ESEA Blueprint: Grand design or tunnel vision?

I’ve been asked on several fronts for my reaction to the Blueprint for Reform: The Reauthorization of Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) put forward by the USDOE. Still catching up after my long illness, I believe I’ve missed the official response deadline, but I doubt that the debate over this plan is going to end any time soon. Which is good, since this is a huge bill, embedded with many complexities and challenges.

The Blueprint is full of inspiring and lofty language; much of which expresses ideas I support. For example, I wholeheartedly agree with President Obama’s assertion on page 1:

A world-class education is also a moral imperative—the key to securing a more equal, fair, and just society. We will not remain true to our highest ideals unless we do a far better job of educating each one of our sons and daughters. We will not be able to keep the American promise of equal opportunity if we fail to provide a world-class education to every child.

As a tax-paying, American citizen, I believe there are certain things which are the birthright of every citizen, and that it is our duty as a society to provide the resources for the perpetuation of those birthrights. Of all the things on which the government could and does spend my tax dollars, quality education for every citizen (not just children, but all citizens) is one upon which I most heartily agree. I also welcome the Blueprint’s acknowledgement of the importance of teachers and the need to “elevate the teaching profession” (4). This is a refreshing change from the counterproductive denigration of teachers that has been the standard talking point from DC policy circles for too long.

I also applaud the tiny, but very important section of the Blueprint that asserts students with disabilities will be assessed more accurately and appropriately. I pray this means we will no longer humiliate and frustrate special needs students by forcing them to be tested beyond their instructional level.

It is possible and laudable for us to achieve the Blueprint’s major goal: “We must ensure that every child graduates from high school well-prepared for college and career” (1). Whether we can do it in the timetables and methods proposed in the Blueprint, is much more debatable.

One point of concern for me in the plan is the heavy emphasis on competitive grants as a mechanism for generating innovation and reformation.

Much of the Blueprint refers to, and indeed relies upon, more sophisticated student performance data systems which do not yet exist. Those data systems that do currently exist, are insufficient for the type of information and decisions that are called for under these policies. We actually need to take a step back and remember that our existing data systems are based upon the currently available standardized tests and their results. The results of these tests cannot be used to make determinations and evaluations beyond what they were designed to measure. As the Blueprint rightfully notes, we need to develop not only new data systems, but base them upon more appropriate assessments as well.

Am I the only one troubled by what the concept of “fewer, larger funding streams” (6) might look like in practice? Giving states and districts more flexibility in how they use federal education funds by allowing them to blend funds from different categories sounds reasonable. Past experience, however, strongly suggests that given that type of freedom, some state level politicians and bureaucrats may play fast and loose with those monies, funding their own pet projects or districts while circumventing the goal of providing help to the most needy. What’s to stop states from pursuing grant money for a low performing school while pulling back on their own fiscal commitment? In such cases, what happens to those schools and students when the grants end? Federal monitoring of programs such as Title I has been spotty, at best. The Blueprint does not speak strongly enough to how oversight will be improved in the future.

How can we discuss “expanding public school choice” on the one hand, while hundreds of schools are being closed across the nation due to budget shortfalls?

How can we demand that the need for remediation at the college level be reduced, when millions of formerly employed or underemployed people are being forced to return to school (many of them to community colleges) where they must pick up their education from wherever it stopped? What about the millions of young people public education has already failed–the dropouts, push-outs, and left-outs? Many of them will [hopefully] try again to get their lives together, to seek an education; and when they come back, they will need help. Is being ready for college just about meeting certain academic benchmarks? What about being ready to learn and take responsibility for one’s learning? What about being ready to teach whoever shows up whatever s/he needs to learn?

I am VERY uneasy about the idea of letting each state develop its own definition of “effective” and “highly effective.” (Haven’t we been down this road already with “highly qualified”)? For one, the characteristics of effective and highly effective teaching, thanks in part to the work of the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards, are not that amorphous that they can’t be articulated. [Full Disclosure: I am a National Board Certified Teacher and a member of the Board of Directors of NBPTS]. The danger here is that what the DOE really wants is to give the states the power to tie their definitions to specific percentages or pass rates on state tests. [Back to my point above about those]. As with the student data systems, the Blueprint also calls for improved teacher evaluations systems, that do not yet exist. Will the implementation of the provisions and the determinations of teacher effectiveness be postponed until they are developed, piloted, and brought to scale? Any of these steps could take years to complete.

What will we do while these systems are being developed? While teachers are being re-trained? While new assessments are being brought on line? While technology infrastructures are being upgraded? Not just what will we do, but for what will educators at all levels be held accountable and how will that be determined?

The Blueprint further assures that priority (presumably in funding) will be given for recruiting high performing college graduates into teaching. What, exactly, does that mean? College students with high overall grade point averages? Those with high grades in content area courses, or candidates with demonstrated teaching ability? Preferably, a combination of these and other qualifications.

How will the plans in the Blueprint liberate teachers across the nation to teach?

The Blueprint ends with a call for American students to receive a “well-rounded education.” Here, here.

Becoming an educated citizen of these United States should do more than prepare our children to work. It should prepare them to participate in our democratic processes, to make thoughtful decisions, to understand that there is more in the world we don’t know than what we do, and to stir up within them an unending love and desire for learning. That’s the educational system we need to design.

There is much more in this document and in the plans for reauthorization that need to be examined and discussed at length. I hope large numbers of teachers, parents, and students will actively share your views on these important issues.