Guest column: How the federal government betrayed local education

In 2002, Congress passed No Child Left Behind (NCLB), ushering in the era of high-stakes testing for school and teacher accountability. And in spite of the fact that the federal government provides about 10 percent of the funding for K-12 education, it started to call the tune. The states just can’t afford to turn those dollars down.

NCLB required each state to set mandatory academic standards by grade level that all students would be required to meet by 2014. Each school receiving any federal education funding was required to show progress towards achieving the 2014 standards by demonstrating annual yearly improvement in standardized test scores. This measure is called Annual Yearly Progress (AYP). Failure to achieve AYP in any one federally dictated category results in series of escalating sanctions. Thus, there are 37 ways to become a “failing school,” and only one way to avoid it (achieve AYP in every category). Similarly, for a district, there are 111 ways to “fail” and only one way to succeed.

But as 2014 approached, it was becoming apparent to everyone what should have been obvious in 2002: The goal of all children meeting or exceeding any meaningful standards could not be met, and ultimately nearly every public school in the country would be labeled as failing.

Other problems with NCLB also became apparent, such as:

•  Measures of educational attainment among the states differed widely with some states having much more lenient standards than others.

•  NCLB requires each district to employ only “highly qualified” teachers. Federal Department of Education definitions of highly qualified differed from Washington state’s definition and proved difficult to meet in small rural districts where a teacher might have to teach subjects outside, but related to, his or her academic major.

•  In most states, including Washington, standardized tests used for measuring AYP are only given in English, guaranteeing that students still in the process of learning the language will do poorly.

•  Testing became the tail that wags the dog. In schools serving our highest-need children, mandated tests now consume 60 days out of a 180-day school year. These are precisely the schools where the length of the school year needs to be made longer, not shorter.

•  There is increasing concern that the culture of “test and shame” is discouraging the best teachers from accepting the challenges of teaching in schools serving students with the greatest needs (too great a risk of being labeled a poor teacher).

•  This educator bashing is also beginning to affect the supply and quality of new teachers entering the profession and principals willing to take the jobs.

Although it is clear that NCLB needs fixing, there is no consensus in Congress on how to do it. In response to this legislative crisis, the Obama administration began to offer waivers from the requirements of NCLB if states would agree to accept certain Department of Education “reforms.” These include adopting the Obama administration’s restructuring options for “failing schools” and adopting federally dictated language specifying how test scores must be used in evaluating teachers, even though some of these specifications make no sense. (How do you use test scores in reading, math, and science to evaluate music teachers?)

Under the Obama administration directives, the result of being labeled a “failing school” is that the school is required to be “restructured,” either by:

•  turnaround (removing the principal and at least half the teaching staff)

•  transformation (removing the principal and at least 10 percent of the teacher staff)

•  closing the school, (removing the entire staff) or

•  hiring a private company to run it or turning the school into a charter school (remove the principal and restaff).

States are encouraged to implement these actions whether or not local school boards or the communities in which they are located believe they are warranted. There is also little or no evidence that these measures improve student achievement. To the contrary, in the schools that have implemented one of these required options it has taken years to recover from the instability and stigma — neither of which enhances student learning.

In Washington, the state adopted some, but not all, of this federally mandated language, and in retaliation for this failure, the state lost its waiver from NCLB requirements, requirements that even the U.S. Department of Education admits are nonsensical. The impact to Washington school districts is that we are the only state dealing with a combination of requirements — the old AYP rules from the outdated NCLB and the new mandates from the Obama administration.

Recently, there have been reports that Sens. Patty Murray and Lamar Alexander have agreed to try to produce a bipartisan reauthorization of federal education legislation. Thus, the logjam on reauthorization may be breaking, but it is far from clear that the result will be any improvement. In the meantime, there are currently bills dropped in the Washington Legislature to accommodate the U.S. Department of Education’s dictates and to regain the NCLB waiver for next year.