essa watch

No Child Left Behind is dead. But have states learned from it?

PHOTO: Paul Morse/White House
President George W. Bush signs into law the No Child Left Behind Act on Jan. 8, 2002 at Hamilton High School in Hamilton, Ohio.

When the Every Student Succeeds Act won bipartisan support from a famously polarized Congress in 2015, it was less a sign of the two parties’ ability to work together than an indictment of what they were replacing: No Child Left Behind.

NCLB had grown increasingly unpopular, blamed for setting impossible-to-reach goals, inciting test-prep frenzy, and unfairly targeting high-poverty schools. (The law has defenders, too, who point to evidence that it increased student achievement in math and provided important new breakdowns of performance data by race.)

ESSA gave states a chance to start fresh. To date, 16 states and Washington, DC have submitted their plans to implement the law; one plan, Delaware’s, has been approved by the Department of Education.

With some plans in hand, it’s worth asking: Are states really changing course? Are they learning from what many viewed as the problematic aspects of the law ESSA replaced?

Here are some of the sharpest criticisms levied at No Child Left Behind — and what we know about whether states are now planning to go in a different direction.

Criticism #1: States put too much focus on testing.

No Child Left Behind became closely associated with high-stakes testing. ESSA continues to require annual testing in grades three through eight, but allows states to use metrics other than test scores in their plans for evaluating schools.

Indeed, every state that has submitted a plan so far has added — or plans to add — at least one additional measure. The most popular has been chronic absenteeism.

“States are broadening their accountability systems beyond reading and math,” according to a review of state plans by Bellwether Education Partners, an education consulting firm generally aligned with the education reform movement. “Most states added science and a more accurate measure of student attendance, not to mention indicators measuring physical education, art, and school climate.”

But, particularly in elementary and middle school, it remains true that test scores will be the major driver of which schools are deemed low-performing.

That’s partially because the law requires “much greater” weight to be placed on test scores — and on graduation rates for high schools — than on non-academic measures like absenteeism or student engagement.

Still, states have interpreted that in different ways. Delaware’s system will base 70 percent of its ratings for elementary and middle schools on state tests. In Louisiana, 75 percent of scores for elementary schools will be determined by state math and English tests and 25 percent will come from science and social studies exams. (Eventually, Louisiana plans to add “access to a well-rounded curriculum” as a measure, though it will only account for 5 percent.)

Other states are making greater efforts to scale back testing. In Maryland, according to a draft plan, only 45 percent of elementary-school scores will be based on state tests though it remains to be seen whether the feds will approve this approach.  

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar

Criticism #2: Schools serving lots of poor students were unfairly penalized.

No Child Left Behind used student proficiency to measure schools — and one all-but-inevitable consequence is that school ratings are tightly associated with poverty.

A number of researchers have argued that this approach unfairly penalizes schools for the students they serve and deters teachers from working in those schools. Certain civil rights groups, though, say this method is important in order to maintain high standards and identify schools that need the most help.

Under ESSA, this positive correlation is likely to remain. High-poverty schools will probably still be far more likely to be identified as low-performing, since states, as required by the statute, will continue to use proficiency or overall performance.

Most states also plan to use measures of student growth, which are less tightly associated with poverty. But even when it comes to growth, a number of states are using hybrid approaches that don’t break the link between performance and poverty. Other common indicators, like chronic absenteeism and high school graduation rates, are also tightly related to student income.

A review by the Fordham Institute, a conservative education think tank, found that only a handful of states would likely be fair to high-poverty schools. Matthew Di Carlo of the Shanker Institute, a think tank affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers, came to a similar conclusion.

“ESSA perpetuates long-standing measurement problems that were institutionalized under No Child Left Behind,” Di Carlo wrote. “The ongoing failure to distinguish between student and school performance continue to dominate accountability policy to this day.”

Criticism #3: Schools were pushed to focus on kids near the proficiency bar and ignore others.

Another problem many identified under No Child Left Behind was that proficiency created an all-or-nothing definition of academic performance — that is, a school was penalized if a student fell short of the proficiency bar by a single question, yet didn’t get extra credit for those who scored far above proficiency. In other words, schools had less incentive to help kids far above and far below proficiency.

A number of states seem to have taken this to heart. The Fordham Institute report gave eight out of 16 states a strong rating in whether there are incentives to “focus on all students.”

