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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.

New leader

Susana Cordova named Denver superintendent, rising from student to teacher to top boss

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/Denver Post
Susana Cordova, right.

Nearly 30 years after she began her career in Denver as a bilingual teacher, Susana Cordova was selected Monday as superintendent of the 92,000-student school district.

The Denver school board voted unanimously to appoint Cordova, who has served as the district’s deputy superintendent for the past two years. She will take over the top job in January.

“I’m incredibly humbled and gratified by the support from the board,” Cordova said after the vote.

While critics have said Cordova shoulders some of the blame for persistent problems in the district, including big test score gaps between students of color and white students, board members praised her for her knowledge of Denver, her experience as an educator, and her ability to, as board member Barbara O’Brien said, “talk to people on the other side of the aisle.”

Since being named a finalist for the job, “Susana was faced with a lot of controversy and she didn’t avoid the controversy, but she leaned into it,” board member Happy Haynes said.

“We all knew Susana as a deep listener,” Haynes said. “But to watch her in the community sessions, listening to each person regardless of what their concern was and whether they agreed with her or not — she listened deeply. And that’s an extraordinary attribute for a leader.”

Cordova, 52, has spent her entire career in Denver Public Schools. She has been a teacher and principal in district-run schools, and a district administrator overseeing them. A big part of her job in recent years has been helping struggling district-run schools improve.

Drew Schutz is principal at Valverde Elementary, one of the schools that got extra funding and help. Schutz said Cordova provided guidance in tangible ways, visiting Valverde several times and brainstorming strategies that could boost student learning there.

One action that stands out to him, he said, was when Cordova pitched in when he was trying to recruit parents to help with redesigning the low-performing school.

“She was out here one day — a sweltering hot day in the middle of the summer — and she was going door to door with me in the community,” Schutz said. “That was a point where I realized she was truly invested in soliciting community voice.”

Cordova is different from her predecessor, Tom Boasberg, in several ways that community members have said are important. Cordova is Latina, and she will lead a district where 55 percent of students are Hispanic. She is also a lifelong educator and a lifelong Denver resident. Cordova graduated from Denver Public Schools, and she sent her own children to schools in the district. Her son graduated and her daughter is a senior in high school.

Cordova has talked about how the education she received from the Denver Public Schools changed her life, but how some of her classmates and family members — students of color who grew up in working-class neighborhoods — faced a different outcome.

“I feel like what happened to me was more good fortune than it was a design,” Cordova said at a public forum about her candidacy last week. “My belief is we must be working intentionally to be creating equity by design and not by chance.”

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat
Susana Cordova, fourth from right, poses with the seven members of the Denver school board after they voted to appoint her superintendent.

After Monday’s vote, Cordova said she couldn’t help but think back to herself in elementary school — and how much it would have meant to 8-year-old her to know she’d one day lead the school district.

“I don’t know that I could have imagined this,” Cordova said. She added that she’s excited “to make sure the 8- and 9-year-olds sitting in our classrooms today have all the access and opportunities I had.”

The appointment of Cordova as superintendent was expected, as she was the sole finalist for the position. That put her in the hot seat, with some parents and teachers questioning whether the search, which cost the district more than $160,000, was a sham.

Board members said they intended to name multiple finalists but two candidates dropped out. Cordova has repeatedly said she would have preferred to have competition for the job so the community could be sure she was selected on her merits.

Five of the seven school board members were enthusiastic in their comments Monday about Cordova leading the district. Two others — Jennifer Bacon and Carrie Olson — were more measured. Both acknowledged community concerns. Bacon paused before casting her “aye” vote.

One of the main criticisms of Cordova is that, because of her role as a senior district official, she is partly to blame for the district’s failure to serve students of color and those from low-income families as well as it serves white students and those from wealthier families. White students regularly outperform students of color on state standardized tests.

Cordova has acknowledged those gaps and said closing them would a top priority. At last week’s forum, Cordova talked about how she believes training on bias and culturally responsive teaching should be mandatory for all teachers instead of allowing some to opt out.

