Preliminary Analysis of President Obama's Blueprint for the Reauthorization of the Federal Education Law

Preliminary Analysis of President Obama's Blueprint for the Reauthorization of the Federal Education Law

Jan Resseger, Minister for Public Education and Witness, UCC Justice & Witness Ministries
March 14, 2010

In his March 13 radio address, President Obama announced his Administration's new "Blueprint" for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the federal education law currently called No Child Left Behind (NCLB).  The 2002 version of the law, NCLB, is long overdue for its five-year reauthorization, scheduled for 2007.

The more than 40 page "Blueprint," posted on the website of the U.S. Department of Education, is a statement of general principles.  It is not a detailed plan for the reauthorization.  It will be necessary to reevaluate the Administration's ideas as more details emerge in upcoming months.

Where do the UCC's positions on the Elementary and Secondary Education Act come from?

The following preliminary analysis of the Department of Education's "Blueprint" is grounded in 1985 and 1991 UCC General Synod pronouncements on public education, a 2001 resolution on public education, and a more general 2005 resolution on the common good.  It is further grounded in the talking points that the UCC has developed in preparation for the reauthorization of the federal education law and adjusted over a period of years as the consequences of the law's cascading sanctions have become clearer and the political climate has shifted. 

Two other excellent resources that are congruent with our UCC concerns about the 2002 law have been prepared by the National Council of Churches Committee on Public Education and Literacy:  Ten Moral Concerns in the No Child Left Behind Act (written in 2005 and updated in 2008) and Opportunity Gaps in Public Education Must Be Closed, a 2010 resource highlighting serious resource disparities that impair public school capacity in the poorest communities. 

The UCC Justice & Witness Ministries has been for more than five years an active partner in the Forum on Educational Accountability, an alliance of national partners that has actively worked for reform in the federal education law, beginning in 2004 with the release of a Joint Organizational Statement on NCLB that now has 151 signers.  We are part of the Rethinking Learning Now Campaign, and we have strongly supported an initiative called the Broader, BOLDER Approach to Education.

The Obama Administration's Proposal for the Reauthorization

In its new proposal, the Obama Administration retains a significant part of the structure of the original No Child Left Behind Act. Students in grades 3 through 8 are to be assessed every year on standardized tests, and their scores disaggregated by race, ethnicity, poverty, special needs, and English language learning status.  The new Obama proposal, however, creates incentives for states to participate in multi-state consortia to implement "common core standards;" in fact the new plan makes receipt of Title I funds after 2015 contingent on states' adoption of common core standards developed by multi-state consortia. The new proposal thereby strongly encourages states to join their counterparts in raising academic standards.

What are the strengths of the Obama Administration's "Blueprint" for the ESEA reauthorization?

  • The utopian 2014 deadline in NCLB  by which all children must prove themselves proficient on standardized tests or their schools be declared failures is not part of the Obama proposal for the reauthorization.
  • The "Blueprint" eliminates the federal sanction that requires setting aside and re-directing federal Title I funds to pay for transportation for children in so-called "failing" schools to other public schools.
  • The "Blueprint" eliminates the federal sanction that states be required to spend Title I funds on Supplemental Educational Services (SES), privatized tutoring programs for children in public schools whose test scores remain low. State education departments have not had adequate capacity to regulate hundreds of SES providers; programs have never been well-aligned with school curriculum; SES programs have attracted few participants; and research has failed to demonstrate that these programs, on the whole, have improved test scores.
  • The "Blueprint," in at least one small way,  recognizes that student achievement is affected by poverty, lack of health care, and lack of enrichment activities outside the school day and during the summer.  The proposal affirms the value of "Community Schools," where wrap-around services like health, mental health, and dental clinics; child care; Head Start; after school enrichment programs; and parent employment training are provided right at school through community partnerships coordinated by a lead partner  The President's proposed 2011 budget does not, however, provide for significant expansion of such programs. If Community Schools were to be fully funded and made a top priority for all big-city school districts, that would be a very important move toward justice.   
  • The "Blueprint" grants flexibility for schools serving American Indian, Native Hawaiian, and Alaska Native children to ensure that programs reflect the cultures and languages of these children.  Parents are invited to help develop school programming in these communities.  This is a healthy and refreshing endorsement of multicultural education and family involvement; this proposal should be expanded to schools serving primarily African American, Hispanic and other immigrant children, and schools where white, dominant-culture children would benefit from multicultural programming.
  • From the point of view of staff, students, and families in the majority of public schools that are deemed by test scores to be successful or improving, the federal government will reduce the punitive tone that has dominated the recent test-and-punish years under NCLB.  Schools deemed models of improvement will qualify for incentive grants; schools in the middle deemed to be OK will be granted more flexibility to drive their continuing improvement.
  • The "Blueprint" targets struggling schools that are not in the lowest 5 percent of achievement for intervention and support.  These schools will be targeted for intervention by their school districts and their states.  Whether this "help" is supportive or punitive will, of course, depend on the way the program is designed, how well it is funded, and the quality of the "experts" who are brought in as consultants.

