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U.S. Department of Education

Waiver Watch: States, Pass Teacher Evaluation Legislation At Your Own Risk

August 16, 2013

Yesterday, the U.S. Department of Education placed three states’ No Child Left Behind waivers on “high risk” status, the first serious action to enforce flexibility requirements by the Department. All three – Kansas, Oregon, and Washington – had received waivers on the condition that they provide evidence, by the end of the 2012-13 school year, of adopting teacher evaluation guidelines in line with the flexibility policy. Specifically, each state struggled to demonstrate that they were using student growth as a significant factor in their evaluation systems. Ten states were initially granted these conditional waivers, and in addition to the three named today, Arizona and Georgia still have outstanding conditions to meet. For more, check out these excellent recaps from PoliticsK-12, Politico, and Huffington Post.

Kansas, Oregon, and Washington have until the end of the upcoming school year to get back on track, including a tailored to-do list for each and monthly check-ins with the Department. And if early reports are any indication, state officials aren’t too happy about it. That’s because if they don’t shape up, they could – theoretically – lose flexibility altogether. In that case, they would still have to comply with all of NCLB’s provisions, including the 100% proficiency targets required in 2014 (although it’s unclear whether schools would face sanctions immediately, since it takes two consecutive years of failure for schools to be placed in improvement).

It’s no surprise states are running into implementation issues over teacher evaluations. Others, including waiver rejects California and Iowa, have stumbled with the requirement. And measuring student growth – particularly in untested grades and subjects – is challenging and complicated, as my colleague Laura Bornfreund wrote in her recent report An Oceans of Unknowns. Further, there is often legitimate resistance to overcome from teachers who question whether the systems are fair and reliable measures of their job performance. Since these evaluations will be used to inform personnel decisions, the results are high-stakes and intensely personal for many educators.

These are serious complications, but the status quo isn’t acceptable either. The Department should hold states to a high standard when it comes to evaluation reform. For far too long teacher evaluation systems were meaningless. Nearly every teacher was satisfactory, whether their students were learning or not. But despite the administration’s strong support for reform, at least one lesson learned from states’ evaluation struggles to date could be a counterintuitive one:

States, pass teacher evaluation legislation at your own risk. 

Washington is on high-risk status because its state law didn’t jive with all of the Department’s guidelines and require evaluations to include state assessment data when they are available. Iowa’s waiver was more or less rejected because state legislators passed a law prohibiting the education agency from changing evaluation systems without their approval. And Illinois is in “waiver purgatory,” still waiting after eighteen months for approval… all because a previously enacted state law set a different timeline for implementing teacher evaluations than the Department specified. Because the state took a staggered approach over several years, many Illinois districts will be fully implementing evaluations in 2014-15 (the deadline set in the waiver policy), but not all. Some will implement the following two years, and for this reason, Illinois continues to wait.

Yet Idaho and South Dakota, which had teacher evaluation laws that were pivotal to their securing a waiver, seem to be on track with the Department even after those laws were repealed in ballot initiatives last November. These states are now relying on regulatory action from the state board and education agency to enact their evaluation systems instead, and that’s okay.

You’d think the Department would welcome legislation requiring rigorous evaluation systems, since it’s the strongest indication that states intend to follow through on their implementation plans. But that’s also part of the problem for states trying to toe the line with the Department: a state statute is clear evidence of their ability to implement evaluation systems in step with all of the federal requirements. It's much easier to explain your way into what the Department is looking for if you don't have legislation at all.

Clearinghouse Data Leave More Questions than Answers, and We Need Answers

August 14, 2013
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Twenty-nine percent of first-time community college students transferred to a four-year college within six years, according to a new report from the National Student Clearinghouse. About 8 in 10 of those transfer students completed a bachelor’s degree or were still enrolled in the four-year school after six years. These are just a few of the interesting and important findings of the report, many of which were previously unknown.