The percentage of school ratings that are based on measures seen as likely to encourage a focus on all students, based on states’ ESSA plans. (Fordham Institute)

To do that, some state plans emphasize student growth or judge schools based on average overall test scores. Several states plan to use those measures for a majority of their elementary and middle school ratings. 

Still, proficiency continues to play a major role in many state plans. Moreover, the use of chronic absenteeism risks replicating the problem: schools will have an incentive to focus on kids just short of the bar to be deemed chronically absent (often 15 days out of school).

That said, there remains significant debate about whether this downside actually exists. Although older research on accountability systems in Chicago and Texas showed that teachers focused more on “bubble kids” — that is, those near proficiency — a study of several states during the NCLB era did not find evidence of this.

Criticism #4: States didn’t do a good job helping low-performing schools improve.

The mission of NCLB — and now ESSA — was to identify schools that need help, incentivize them to improve, and if that doesn’t work, require states to intervene. Perhaps the most troubling legacy of No Child Left Behind, as well as the Obama-era school turnaround program, is what we didn’t learn: what interventions truly improve a struggling school.

States have tried a variety of strategies — including improving support for teachers, adding social services, closure, and conversion to charters — and have found mixed success. (There is some evidence that dismissal of a critical mass of teachers and the principal, combined with hiring flexibility and additional resources, is a promising approach.)

Perhaps because the research is so inconclusive — as well as due to political considerations — many states have been vague about how they plan to intervene in schools in the future.

“Instead of taking the opportunity to design their own school improvement strategies, the state produced plans that are mostly vague and non-specific on how they will support low-performing schools,” according to the review by Bellwether.

One exception, the report notes, is New Mexico, which created a menu of specific options — including closure, charter takeover, or significant restructuring — for schools that are persistent low-performing. This is similar to the federal School Improvement Grant program, which produced inconsistent results.

Asked and answered

Why Rahm Emanuel and his schools chief believe an elite curriculum can resuscitate neighborhood schools

PHOTO: Steve Hendershot/Chalkbeat
Mayor Rahm Emanuel at Fiske Elementary in Woodlawn

Chicago is doubling down on a big bet that the International Baccalaureate program can be boon to its struggling neighborhood schools. We asked Mayor Rahm Emanuel and schools chief Janice Jackson to explain their calculus in a recent joint interview. Here’s what they told Chalkbeat contributor Steve Hendershot. 

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length. 

Chalkbeat: Why does it make sense to you to expand IB’s presence in Chicago?   

Janice Jackson: We’ve made investments in IB schools for a number of reasons: first, believing that schools need high-quality academic programs and a curriculum aligned to that, in order to really raise the bar for students and make sure that they are being presented with grade-level appropriate materials.

But in the case of IB, it’s rigorous and grade-level appropriate, but also takes a global look, which we think is one of the things that students should be focused on.

When we look at our metrics, we’ve already seen a dramatic improvement in schools that have a wall-to-wall IB program [offering only IB and not other curriculum], and we’ve seen that outlined in a few different ways at the high school level. It has resulted in higher graduation rates at some of our neighborhood schools that have adopted wall-to-wall programs.

And more important, at the elementary level, we’ve seen an improvement in standardized test scores for students that have access to a full IB program. So there’s demonstrated success that we can point to.

But the thing that I personally appreciate as an educator is the training that comes along with that. The teachers become a part of a network of highly accomplished teachers and they receive this training that is world-class. And then our students right here in Chicago and our neighborhoods get the benefit of that.

Rahm Emanuel: There’s two things I would say. One, for the parent’s side, what we’re trying to do is create what I call IB neighborhoods. So if you want to go to the Lincoln Park neighborhood or the Back of the Yards neighborhood, you can now go there and have your children in an IB literally from first grade to 12th grade, and there’s a continuum, there are feeder schools. Rather than parents moving out to the suburbs, they have one of the most sought-after academic programs. We have more people trying to apply, both principals and parents, to get the IB.

Second, I want to echo something Janice said and then underline it — the teachers love it because it frees them up to be the educators that they chose to be. The students get a rigorous education and the teachers get liberated to be educators. So that’s why I think it works.

Chalkbeat: That’s something I heard from IB’s parent organization as well — freedom from teaching to the test.