 What are the problems in the Obama Administration's proposals for the ESEA reauthorization?

  • The "Blueprint" incorporates untried turnaround plans for the bottom 5 percent of public schools. The Obama proposal requires extremely punitive interventions for 5 percent of public schools that have been unable over time to raise their test scores.  These are the schools that have, under NCLB, been commonly called "failing" schools.  Because these schools are located primarily in highly segregated, big-city districts, the children most affected by these radical plans will be primarily very poor urban children, many of them children of color. These "Challenge Schools" will be required to implement one of four prescribed turnaround plans, none of which is supported by research, as a way to improve public education. This proposal is, therefore, the latest in a long series of experiments on our nation's most vulnerable children and their schools. Very few parents who have the political power to affect what happens in their children's schools would accept this sort of radical experimentation. One wonders, if over time the bottom 5 percent of schools continue to be subject to these turnarounds, how many teachers will be fired or schools closed, charterized, or privatized.

 Each of the schools in the bottom 5 percent of schools must be subjected to one of the following interventions:

    • Transformation---bring in a new principal and some staff, a new instructional program, new governance, and longer school day and year;
    • Turnaround---replace the principal and at least half the staff and bring in a new instructional program, new governance, and longer school day and  year;
    • Restart---close the school and reopen as a charter school or under a private education management organization; or
    • School Closure---close the school and move the students somewhere else.The "Blueprint" does not significantly expand opportunity to learn.  In the church we are called to focus on the need for equalizing educational opportunity in schools that serve children who have historically been left behind. 
  • The "Blueprint" does not significantly expand opportunity to learn. In the church we are called to focus on the need for equalizing educational opportunity in schools that serve children who have historically been left behind. One of our primary critiques of the No Child Left Behind Act has been to insist that Congress recognize that it is unfair and immoral to demand equal outcomes as measured in standardized test scores while remaining silent about equalizing the resources at the federal and state levels that create the opportunity for children to learn.  We have continued to point out that resource gaps between school districts remain 3:1 in most states and that closing achievement gaps will require closing gaping resource opportunity gaps. 

The President's proposal pays mere lip service to the need to address enormous disparities in resources. The proposal includes only one of the steps we have proposed to expand resource opportunity: that "states be asked to measure and report on resource disparities and develop a plan to tackle them." However, in a "Blueprint" filled with carrots and sticks, there appear to be no consequences for states that ignore this "ask." The President's proposal does include a request that school districts ensure comparability in distribution of resources between more affluent and poorer schools within each school district, but it ignores the yawning disparities across school districts and across states.

Congress should allocate federal resources for equity and use its power to press states to close opportunity gaps. Here are the UCC Justice and Witness Ministries' proposals to address opportunity gap.  None of them appears in the "Blueprint":