The report, which looked at students who enrolled at a four-year institution for the first time in the 2005-06 academic year and had previously been enrolled in a two-year college, found that 72.5 percent of those students transferred to public colleges, while 19.7 percent enrolled at private nonprofit institutions, and 7.8 percent enrolled at private for-profit schools. The choice of the type of institution to which a student transferred seemed to make a difference in his success. Nearly 65 percent of students who transferred to public four-year schools graduated within six years of transferring, and about 60 percent of students who transferred to private nonprofit schools did. Meanwhile, only about 35 percent of transfer students at private for-profit schools graduated within six years.


At all three types of institutions, students who enrolled full-time graduated at higher rates than students who were enrolled either part-time or who mixed part-time and full-time enrollment while in school.

● At public institutions, 84 percent of full-time students graduated within six years of transferring, while only one in four part-time students did;
● At private nonprofit schools, 79 percent of full-time students graduated within six years, while 31 percent of part-time students did;
● At private for-profit schools, the results weren’t quite as good for the full-time students. Only 57.7 percent of full-time students graduated within six years, while 18.1 percent of part-time students did.

Perhaps most surprising are the aggregate results the Clearinghouse reports. Students who began at two-year colleges and transferred to four-year schools graduated at a higher rate (71.1 percent) than students who attended four-year institutions throughout their academic careers (65.0 percent). But don’t be misled. That number excludes the many community college students who never transfer. Research suggests only about 29 percent of two-year college students transferred to a four-year school, when about half had once stated an intention to transfer – and the Clearinghouse report doesn’t specify its own figures for this category.

The Clearinghouse report offers unique and important insights in answering questions about higher education, like the one addressed in this report: What happens to students who transfer from community colleges? That’s because no one – not even the U.S. Department of Education – has data on higher education as granular as the Clearinghouse data.

The National Student Clearinghouse, originally the National Student Loan Clearinghouse, was developed twenty years ago to help schools track borrowers and that is now used to help schools comply with federal reporting requirements. Schools voluntarily provide the Clearinghouse with extensive student-level data.

But because of a ban passed by Congress in 2008, the Department may not gather student-level data or offer a sort of public Clearinghouse – instead, it only maintains the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), which offers a profoundly limited look at aggregate, institution-level data. Because of this limitation, IPEDS is unable to answer some of the most simple and fundamental questions, like what happens to community college students who transfer.

It’s an important question, given that IPEDS shows a graduation rate of only 17.9 percent at two-year schools. That’s because the IPEDS definition doesn’t consider transfers in the graduation rates, despite the fact that community colleges consider transferring students to four-year degree programs one of their primary missions. Without student-level data, there’s no way to give community colleges much-deserved credit for transferring those students -- many of whom, the Clearinghouse report shows, ultimately do complete their degrees.

The data from the Clearinghouse report are interesting, but they’re not enough. We need a public version of the Clearinghouse to answer the other questions important to students and families, researchers, and policymakers. We still don’t know how many community college students wanted to earn a four-year degree and never transferred. We don’t know which specific institutions are helping transfer students graduate and which aren’t serving those populations well. Those, and a whole host of other questions, could—and should—be answered with a national student-level database.

Washington Races Forward In First Year of its Early Learning Challenge Grant

August 13, 2013
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This guest post was written by Paul Nyhan, a journalist and early education expert. He writes about early education at Thrive by Five Washington.

For the past several years, Congress has approved funding for several small grant programs that could offer lessons for policymakers across the country but that rarely attract attention from the mainstream press. These programs include the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge, the Social Innovation Fund, Investing in Innovationand Promise Neighborhoods.  While Congress is unlikely to make headway on larger plans, such as President Obama’s 2013 early learning proposal, the work underway in these smaller programs shed light on what states and local communities could aim for – and what mistakes to avoid -- in the future. 
In the next few months, guest blogger Paul Nyhan will provide a window onto four places around the country where these grant programs are triggering changes in early childhood systems. Nyhan kicks off his series by examining how the state of Washington is using its Early Learning Challenge grant. Washington was one of nine states in 2011 to receive the first-ever Early Learning Challenge grants designed to improve a state’s infrastructure for early childhood programs. 

