Race and NCLB Waivers: Moving Around the Chairs?

In the recent vote for 2012 Educational Policy Turkey of the Year Award, the Florida SBOE race-based test score goals came in a close second to TFA for the prize. In fact, two of my Linkedin connections made the following comments in response the posting:

 I vote for ALL ESEA waivers that systematize the achievement gap in many, many states outside of Texas.

…I wonder if some of the waiver application approaches are bigger “turkeys”???

Their comments inspired this post.

In my Educational Foundations course that I teach each fall at UT-Austin, I have adapted the History of School Reform, one of my favorite graduate courses at SUSE formerly taught by David Tyack (and also Larry Cuban). Back in 2006, as a new professor, I approached Tyack and Cuban and they graciously helped develop my course with their syllabus and input —I am indebted to them. One of the early experiences I had in the School Reform course at Stanford (and one that my students now have) is a discussion from Larry Cuban’s book How Teachers Taught: Constancy and Change in American Classrooms 1890-1990 about first-order and second order changes. I often frame new educational policies in class using Cuban’s framework. (Btw, he has another interesting graphic describing the growth of online schools on his blog here)

First-Order changes

  • Intentional efforts to enhance existing arrangements while the correcting deficiencies in policies and practices
  • Try to make what exists more efficient and effective without disturbing the basic organizational features
  • Does not alter how adults and children in schools perform their roles

Second-Order changes

  • Solutions to design problems
  • Seek to fundamentally alter ways organizations are put together
  • Introduce new goals, structures, and roles that transform familiar “ways of doing things”
  • Spawned by major dissatisfaction with present arrangements

The real challenge with Race to the Top, NCLB waivers, and generally, Obama’s educational policy approach since Bush is that they are solely first-order changes. Has NCLB (as arguably a second-order change) improved the achievement gap? I mentioned on Cloaking Inequity last month a new paper by Sean Reardon, a Stanford Professor, presented at an Accountability conference in Rome. At the rate of improvement we have seen over the past decade on the NAEP and state-mandated criterion-referenced tests, it will take us 80 more years to close the achievement gap.

What does this all have to do with NCLB waivers you ask? The first issue is that high-stakes tests are only inching towards closing the achievement gap. Remember with much ado that Bush and Kennedy said the achievement gaps would be closed by NCLB in 2014? The current waiver approach is more first-order change— just pushing the can-down-the-road. Most media attention regarding waiver applications stipulating lower test scores by race/ethnicity has centered on the plans in Florida (12) and Virginia (1, 2) and Washington D.C (12). However, these entities are NOT alone in this approach for their waiver applications. In fact, in their story about D.C. public schools, the Washington Post reported that,

The District and 27 of the 33 states that have received waivers from the Obama administration under No Child Left Behindhave also set new goals that call for different levels of achievement for different groups of students.

The proponents of this “lowered bar” approach have argued that it is okay that initial thresholds are lower by race/ethnicity as long as expect growth over the next decade or so is greater for African Americans and Latina/os. Just like our national financial debt, the baby boomer’s approach to education reform is “moving around the chairs” public policy, leaving my generation (X) with another debt, a national educational debt. The current waiver approach is more of the same— we will lose another decade by utilizing the same failed high-stakes testing and accountability approach that has set a glacial pace for the nation.

So what if first-order change is all that is on the table? My thought is that this decade long cross-sectional approach to closing the achievement gap is misguided. (I of course prefer Community-Based Accountability). If I am forced to choose from poorly designed high-stakes exams for an approach, it would be much more ideal for states to determine individual-level growth to proficiency within racial/ethnic groups rather than averaging cross-sectional test scores. One example of this is the now defunct Texas Progress Measure (TPM) where three-year growth trajectories to proficiency were calculated for each student. Schools were given credit for accountability ratings when those students met their individualized growth trajectory in a particular year. Another benefit of this approach is that low-performing schools would not need to be risk-averse towards students that they see as liabilities to accountability ratings because they could focus on achievement growth rather than thresholds. In their infinite wisdom, TEA “scraped” the TPM in 2011.

So what second order changes should be on the table? Check back here at Cloaking Inequity for part two of Race and NCLB waivers.


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