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ESEA Reauthorization

Update: A New NCLB Reauthorization Cheat Sheet

June 19, 2013

After the partisan markup in the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, it is the House of Representatives' turn to debate reauthorization of No Child Left Behind. The Student Success Act, offered by Rep. John Kline (R-MN), is set for a markup Wednesday morning in the House Education and Workforce Committee. Accordingly, we’ve updated our Senate markup cheat sheet to provide a comprehensive, side-by-side comparison of current law, the Obama administration’s waiver policy, and the current legislative proposals in the Senate and House. You can download the new cheat sheet here.

Here are a few of the highlights from the Kline proposal:

  • The Student Success Act would eliminate over 70 programs and consolidate many stand-alone programs (for instance, Title III for English Language Learners) into Title I, with flexibility for states and districts to shift money between them. The bill would also eliminate maintenance of effort requirements, meaning states and local school districts would not be penalized for spending less on required education programs.
  • Kline would not require states to adopt college- and career-ready standards, but they would have to maintain academic content standards – and aligned assessments – in reading, math, and science. And the bill includes really specific language, over and above the Alexander proposal, to prohibit the federal government from promoting participation in the Common Core State Standards initiative in any way.
  • The bill, similar to the Alexander proposal, would allow states to design whatever school accountability and improvement systems they want, including setting performance targets (if any). Kline would also clamp down on the Secretary of Education’s authority to offer waivers to states and districts in exchange for external conditions.
  • Kline, however, would be more prescriptive than either Harkin or Alexander in one area: teacher evaluations, with states required not only to develop them, but also to use the results to make personnel decisions.
  • Kline would not allow Title I funding to follow the child to other public or private schools, but there is speculation that a backpack funding provision could be added to the Student Success Act at a later point. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), for example, has expressed an interest in some sort of portability provision.

Stay tuned to Ed Money Watch and Early Ed Watch for continuing coverage of these bills and the markup, as well as any alternative proposal from Rep. George Miller (D-CA), the Ranking Member on the House committee. And be sure to follow the markup on Twitter with me, @afhyslop, and my colleagues @LauraBornfreund and @ConorPWilliams

English Language Learners in Rep. Kline's Student Success Act

June 18, 2013

The parade of bills that could replace No Child Left Behind continues this week with Wednesday’s markup of Rep. John Kline’s (R-MN) version. All signals suggest that this won’t be the year Congress finally updates the nation’s most comprehensive education law—and the substantial differences between Kline’s and Sen. Tom Harkin’s bills have a lot to do with these dim prospects. We’ve already seen what Harkin’s Strengthening America’s Schools Act would mean for English Language Learners (ELLs). Today we’ll take a similar look at Kline’s bill, the Student Success Act (SSA).

Storify: Senate HELP Committee ESEA Markup

June 13, 2013

Tuesday and Wednesday, the Senate HELP Committee convened to mark up Chairman Tom Harkin's (D-IA) bill to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. @NewAmericaEd's Anne Hyslop and Conor Williams live-Tweeted, and we've collected some of the main takeaways here, ICYMI.

Storify: Senate HELP Committee ESEA Markup

June 12, 2013

Sen. Harkin’s Strengthening America’s Schools Act, Title III

June 10, 2013

Now that my colleagues Anne Hyslop and Clare McCann have dug into the changes that Senator Tom Harkin’s (D-IA) Strengthening America’s Schools Act (SASA) proposes for Title I and Title II (here and here), it’s my turn to take a look at the bill’s potential effects on English language learners (ELLs).

Harkin, Alexander, and Waivers: Your ESEA Markup Cheat Sheet

June 10, 2013

Tomorrow morning, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee will markup the Strengthening America’s Schools Act, the latest ESEA reauthorization proposal from Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA). Ed Money Watch and Early Ed Watch have already recapped many of the changes proposed to accountability for schools and educators, as well as Title I and early learning programs. But we have yet to weigh in on the alternative proposal offered by the Committee’s Republican members, led by Ranking Member Lamar Alexander (R-TN).

Here are the three biggest differences between the two bills:

1. No love for Common Core. Alexander’s bill – the Every Child Ready for College or Career Act – includes detailed language to explicitly prohibit the U.S. Department of Education from exercising any direction, preference, or control over state’s academic content standards (like the Common Core State Standards) or achievement standards (i.e. cut scores that determine what it means to be college- and career-ready). This also has big implications for education data and reporting – more on that below.