Check out our sidebars on Washington's Early Learning Challenge grant and on the PreK-3rd efforts in seven Washington school districts.

When Washington won an Early Learning Challenge grant, what it really earned was an opportunity to put its vision for early learning on a fast track, one that quickly led to progress and some turbulence within a year.

Essentially, Washington is spending its four-year $60 million grant to speed up three projects that were already underway: construction of a ratings and improvement system for early learning centers (known nationally as QRIS); development of a child assessment and transition program (WaKIDS); and creation of better professional development for early educators.

The Scariest Student Loan Figure is $14,500

August 6, 2013

This post also appeared on our sister blog, Higher Ed Watch.

Yesterday, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) released a new set of data that give the best look to date at the repayment plans of borrowers and the status of their loans. Depending on how much you like to assert gloom and doom in the loan portfolio, the headline-grabbing figure is likely to be either: $3 out of every $10 loan dollars are in deferment, forbearance, or default or only about 20 percent of loan dollars in repayment are in income-based plans. But the figures also show how focusing on absolute debt balances to highlight struggles can be misleading and context matters when it comes to loan performance.

A general assumption in much student debt coverage is that someone with high balances is likely to struggle and default. But this chart from the CFPB suggests that narrative isn't quite so straightforward:

Average Balance By Repayment Status


What this shows is that borrowers in default had by far the lowest debt balances of anyone who had actually entered repayment. (The in-school figure is only a bit higher, but that's also capturing everyone from the fifth-year senior with loan debt from each year and someone just starting out with a small Stafford loan.) That may seem counterintuitive, but it should not be surprising. Research shows that program completion is a major factor in whether or not a student defaults on his or her loans. And since students have annual loan limits, someone who drops out early in their college career can only accumulate so much debt. This means high-debt borrowers are more likely to have finished their programs and are thus at less risk of default. 

The low debt levels of defaulters should make us rethink the way we portray student debt in two ways. First, some people may actually be served by borrowing more, not less.* Think about a dropout who already has student loan debt. They may get a little bit of an earnings return for having completed some college, but not as much as if they'd finished. For that individual, they might actually be better served with more debt if that would help them complete.

*I'm assuming no changes to the financial aid system. In general, more grant aid that's invested more intelligently would better.

Second, flashy debt balances make for good press but not necessarily good policy. I'm just as compelled and saddened by the latest story on the New York University graduate student with $100,000 in debt as the next guy, but I'm a lot more worried about the person earning minimum wage with $5,000 in debt.  The most an undergraduate student of any type can borrow through the federal programs is $57,500, and that's as an independent; dependent students are capped at $31,000. Sure those balances can get bigger with interest, but it's unlikely to hit that magic six figures before ending up in a worse circumstance like default. But even those undergraduates with high debt balances are likely to be in four-year bachelor's degree programs where their expected returns are much higher.

Instead, we should be worrying about these low balance dropouts, such as someone who attended a certificate program for a year and did not finish. For these borrowers, even a few thousand dollars could be an economic shock they cannot recover from. 

Income-Based Repayment May Not Be Helping

Instead of defaulting, the low-debt defaulters should be taking advantage of income-based repayment. But, the debt numbers released on IBR demonstrate that the intended beneficiaries are falling through the cracks while graduate students with high debt balances are taking advantage of the program. 

Repayment Plans of Direct Loan Borrowers


Income-based repayment is portrayed as a safety net to help low-income students manage their loan payments. Though not explicitly stated, the assumption is that these individuals are likely to be undergraduates just getting started on their careers. But the chart above suggests that the average IBR participant is likely to have graduate school debt. The roughly 900,000 borrowers with Direct Loans enrolled in IBR have an average loan balance of $55,900--a figure that's essentially impossible for undergraduate borrowers to hit. An dependent undergraduate can only borrow up to $31,000, which means someone borrowing the maximum would have to make no payments for seven years and avoid losing IBR eligibility by defaulting in order to hit that level. While an independent undergraduate student could borrow that much, in practice they tend to take out less debt than a dependent student. That leaves graduate students, who can borrow up to $138,500 in Stafford loans, plus an essentially uncapped amount in PLUS loan debt.