    • Fully fund Title I at the authorized level in current law.
    • Move Title I from the discretionary budget category to the mandatory budget category, removing this program from the political battles of the annual appropriations process.
    • Provide strong federal incentives (carrots and/or sticks) for states to reform inequitable school funding formulas and establish a comprehensive school funding indicator system by which states report data about access to core opportunities like early childhood education, qualified teachers, challenging curriculum, and instructional resources.
    • Create a transparent, regular federal report that exposes the scope of unequal access to opportunity across states and school districts.
  • The President's proposal relies on competitive grants and de-emphasizes formula programs. The "Blueprint" represents school improvement as a race with winners and losers. While the proposal pledges to maintain Title I formula grants to high-poverty school districts, we know that the President's proposed 2011 budget flat-funds the Title I formula grant program while significantly increasing funds for competitive and incentive programs. When NCLB was implemented beginning in 2002, the promise was a large funding increase for Title I formula grants. That increase never substantially materialized, leaving a massive and cumulative unfunded mandate for school districts serving a large number of children in poverty. President Obama's four interventions for turning around the nation's lowest 5 percent of struggling schools are severely punitive; it is therefore doubly important that Title I formula grants for these very schools be significantly increased to give those schools and school districts a chance before punishments ensue.  Although the Title I formula program is small relative to state and local funding, it is the federal government's primary tool for equalizing educational opportunity.  Justice & Witness Ministries has proposed that Title I formula grants be fully funded as authorized in current law and that Title I formula grants be moved from the discretionary to the mandatory budget category to remove the program from the political battles of the annual appropriations process.

 

     
  • The "Blueprint" blames school teachers.  The proposal blames school teachers for many challenges that are neither of their making nor within their capacity to change. The February 23, 2010 firing of the entire faculty of a high school in Central Falls, Rhode Island was an example of the "Turnaround" model of school reform, a model incorporated in the Race to the Top federal stimulus grant competition, and imported now into the President's "Blueprint" for the ESEA reauthorization. There are, of course, some boring and ineffective teachers, but massive firing of teachers, an "Off with their heads!" philosophy of school reform, scapegoats all public school teachers and fails to recognize the myriad factors that determine a school's effectiveness.  Because the "Blueprint," like NCLB, fails to address massive resource inequality across public schools, it shifts the burden of school reform once again onto the backs of school teachers who are expected somehow to compensate for society's structural injustices. In its Ten Moral Concerns in the No Child Left Behind Act, the National Council of Churches Committee on Public Education and Literacy criticized this kind of federal policy that fails to support teaching professionals: "The No Child Left Behind Act approaches the education of America's children through an inside-the-school management strategy of increased productivity rather than providing resources and support for the individuals who will shape children's lives."  The "Blueprint" also bases teacher evaluation "in significant part on student growth" on standardized test scores, a merit-pay scheme, though it acknowledges that classroom observations and other unspecified factors perhaps should be considered as well. 

 

  • The "Blueprint" continues to rely heavily on the worst kind of standardized testing.  In the church we have criticized NCLB for too much testing of the wrong kind. The "Blueprint" requires continued annual testing, in grades 3-8, of all children in reading and math.  Although the "Blueprint" proposes to improve tests by adding growth models and creating immediate feedback after standardized tests are administered to help teachers with instruction, no one yet has found a workable way to implement these good suggestions. We have joined with partners to advocate for multiple measures (multiple sources of different types of evidence of student learning) because experts continue to point out that standardized tests are neither intended nor designed to be the sole measurement of a child's learning. We have criticized the narrowing of the curriculum that has grown from teaching to tests in reading and math only. The "Blueprint" encourages states to broaden the curriculum to include the arts, the social sciences, and the humanities and encourages the states to provide incentives for schools to teach these subjects by adding standardized tests in these content areas. In the church we do not support adding more standardized testing. Again, in the words of the National Council of Churches Committee on Public Education and Literacy, "As people of faith we do not view our children as products to be tested and managed but instead as unique human beings, created in the image of God, to be nurtured and educated.

 

  • The "Blueprint" relies too heavily on charterization and school privatization.  Charterizing schools and privatizing management of public schools are prominent in the "Blueprint's" school turnaround models. While there are many excellent charter schools, the largest study of charter school quality, a study conducted at Stanford University, found that the majority of charter schools do not match in quality their surrounding public schools.  Only 17 percent of charter schools in this study surpassed the public schools. In the church we have continued to raise concerns about whether all children have equal access to admission in charter schools, and whether children with a range of special needs can be accepted or find appropriate programs in charter schools. We have continued to critique the lack of transparency in charter schools in many states that have not created adequate legislative oversight over charter schools. We are pleased to see the pledge in the "Blueprint" that, "Both charter schools and other autonomous schools funded under this program must be subject to the same accountability systems as traditional public schools, as well as increased accountability for improving student academic achievement."  Accomplishing adequate public oversight over these schools, accountable to their private boards but funded publicly, will be an enormous challenge for the U.S. Department of Education.