Emanuel: Listen, there’s a number of teachers I talk to regularly, and they’ll tell you that the moment their school went IB, the creative juices, the creativity, the collective energy that happened. It’s not an accident. Parents are flocking to it, parents are seeking it and principals get it because it sparks something. And then obviously our students are the beneficiaries of that.

The University of Chicago study from 2012 indicated that IB’s great postsecondary outcomes don’t depend on whether students actually earn the IB Diploma. Still, Chicago lags there — in the year of the study only 20 percent of CPS students earned the IB Diploma compared with 70 percent nationwide. Is that a number you’re focused on improving?

Jackson: Definitely the IB Diploma is the North Star. But if we could just take a step back, the plan that the mayor announced a couple of weeks ago around creating these IB programs which includes feeder schools that would feed into our high school programs is our effort to better prepare kids for the rigor of the IB program at the high school level.

So in many of our schools, when we launched, we started with the Middle Years Program, but now more and more we’re seeing the need to start at the primary level. So we’re looking to expose students a lot earlier, believing that that will make the IB diploma program more accessible to them.

Emanuel: I know a family with twins where one child got accepted to one of the top selective-enrollment schools in the city and the other one did not, but got accepted to the IB. They’ve now graduated. And first, the IB was more rigorous than the selective-enrollment academically. And second, both twins went to the University of Wisconsin and in their freshman year, the IB child was cruising.

I don’t want to over-color this because they’re both succeeding, but the adjustment to college was harder for the child who came out of one of the top selective-enrollment schools. That only underscores what the original U of C study in 2012 told us.

I want to underscore one other piece of data. When we started this, the goal was to make the International Baccalaureate not a backup to the selective enrollment, but a competitive, qualitative choice. In the district’s GoCPS enrollment portal, almost a quarter of the kids that got into our best selective-enrollment schools — 23 percent pick IB or artistic schools.

It’s becoming a true qualitative choice and competitor to the selective-enrollment schools. I think that’s good for the city. It’s good for parents, it’s good for the students and it picks up everybody else’s game.

Jackson: Let me add one thing from the teacher’s perspective. As we traveled throughout the city to host roundtables with teachers, [we heard that] teachers don’t want to spend a bunch of time developing curriculum, spending their whole weekend pulling out assessments and lessons for the students.

With the IB program, a lot of that work has been done for them. It’s research-based and it has a history of success, so it gives them more time to spend assessing their kids, working directly with them and allowing for that freedom and creativity, and we know all kids thrive in that type of an environment.

Chalkbeat: Do you think IB’s teacher training and framework pay dividends beyond the IB classes themselves? I’ve heard the idea that there’s a noticeable effect schoolwide.

Jackson: Yeah, it is definitely one of the outcomes. Because if you start with the Middle Years Program, if the teacher is implementing it with fidelity, they’re going to start to push on those intermediate grades and those primary grades to make sure that the students are prepared. And so it’s one of those cases where we raise the bar and students rise to the occasion, and it starts to really push throughout the building.

The other piece that I would say you really see in a lot of our schools with IB programs is that [students] are focused on global thinking. That’s something that all of us want our children to be thinking about, but quite frankly, it’s not happening in every single school. In our IB schools, the kids talk about not only their coursework and the content, but they talk about their place in the world, which I think is one of the unique features of the IB curriculum.

Chalkbeat: This is an interesting moment for IB within CPS because just as you’ve introduced the idea that a child can study IB from pre-K through the Diploma Program, the mayor — an IB champion — announces he’s leaving office. How can a parent because sure that IB will still be available 10 years down the road when their child is ready for the Diploma Program?

Emanuel: Two things. One, parents want it. Principals, teachers want it. We have basically 10 to 11 percent of the kids in CPS in IB. That’s a built-in constituency. Look, somebody else will have their own interests, et cetera, but I don’t believe they’re going to walk back from this because you have a built-in constituency of principals, teachers and parents who want this.

You’re going to have a fight on your hands. There’s plenty of fights to go around when you’re mayor, and you’ve got to pick the ones you want. This is not one I would recommend because I know the parents that are invested in this — and the teachers and the principals. There’d be holy hell to pay if you try to mess with it. Yeah. That’s the cleanest way I could say. And I think I know something about politics.

Jackson: I wholeheartedly agree with and support this approach. As long as I’m there, I’m going to continue to push for expansion and make sure this vision around these IB cluster neighborhoods comes to fruition.