We can't know from these numbers, alone, exactly who these borrowers are, but here are some educated guesses as to why graduate students might be more likely to use IBR. Students selecting IBR have to navigate a multitude of repayment options and then complete paperwork that is notoriously complicated and difficult to use. This creates an immediate disposition toward not making choices and just using the standard 10-year repayment plan, which the table above shows is the  most popular option. While struggling dropouts would likely benefit from IBR, they’ve probably lost touch with their school and probably aren’t getting much support in choosing the right repayment plan. Borrowers with advanced degrees and proactive financial aid offices, on the other hand, have a significant incentive to make sure higher debt balances don’t become unmanageable. (There is evidence that graduate schools exert a significant amount of effort helping students enroll in IBR.)

Based upon Safety Net or Windfallan analysis of IBR and other repayment plans conducted by Jason Delisle and Alex Holt last year, it's likely that these high-debt borrowers in IBR are either pursuing Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) or in low-paying jobs. That's because the analysis showed that someone with high debt and moderate to high income would be better served in the extended graduated repayment plan than using IBR. (This is no longer true with the new Pay As You Earn option, which is the best deal for high debt, high income borrowers.) So someone making the best repayment plan choice here would either be trying to get the 10-year PSLF or be unable to find a high-paying job. And we know there are plenty of bad graduate schools out there with abysmal employment numbers or unemployed law students. 

The mismatch between those going into default and those in IBR suggests that the program needs to be drastically simplified, and perhaps become the default option instead of the 10-year payment plan. Alternatively, payments could be done through employer withholding, as suggested by the Petri-Polis ExCEL Act. Regardless of the exact solution, in a world where those going into default have loan balances one-quarter the size of those using income-based plans, we need to do a better job making sure the policy solution is actually helping those who need it most. 


July 31, 2013
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When I was a grad student in Boston, I worked at the College Planning Center as an education advisor. Every day predominantly low-income, first generation students would come to the center to get free advice about the college application process. Although we never knew what students would ask, their questions and concerns almost always had to do with financial aid. For most students, this meant helping them understand and complete the FAFSA—the free application for federal student aid required by almost all colleges and universities. The FAFSA can be complicated enough for most students and families, but some students were also required to complete the College Board’s CSS Profile, an even-more complex, onerous, and expensive application.

Over the past few years, the Department of Education has been simplifying the FAFSA, which has been seen as an impediment to college enrollment—especially for low-income, first generation students who may be unfamiliar with the form. The Department has reduced the amount of questions, employed skip logic for the online FAFSA, and introduced an IRS data retrieval tool to help auto-populate a significant portion of the form. These efforts have significantly reduced the average time students and families take to complete the application (from 34 to 23 minutes), it has also increased the overall amount of applications submitted.

But the simplification of the FAFSA coupled with the “high tuition, high aid” model has pushed many institutions to require the PROFILE. In this model, the listed sticker price of the institution is high, but they publicize that they offer significant financial aid packages to low- and moderate-income students. Thus, the PROFILE is used by selective, high-priced institutions to determine institutional aid eligibility. Since FAFSA simplification has removed some questions regarding a family’s assets and savings, institutions have adopted the PROFILE to understand exactly how many assets a family owns before giving them aid. But the PROFILE asks way more questions than the FAFSA ever did.  

