Vail Daily column: Exciting policy options
This past week I had the extraordinary professional delight of attending a four-day event put on by the Aspen Institute talking state education policy. I realize that talking about education policy might sound like a dreadful way to spend one’s precious summer days, especially considering the Maroon Bells are in plain sight, but the invitation to learn, share and debate critical topics affecting education policy with a small, intimate, highly knowledgeable circle of thought-leaders was pretty exciting for me. As I reflect on this unique experience, I will share some of my thinking and learning in my next couple of articles.
The focus of the Aspen discussion was on the changing role of state education agencies. This conversation is important and timely given what is occurring right now in Washington related to federal education policy.
Most people are familiar with some of the major provisions of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (more commonly known as No Child Left Behind) — the federal education law passed in 2002 under the Bush administration which dramatically raised federal requirements on states around student testing and the reporting of data.
Ostensibly, the purpose of all this testing and reporting was to raise “accountability” levels for public schools and districts. Ultimately, the penalty for schools labeled as “failing” under NCLB included being closed, turned over to an outside management firm or having the teachers and/or principal at the school fired.
No Child Left Behind (with its requirements on testing, reporting and consequences for low scoring schools) dramatically expanded the federal role in education policy. Prior to NCLB, the states had more of the controls (with the exception of policies related to civil rights issues).
Fast forward a few years to the Obama administration and the appointment of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Under Secretary Duncan, the federal role expanded even further through the deployment of a massive federal grant program called Race to the Top and the use of “waivers” from some components of federal law. The hitch for states in getting the grant dollars and waivers was the adoption of certain policies preferred by the Obama administration — namely the evaluation of teachers using test scores and the adoption of more rigorous academic standards and aligned tests.
Today, NCLB is nearing a decade overdue for “reauthorization” — a timeline put in the original law when Congress was supposed to evaluate and reconsider it. Last week, there was measurable progress as both the House and the Senate passed new laws that would make some significant changes to the law.
Mainly, these changes relate to what many members of Congress feel has been a series of oversteps in terms of the federal presence in state education policy. A majority in both the House and the Senate feel that the directives contained in NCLB and the actions taken by the president and secretary of education in recent years need to be curtailed and rolled back, effectively putting the states back into the driver’s seat in terms of education policy.
This move is not without its detractors, namely those who support the underlying policy levers contained in NCLB and advanced by Obama/Duncan around testing, accountability, school choice and state intervention to turnaround schools where students score low on state exams.
Time will tell if Congress can ultimately come to an agreement between the House and Senate versions of the bill; and if they can deliver a bill that the president will sign, then the repositioning of states into lead roles may present a number of exciting policy options in the days ahead.
In a post-NCLB world, states might consider addressing instruction to high standards by providing high quality instructional materials for teachers and finding ways to facilitate the sharing of these materials, instead of relying on standardized tests as a primary measure of teacher effectiveness and student learning. States might focus on educator quality by working to build up the teaching profession in a number of ways instead of trying to use evaluation to remove weak educators after the fact. And, states might address low performing schools by focusing on a more equitable distribution of education resources and getting serious about student poverty, rather than closing a school and firing the people working in it.
This wider frame and greater set of options presents a rich opportunity for state policy initiatives; a broader perspective and considering more alternatives is never a bad thing in any situation. It’s certainly something to be excited about!
Jason E. Glass is the superintendent of Eagle County Schools. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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