Cordova’s husband’s job has also caused some to question if she should lead the district. Her husband, Eric Duran, is a banker who helps charter schools get financing for construction projects. Charter schools are publicly funded but independently run, and they are controversial because some people see them as siphoning money and students from district-run schools.

Duran’s firm, D.A. Davidson, has said it wouldn’t do business with Denver Public Schools or any of Denver’s 60 charter schools if Cordova were appointed superintendent.

Decision makers

5 things to know about Austan Goolsbee, the high-powered new addition to Chicago’s school board

PHOTO: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
In 2013, Austan Goolsbee testified before the Congressional Joint Economic Committee on Capitol Hill about the nation's economic recovery

Chicago’s school board is once again complete after outgoing mayor Rahm Emanuel chose a University of Chicago economist to fill a long-vacant seat.

Austan Goolsbee, an economics professor at University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, will round out the seven-member, mayor-appointed board that sets education policy in the city.

Here are five things to know about Goolsbee:

  1. Like Emanuel, he served in the Obama White House. Goolsbee was as a close adviser to President Barack Obama, eventually becoming chair of his Council of Economic Advisors. The Chicago Teachers Union see this tie as a liability. “Mr. Goolsbee comes into a board responsible for students and their schools being starved of resources for the last eight years by the man who appointed him,” the union said in a statement. “Those same neighborhoods continue to struggle from the consequences of a foreclosure crisis that the administration he served in Washington failed to address.”
  2. He has weighed in on education before. A prolific opinion writer, he has written favorably about the economic arguments for universal prekindergarten, a priority for the outgoing mayor, saying that expanding early childhood education is a bargain over the long term. In a 2015 survey of economists’ positions on public issues, Goolsbee expressed optimism about “value-added” measures that try to isolate the impact of individual teachers on student test scores — though he qualified the approach as having “lots of noise and unobservables.” Expressing uncertainty about vouchers, Goolsbee said he fears that letting parents use public funds to pay for private school tuition could harm public schools, which have fixed costs cannot easily be reduced when students leave them. (A tax-credit version of vouchers launched in Illinois last year but now faces an uncertain future under a new Democratic governor.)
  3. He’ll bring a focus on fiscal policy to a board that oversees a big and uncertain budget. A close economic adviser to President Obama and prolific commenter on matters of economic policy in the national media, he’s joining a board that oversees $8 billion in outstanding debt. Chicago has credited the passage of an equitable funding bill, in 2017, for helping stabilize its finances. But the district’s economic future is uncertain, especially as families continue to leave the city.
  4. His personal public school experience is limited. He attended an elite private high school in the suburbs of Boston where he grew up, and his children attended the University of Chicago’s Lab School both before and after the family’s time in Washington, D.C., he has said in interviews.
  5. He’s got a following, and a sense of humor. For proof, check out his Twitter feed, which has 80,000 followers, and his October appearance on the popular NPR quiz show “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me.” Plus, his official University of Chicago profile lists a special interest in improv comedy. That sets him apart from the rest of the school board members, who tend to keep a low public profile.  

How long Goolsbee serves could depend on what happens after Emanuel leaves office in early 2019. Chicago’s mayor has controlled the city school board since 1995, but Emanuel’s decision not to seek a third term has heightened debate about whether the city’s schools have benefitted.

In 2011 and 2015, voters backed non-binding resolutions that would make the board democratically elected. Now, two of the leading candidates in the mayor’s race, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and state comptroller Susana Mendoza, have said they’d support an elected school board — reducing their own power over education if they become mayor.

How soon a change could happen is unclear, but state lawmakers who would have to sign off on such a change have an ally in Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker, who has said he supports the call for an elected school board.

The issue was a point of debate at a Chalkbeat Chicago event this week at Malcolm X College. At the event, titled “Education for All? Chicago’s Next Mayor and the Future of Public Schools,” some panelists voiced concern that elections would be dominated by well-organized factions, such as the teachers union, that would have the ability to outspend other candidates.