While the 2013-14 FAFSA has 101 possible questions, the PROFILE has at least 160 (much of them duplicating information required by the FAFSA), in addition to six worksheets and supplemental questions required by each institution where the student applies. Compared to the FAFSA, many of the questions on the PROFILE are mind-numbing in their complexity.  Take this question as an example:

Enter the total current value of this parent's tax-deferre retirement, pension, annuity, and savings plans. Include IRA, SRA Keogh, SEP, 401(a), 401(k), 403(b), 408, 457, 501(c) plans, etc. (Question PD-175A)

The PROFILE is also expensive, costing a student $25 for the first college listed, and $16 for each additional college.  While there are some fee waivers available, the student doesn’t know whether they qualify for one until they are finished filling out the time-consuming and complicated application. In my experience working with low-income students, only a couple qualified for fee waivers despite the fact that they came from families making less than $35,000. The first letter of the FAFSA stands for free, and for good reason. The last thing you want to do is add a fee onto a financial aid application.

It may be an institution’s prerogative to require a separate application for institutional aid, but many of the institutions participating in the PROFILE indicate that both the PROFILE and FAFSA are required forms to be awarded financial aid. This is misleading since all federal student aid funds are based on the FAFSA only. Not only that, the PROFILE is an extra roadblock for students, especially low-income, first generation students, who may not realize they have to complete an additional form to get their financial aid package. And if they do realize they need to jump through extra hoops, they may not be able to complete the form because it’s too complex, or may not be able to pay the $25 or more to submit the form.

Many of the colleges and universities that require the PROFILE claim that they want diverse student bodies and offer great financial aid packages to ensure that low- and moderate-income students are able to afford a world-class education. But requiring the PROFILE is an unnecessary burden on exactly the families that elite colleges and universities say they want to serve. The FAFSA should be the only required initial financial aid application for students. Once completed, depending on the information provided, an institution could ask a student to submit a CSS PROFILE for more information regarding institutional aid determination. If a student filled out the FAFSA and received an auto-zero expected family contribution (indicating the student is particularly needy), they shouldn’t have to go through the rigmarole of the PROFILE. 

Ideally though, if there has to be a financial aid application there should only be one—the FAFSA. The benefit of simplification for students should outweigh the institution’s desire to know a family’s exact monthly home mortgage payment (question PE-150A) or the amount of untaxed social security benefits they received (question PI-165A) or dozens more questions beyond the scope of the FAFSA.

Syllabus: Week of July 22, 2013

July 26, 2013
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Welcome to the Syllabus, a guide that provides insight into what’s happening in higher education.
Goldie Blumenstyk, Chronicle of Higher Education
On Monday, the U.S. Department of Education released data indicating that more than 150 degree-granting colleges failed the department’s “financial responsibility” test for the 2011 fiscal year. Of those failing colleges, 54 nonprofits and 25 for-profits had scored so low that they are required to post letters of credit in order to continue their participation in federal student aid. The “financial responsibility” test is one of the few available indicators demonstrating the financial health of a college. The scores are calculated by analyzing such factors as a college’s debt, assets, operating surpluses, or deficits.
In recent years, the “financial responsibility” test has come under fire by groups like the National Association of Independent College and Universities (NAICU), claiming that the measure is calculated in an inconsistent and erroneous manner. Frustrated by the Education Department’s refusal to reform the test, NAICU is asking congress to reform the calculation as part of the next reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.  
Ry Rivard, Inside Higher Ed
After a six-month pilot, San Jose State University has decided to “pause” its work with the online provider Udacity. The university’s provost, Ellen Junn said she will do extensive research on the trial and hopes to begin working with Udacity again in the spring of 2014. Preliminary findings suggested students that participated in Udacity online courses did not fare as well as those students who attended traditional classes. This could be because many of the students enrolled in these courses were at-risk, high school students and students who have failed remedial math courses. Also, the online courses were complied at the last minute, as students were taking them.
San Jose State is also working with edX, which is a nonprofit MOCC provider founded by Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The edX partnership does not replace any programs, but supplements the classroom experience by requiring students to review the material prior to arriving to class. This allows faculty to spend more time in class working with students and less time reviewing materials. Preliminary findings indicate that students participating in the program are exceeding the performance of those students not participating.
Lauren Ingeno, Inside Higher Ed
Many in the nursing community are growing concerned with the approaching retirement of nursing educations from the baby boom era. From top-ranking nursing schools like Johns Hopkins, to community colleges like Cuyahoga, qualified faculty – especially nurse preceptors and those with mater’s and doctoral degrees - are hard to find. This concern will only increase once the Affordable Health Care Act is fully in place, which will increase the amount of insured Americans by 30 million. According to a statement by Cuyahoga Community College, “The demand for nurse educators in the Northeast Ohio region will increase by 11 percent by 2010 and 2015.”
To help deal with the faculty shortage, programs at four-year institutions and community colleges have developed creative solutions to hire and retain new faculty. In some states, public institutions and state governments have gathered to address how the money should be allocated to improve the development of educators in the nursing profession. Other states have provided incentives to their nursing faculty to earn their doctoral degrees while learning how to teach nursing effectively. At the University of West Georgia School of Nursing, Dean Kathryn Grams stated, “We’re willing to target out young students to get them into faculty positions before they’re 35 or 40.”