Clearly concerned with federal overreach, this level of specificity around the Department’s role should appeal to critics of the common standards, claiming they are step one toward a “federal curriculum” or “national school board.” But Alexander is silent on a specific timeline or transition to college- and career-ready standards and tests – another increasingly divisive issue. Harkin’s bill would allow states a one-year “pause,” requiring implementation by the 2015-16 school year, even though both Common Core consortia say they will deliver their assessments on-time in 2014-15.

2. A mini-backpack for Title I funds. Another sharp contrast with the Harkin proposal: states could allocate Title I funds to districts based only on their number of eligible children – and federal funding could then follow the child to any public school in the district. Similar to a Romney campaign proposal (but on a smaller scale, without the option to use Title I funds to attend out-of-district public schools or private schools, or to pay for tutoring), it is unclear how many states would take advantage of this provision. How would it work in districts that lack other public school options – in particular, rural districts or districts where the overwhelming majority of schools are low-performing? Funding fights are always messy – how would school and district administrators respond to the change? The Alexander bill would also eliminate maintenance of effort requirements, meaning that states and districts would not be penalized for spending less on education from year to year, another potential sore spot for local school leaders.

3. States: choose your own accountability adventure. Unlike the Democrats’ bill, Every Child Ready for College or a Career would not require performance targets for schools. As Politics K-12 predicted, this was a major partisan sticking point between Harkin and Alexander. And transparency – rather than accountability – is the key policy lever in the Republican proposal. States can choose to differentiate between schools as they see fit.

Further, the Senate Republican proposal would prohibit the Department from specifying, defining, or prescribing any measure that states include in their accountability systems. Presumably, this means states could choose how they want to define everything from adequate student growth, to a cut score for college and career readiness, to how they define graduation rates. Would this undermine data comparability between states, including efforts to report a uniform graduation rate?

Alexander’s bill also doesn’t require states to identify any set percentage of Title I schools for improvement, leaving both identification and intervention entirely up to states (with the exception that students be allowed to transfer if their schools are identified). Given states’ history with setting rigorous goals and expectations for schools (as this new Education Sector report reminds us), Alexander’s bill would effectively set federal education policy back twenty years – to the 1994 Improving America’s Schools Act.

Finally, Alexander’s bill would not require states to develop teacher or principal evaluation systems, but they could use Title II funds for these purposes. And unlike Harkin’s proposal, states could partner with for-profits, as well as nonprofit organizations or higher education institutions, to implement their plans for preparing, training and improving the quality of teachers and school leaders. Because the bill also eliminates the “highly qualified teacher” provision, states would not have to report, whether teachers are distributed equitably between Title I and non-Title I schools – another blow for accountability and a big difference between the Alexander and Harkin proposals.

The bottom line? Alexander’s bill doesn’t actually require states to do anything. And that’s a problem. As Chad Aldeman also notes in his smart take on the Alexander bill, Every Child College or Career Ready relies on assurances from states that they will implement rigorous and high-quality standards, assessments, and accountability systems. As Aldeman writes: “There are no serious standards for these things and, even if there were, there would be no way to verify state assertions.” If a plan is a poor substitute for policy, then an assurance as policymaking is downright laughable.

To help keep both draft bills – along with No Child Left Behind and the Obama administration’s waiver policy – straight, download this side-by-side cheat sheet to use during the markup. You can click also click on the image below to enlarge it. And of course, the always-helpful Politics K12 team has another side-by-side comparison that features the House Republican plan

Comparing ESEA Reauthorization Proposals

Follow along with us tomorrow, and stay tuned to Ed Money Watch for continuing coverage.

Harkin Title I Reforms Readjust Funding Allocations

June 7, 2013

This week, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee Tom Harkin (D-IA) released a new draft bill to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). The bill, called the Strengthening America’s Schools Act, makes a lot of changes – you can read more about those here and here. Among those changes are some tweaks to Title I, the $14.5 billion program that provides funding to low-income children and high-poverty schools.

States’ Distribution to School Districts

The Harkin bill would require states to modify how they provide funds to school districts by adding a new provision. The new requirement would mean that the lowest-performing school districts, the neediest districts, and those that prove the “strongest commitment” to evidence-based reforms that improve student performance get first priority. Any additional funds would be diverted to districts that don’t meet these criteria.But districts would receive at least as much funding as they did last year; the change would only apply to a percentage of funds over the existing appropriation.

