that the achievement gap is not a problem fixable by better school improvement plans. Rather, it is a symptom of a far greater danger to our society as a whole.

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William J. Mathis

Following a decade as the Managing Director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado, William J. Mathis serves as a Senior Policy Adv...