At US News' Debate Club: Fix, Don't Eliminate, the Federal Role in Education

July 25, 2013
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Yesterday, US News & World Report asked five experts in its Debate Club whether the Senate should pass the House’s No Child Left Behind rewrite – the Student Success Act. With the last week's House action, the Student Success Act is the first piece of legislation to make it to a floor vote in the six years since NCLB has been due for reauthorization. Sounds like progress, right?

Well I don’t agree. Here’s what I had to say about the Student Success Act: “Unfortunately, the Student Success Act isn't going to fix either policy [NCLB or NCLB waivers]. Because the Student Success Act doesn't want to fix the federal role in education – it wants to eliminate it.”

What does that mean? While the bill would reduce the scope of the federal role in education by freezing funding at sequester levels and eliminating programs and U.S. Department of Education staff, funding isn’t my biggest issue with the Student Success Act. The larger problem is that the bill guts federal accountability for schools and educators at the same time. There are no requirements for states to adopt college- and career-ready standards, no requirements for states to implement rigorous school accountability systems or teacher evaluations, and no requirements for states to meaningfully support school improvement. (You can see a detailed comparison of all the various NCLB reauthorization proposals here.)  

Yes, NCLB was too prescriptive for states in certain areas. But that shouldn’t be an excuse for no federal role whatsoever. As I explain:

"Skeptics say that the federal government can make states do things, but can't make them do things well. But that's the point: without a strong federal role, states may not do anything at all. Instead of giving states slack in the right places (e.g. how to improve schools, how to produce effective teachers), the Student Success Act gives up entirely – no standards, no accountability, no improvement.”

You can read (and vote for) my full response in the Debate Club here, along with commentary from Rep. George Miller (D-CA); president of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten; the Center for American Progress, and the American Enterprise Institute.

Storify: House 'No Child Left Behind' Debate

July 22, 2013

This post also appeared on our sister blog, Early Ed Watch.

On July 18 and 19, members of the U.S. House of Representatives took to the floor for a heated debate on a proposed reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. Rep. John Kline's (R-MN) bill, the Student Success Act, passed 221-207, but the Senate is not expected to take up the measure. We put together this Storify as a quick catch-up on the House debate.

Storify: House 'No Child Left Behind' Debate

July 22, 2013
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This post also appeared on our sister blog, Ed Money Watch.

On July 18 and 19, members of the U.S. House of Representatives took to the floor for a heated debate on a proposed reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. Rep. John Kline's (R-MN) bill, the Student Success Act, passed 221-207, but the Senate is not expected to take up the measure. We put together this Storify as a quick catch-up on the House debate.

The Federal Role in Education: Mend it, Don’t End It

July 22, 2013
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A few weeks ago I asked, “if Congress agrees the era of big government is over, why can’t we get an ESEA deal?” Both the Senate Democrats’ and House Republicans’ proposals to rewrite the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) scale back the federal role in school accountability and improvement and allow for more state autonomy in determining how school performance is evaluated – and what should be done about it when schools don’t measure up. And Friday, for the first time ever, Congress voted on an NCLB reauthorization proposal.