The lowest-performing districts are defined elsewhere in the bill as “priority” and “focus” schools. Focus schools are the 10 percent of schools with the biggest achievement gap, and the 10 percent of high schools with the biggest graduation rate gap, among student subgroups as compared to the statewide average. Priority schools are the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools, high schools with graduation rates below 60 percent, and any school that has been a focus school for 6 consecutive years. The idea of priority and focus schools is co-opted from the No Child Left Behind waivers the Department of Education has already issued to 35+ states.

A separate ESEA reauthorization bill authored by Sen. Alexander (R-TN) goes much further – and in the opposite direction. Under that bill, states could elect to allocate funding by the number of Title I-eligible children per district. Effectively, then, the funds would follow a child to any public school within a district. (A Romney campaign proposal would have allowed funds to follow children into private schools or other school districts. This is less extreme – and less of a logistical nightmare – than that proposal would have been.)

School Districts’ Distribution to Schools

The Harkin bill also revises how funds awarded to school districts are distributed to schools. Currently, school districts that receive Title I funds are required to rank all “school attendance areas” in the district. The district must serve all areas with more than 75 percent of its children living in poverty, in rank order, and then may serve schools below 75 percent poverty with any remaining funds.

The rankings are calculated by one of a few measures: Census poverty data, the number of students in the free and reduced priced lunch program, the number of children in families that receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits, or the number of children eligible for Medicaid assistance are all allowable metrics. Under the new plan, high schools could instead use a “feeder” pattern to calculate poverty rankings. That would calculate the number of low-income students by measuring the average percentage of low-income families in the elementary schools that will later attend the high school.

And under the Harkin bill, that split would be different for high schools than for elementary and middle schools. Districts would still have to serve elementary and middle schools with more than 75 percent of children living in poverty, but now any high school with over 50 percent poverty would also be served. Elementary and middle schools that received funding last year, but are now out-ranked by high schools at more than 50 percent poverty, could be protected by the district, though.

One last note on school attendance areas: Districts would be allowed to provide funds for early childhood education in eligible areas, even before they provide funds to high schools in eligible areas.

Title I Teacher Comparability

The Harkin bill does try to correct one loophole in Title I: comparability. Under current law, school districts are required to distribute funds to their Title I and non-Title I schools equally. The amount of funding provided to Title I schools cannot be more than 10 percent below that of non-Title I schools.

But that metric can mask a major inequity: teachers in non-Title I schools tend to be more experienced and better paid, so high-income schools typically receive more state and local funding for teacher pay than low-income schools do. School districts that compare student-teacher ratios between Title I and non-Title I schools to prove compliance with teacher comparability are obscuring the variation in teacher pay.

Harkin included a provision in the 2011 reauthorization draft he produced closing the loophole, and it’s back in the current draft. As of the 2015-2016 school year, districts will have to demonstrate comparability using per-pupil expenditures from both state and local funding, including actual expenditures on teacher salaries and benefits. They’ll be measuring actual funding in individual schools, not less valid measures like teacher-student ratios or district salary schedules. And Title I schools would receive equal funding to non-Title I schools, rather than a measure that’s within 10 percent.

Title I Funding Formulas

Title I is one of the largest federal education programs. It serves about 23 million low-income PreK-12 students nationwide across most school districts, because any district with at least a couple of low-income students is eligible. Funds are distributed through four complicated funding formulas, which have several flaws that do little to rebalance inequities. The Harkin bill doesn’t touch the formulas themselves, in spite of arguments that the formulas don’t target high-poverty schools very well.  But it does make some adjustments around the edges that could help prevent some inequities.

We’ll have a lot more on the Harkin bill, and other ESEA reauthorization progress, in the coming weeks. Check back with Ed Money Watch for more details.

Harkin Bill Reforms Teacher and Principal Programs

June 6, 2013

Earlier this week, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) introduced the Strengthening America’s Schools Act (SASA). We profiled its major changes here, and a few significant mentions for early childhood education here. Our sister blog, Ed Money Watch, wrote about the Title II teacher and principal provisions today (for more, click here). We’ve collected a few notes on the early education and early grade connections to the Title II reforms:

Teachers and Principals in Senator Harkin’s NCLB Reauthorization Plan

June 6, 2013
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In many ways, the latest reauthorization effort from Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA)–the Strengthening America’s Schools Act (SASA)–reads like an endorsement of the administration’s NCLB flexibility plan. States that have received NCLB waivers would be able to continue with those plans in most respects. What’s more, SASA builds on the waiver process, with states’ Title I plans replacing the Department of Education’s flexibility request. Title I plans (which describe each state’s standards, assessments, and systems of accountability and school improvement) would be subject to Department approval every four years.