I really do think if you look at the maps that we put out a couple of weeks ago and where we have added programs under Mayor Emanuel’s tenure, you can really see not only the expansion of programs, but really equity in distribution. We have prioritized some of our neighborhoods that needed this programmatic investment and the schools are better off as a result of this.

super feedback

What Denver parents, students, and teachers said they want in the next superintendent

Students wait for the bell to ring on the first day of school at McGlone Academy on Wednesday. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)

There is no shortage of opinion about the type of person who should lead Denver Public Schools. For the past two months, the school board has been gathering feedback at special meetings and regular public comment sessions on the characteristics and qualifications that students, parents, teachers, and others think the next superintendent should have.

The board has given itself a deadline of Dec. 10 to hire the district’s next leader. Current Superintendent Tom Boasberg announced in July that he’d step down this month after nearly 10 years at the helm of Colorado’s largest school district — and one known nationally for embracing the “portfolio strategy” for managing schools.

Boasberg’s efforts to improve school quality — which included closing struggling schools and encouraging the expansion of high-performing charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run — were controversial. The feedback the board received reflects the divide in the community between those who supported his reforms and those who didn’t.

Chalkbeat attended three special feedback meetings held in different corners of the city, and we read notes from seven others. We also attended three lengthy public comment sessions. Below, we’ve listed some of the main themes we heard, along with quotes from participants.

The next superintendent should be an educator who has spent a significant portion of his or her career as a classroom teacher.

“We don’t need a businessperson. We need an educator, period, point blank. Administrative experience, business experience — that’s a skill that can be learned. Learning how to work with a budget? There are classes for that.

“But actually caring? That’s not a skill you can learn.”
— Rachael Lehman, parent whose children attend East High School and Denver Discovery School

It should be someone who reflects the demographics of Denver Public Schools, where 77 percent of the nearly 93,000 students are students of color, 67 percent come from low-income families, and 37 percent are English language learners.

“We need a superintendent that has lived through a lot of the experiences of our kids.”
— Louise Campbell, seventh-grade teacher at Compass Academy

“It is very important to me that the next superintendent is a person of color because DPS is mainly students of color, yet we don’t see any representation. A superintendent of color would make us as youth of color feel different. We can relate to them and we know they would understand our struggle.

“When I look at a person of color as a leader, it reminds me that no matter what obstacles we have to go through, we can still make it.”
— Ilene Orgaz, student at KIPP Denver Collegiate High School

The next superintendent should be willing to live in Denver, and if he or she has children, to send those children to the public schools here.

“I would like a superintendent to be chosen who cares about the community of Denver. If you don’t care enough to send your kids there … that says something huge.”
— Lisa Yemma, eighth-grade teacher at Slavens K-8 School

He or she should value Denver’s universal school choice system, which allows parents to use one form to request to attend any school, including charter schools.

“The DSST [charter] middle school has brought my reading level from kindergarten level up to sixth-grade reading, where it should have been at the time. In middle school, I got into trouble, but with hard work from myself and help from teachers and my mom, I have learned to control my temper.

“What I like about the school is that most of the teachers have a sense of humor that matches mine, and the kids that I have met are my best friends. … I am really glad that my mom made us go here. I am really glad that we had this choice because if we didn’t, I don’t know what would happen to me or what my grades would be.”
— Ronald Griffin, student whose mother drives him more than 200 miles round-trip every day from their home in Pueblo to Denver so he can attend DSST: Conservatory Green High School, part of the district’s biggest charter network

“I’m so glad I had the option to choose the best school for my family, so I would like the next superintendent to ensure that families always have a choice in education.”
— Lupe Gonzalez, grandmother who has two grandchildren and one great-grandchild who attend University Prep Steele Street, an elementary charter school

On the flip side, he or she should put less emphasis on school choice and charters, and make more effort to strengthen traditional, district-run schools.

“This is a chance to bring in somebody without baggage — and to hire a superintendent who thinks that young children should not have to travel across town to attend an elementary school.

“You have been barking up the wrong tree for years, and I wish you would choose a different tree. Charters, choice, and enrollment zones haven’t gotten you what you want.”
— Maggie Miller, parent of a George Washington High School graduate

“You have the opportunity to create a fresh start. … We just want neighborhood schools. And if you didn’t hear me in the back, we want neighborhood schools.”
— Margaret Fogarty, parent of a student at Park Hill Elementary School

Then next superintendent should be someone who is committed to listening to community feedback, especially about controversial decisions — and acting on it.