The Student Success Act, sponsored by House Education and Workforce Chairman John Kline (R-MN), passed on a partisan vote of 221-207. But its ultimate chances are slim: a Senate vote is unlikely, and the White House already issued a veto threat. It seems politics (as it often does) stands in the way of Republicans and Democrats in Congress striking a deal. I wrote:

“Unfortunately, with midterm elections fast approaching, lawmakers appear more concerned with scoring political points and toeing the party line than with the give and take of writing complicated policy. And waivers enable the administration to enact its preferred policies, at least temporarily, while simultaneously blaming Congress for inaction. In short, gridlock is a win-win.”

All of that is true. But I didn’t acknowledge that there are, in fact, fundamental disagreements between the parties when it comes to where and how much the federal government should step back. For many Republicans, the answers are everywhere, and as much as possible. Take Rep. Todd Rokita (R-IN): “No Washington bureaucrat cares more about a child than a parent does. And no one in Washington knows what is better for an Indiana school than Indiana families do. That is why the Student Success Act puts an end to the administration’s National School Board by putting state and local school districts back in charge of their own schools.” 

In other words, for Republicans the federal role is to distribute money, ask states to report a few data points, and promote school choice. And accountability and transparency are interchangeable terms, despite the fact that research – and past experience – demonstrates that’s not the case. When left to their own devices, states consistently take the easy way out (see here, and here, and here). And real accountability – transparent reporting plus interventions and supports for schools with lackluster results – is more effective than transparency alone.

Public reporting and transparency are well and good, but they are no substitute for meaningful accountability. That’s like saying disclosure of political donations and gifts is the same thing as conflict of interest laws making these activities illegal (just ask Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell to explain the difference). A financial disclosure form isn’t enough to prevent ethical violations, just as school report cards can only identify, not solve, the problems in low-performing schools.

Once the data tell us just how bad (or great) our schools are, doesn’t the federal government have an interest in ensuring state and local officials do something with the results? In the words of Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO), maybe it’s time to mend accountability, not end it.

Even the staunchest Democrats, like Rep. George Miller (D-CA), readily admit that “the federal government will never actually improve a school and nor should it try.” But without micromanaging every aspect of accountability and improvement, the federal government can ensure states set consistent, high standards for academic content and achievement. There should be common – or at least, comparable – measures for things like graduation rates, academic proficiency, and adequate student growth. And poor results, particularly for low-income kids, English language learners, and students with disabilities, cannot be acceptable. As Miller would say, “we must continue to support the simple idea that low-performing schools should be identified and required to improve.” The federal government can assist in school improvement efforts without directing them from Washington, working in partnership with states and districts to support their capacity to turnaround low-performing schools.

Indeed, some of the solutions may even require a more ambitious federal role, not a diminished one.  Instead of ceding more and more ground to states, the federal government could double its investments in assessments, data systems, and education research; overhaul teacher training and development; and redress significant disparities in resources between states and school districts. A recent New York Times editorial on testing noted that other countries with strong educational outcomes didn’t achieve these results because of local control. In fact, it’s the opposite. They “typically have gateway exams that determine, for example, if high school students have met their standards. These countries typically have strong, national curriculums. Perhaps most important, they set a high bar for entry into the teaching profession and make sure that the institutions that train teachers do it exceedingly well.”

That’s not to say these are the right policies for our education system. But maybe policymakers shouldn’t give up on the federal government so easily. States can – and have, in recent years – led the way on many education reforms. But getting a quality education shouldn’t depend on which state a student lives in. And with forty ESEA waivers and counting, there is probably more variation in quality between states than at any point since NCLB became law. This incoherence will not clear without stronger policymaking at the national level.

The Student Success Act won’t get us there. But since it also won’t get past the Senate or President Obama, the good news is that there is be plenty of time to write an education law that expects more, not less, from our education system.

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