“We need a superintendent that will be willing to listen and act on that anger that parents have when our schools are failing our students. … It seems we in the community have been getting ignored for quite some time now. That stops today.”
— Cliff Harris, parent of three students in southeast Denver

“I hope to see my superintendent come to my school, or any school, and talk to students. I believe the new superintendent should let students know they support and care about them. Students should always come first, and I hope the new superintendent will make time for our voice and perspective.”
— Cameron Casados, recent graduate of DSST: Green Valley Ranch High School

“What I’ve heard in many of my interactions with families in Montbello, Sunnyside, the Cole neighborhood, and elsewhere is that very often, they have felt the decisions regarding their children’s educations and futures happened to them, rather than with them.

“Many drastic changes have been made, such as restructuring schools, closing schools, and selecting charters, which have an enormous impact on students and their families, and in which they felt they had no say.

“The next superintendent needs to be someone who views students and families as co-creators of the education system, not merely as recipients of it.”
— Adrienne Deshaies, former teacher in northwest Denver and current community organizer with Together Colorado, a faith-based parent advocacy group

The next superintendent should not be a diehard for one type of school reform strategy or another, but rather someone who will build bridges between factions.

“I want a superintendent who knows how to bring communities together and is above this fight of reform or traditional.”
— Alexis Menocal Harrigan, parent and former district employee

“There are so many great things that happen at DPS. One of the ones I think is distracting is the argument that happens so often between the reform side and the anti-charter side. Please do not pick someone who is one or the other. If one side wins, then by definition, the other side loses.

“Most parents, they believe in some path in the middle, and that’s what you want for a superintendent: someone who can listen to both sides.”
— Tom Downey, parent of three students in northeast Denver

The next superintendent should continue addressing long-standing district problems, including persistent gaps in test scores between more privileged and less privileged students.

“Last year, my daughter was going to a school that was too easy for her. I was told she had a behavior problem, which I knew meant that she was just bored and not challenged in her classroom enough. … I advocated that she be tested for her eligibility in the gifted and talented program in DPS.

“This year, my daughter was selected to be part of the gifted and talented program. I am very proud of her. … When she got to the school there, I noticed very quickly that she was one of four Latinos in her school, and [there were] two black students, as well. … I asked some of my friends who send their students to schools on the east side whether their students had done gifted and talented testing — and all of them said they didn’t even know what that was.

“The district has to come to the table and admit that we have more to do to confront this achievement gap in our city. … White students in DPS are outperforming students of color by double digits. The education our children are receiving is unequal. … I hope the next superintendent will build more intentional systems of equity.”
— Ana Orozco, graduate of Denver’s South High School and current parent

“I’m currently living in an area where 90 percent of the students in my community are not reading on grade level. Ninety percent. The possibility of that number including my son keeps me up at night. What am I supposed to do when the options in my community are clearly not meeting our needs? … What happens if he goes to a school where young boys of color are overrepresented in discipline actions?

“This year, I have taken the time to learn about school quality and school choice. And what I learned is that the majority of schools in my community are not meeting expectations set by the district — and the few that are have long waiting lists.

“But a spot on the waiting list is not the same thing as a good education, and every child in our city deserves a good education. … I hope that as you all prepare to choose the next superintendent, you think about the 35,000 children without access to great schools.”
— Erica Aragon, parent of future Denver Public Schools student

“I have a very hard time understanding how some schools in our district can afford to have their own planetarium inside of a school, while other schools don’t even have a basic library, or arts and physical education.

“I have served on CSCs — the budgeting and governing body of schools — where we have had to cut some of these positions, as well as classroom teachers. We want our students to be prepared for the future, but we cut their ability to learn creatively. … Without this kind of funding, without equitable funding, we will never close the achievement gap.”
— Jeannie Nelson, parent of four children who attend Denver schools

“We need to be doing more as a district to support our staff and students of color with more intention and accountability. The lack of intentional diversity, equity, and inclusion work presents itself every day in the classroom.

“If we are not prioritizing and addressing those biases, we are not building an equity mindset as a core part of our district culture.”
— Elizabeth Barrett, parent of a student at DSST: Stapleton Middle School

The school board is continuing to collect feedback via an online survey that will close at noon on Oct. 12.