But what about Title II? We know effective teachers and principals have a lifelong positive impact on students. And it’s no secret that human capital reforms – from teacher evaluations to preparation and tenure – are among the most contentious in education. How does Harkin’s bill navigate these issues?

Evaluations

Unlike the Senate’s 2011 reauthorization proposal, states and school districts would have to develop and implement a professional growth and improvement system by the 2015-16 school year to receive Title II funding – a big sticking point with Senate Republicans, like Lamar Alexander (R-TN), who have introduced a competing reauthorization plan. These systems must be developed in consultation with educators, provide meaningful feedback, include multiple performance categories, align with professional development, and provide for training of evaluators. Echoing the results of the MET study, teachers would be evaluated based on three components: student achievement and growth; classroom observations; and other measures, like student surveys. These guidelines are broad enough to apply to all teachers, including those in the early grades and untested subjects that lack test-based data on student achievement. Student Learning Objectives or other measures could be used so long as they are “evidence-based.” Principals would be evaluated based on their instructional leadership, as well as student achievement, growth, and academic outcomes, including students reaching English language proficiency.

Notably, SASA deviates from states’ waiver plans by not requiring evaluations to inform personnel decisions. To some, like Democrats for Education Reform, this means stripping all accountability from the new evaluation systems. To others, this is welcome relief given states’ simultaneous adoption of new assessments and implementation of evaluation systems based on them. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, practically praised the bill for requiring “a variety of measures to evaluate teachers, rather than making test scores the be-all and end-all.” Further, any state with a waiver-approved teacher evaluation plan would be allowed to continue with it. But even with these provisions in place, some state advocates, like the Council of Chief State School Officers’ Chris Minnich worry about the “prescriptive language” around teacher evaluations.

Despite the noise, this seems like a comfortable compromise between both extremes – states are not prohibited from using evaluations for personnel decisions, and some may continue to do so in their waivers. At the same time, states must develop evaluations and include student achievement and growth measures, resisting the urge to “pause” these reforms entirely as states adopt the Common Core. The bill also rightly emphasizes the improvement and professional growth components within evaluation systems over more punitive elements. No district or state will be able to improve the quality of its education workforce solely by hiring new teachers – they must also figure out how to improve the teachers they have.

Funding Formula and Equity

With a $2.5 billion appropriation in FY 2012, Title II’s formula grants to states represent the largest federal programs for PreK-12 teachers. These grants aim to increase the number of highly qualified teachers and school leaders, as well as improve their effectiveness. However, the Title II grant formula has been stuck in time for over a decade – an issue that arose during the 2011 Senate NCLB reauthorization markup. First, states receive allocations equal to their 2001 funding levels under an older, expired grant program. Then additional Title II dollars flow to states by the NCLB formula. Harkin’s bill would remove that “hold harmless” provision so that all of Title II’s formula funding would be allocated with the updated formula.

Unlike Title II funding under NCLB, states and districts in SASA must address inequality in the distribution of highly effective teachers and principals. Although there is little accountability to ensure states and districts follow through, this is a move in the right direction for educational equity, since states have little incentive to even report this information currently. SASA would require this information be made public to parents in an Equity Report Card. Districts can’t fix a “teacher effectiveness gap” without knowing how bad the problem is, and the new data could jumpstart these efforts.  

Class-Size Reduction vs. Professional Development

Under NCLB, districts can use their state funds for professional development, class-size reduction, and teacher quality activities, like retention and recruitment efforts, but the vast majority is spent on the first two activities. In 2011, districts surveyed by the Department reported using 42 percent of Title II grant funds for professional development and 38 percent on class-size reduction. SASA would make further changes, eliminating class-size reduction as an option in all but PreK-3rd grade classrooms and requiring that at least 20 percent of funds go toward professional development in priority schools. This would be a big lift for some districts, but reflects overall trends in Title II spending away from class-size reduction, which accounted for 57 percent of spending in 2003.

Preparation and Training

SASA also includes a version of the GREAT Act, a bipartisan effort led by Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO). States could reserve up to 1 percent of their Title II allocation to develop new teacher and principal preparation academies that would be authorized directly by the state – instead of by traditional accreditors. Modeled after programs like the Relay Graduate School of Education, these academies must have high admissions standards and a rigorous selection process and include a strong mentoring component and instruction linked to candidates’ experiences in schools. Prior to graduating from the academy, all candidates would have to demonstrate their ability to increase student achievement and growth. In exchange, these academies would not have to meet certain regulations for preparation programs, including faculty degrees and research output, the number of credits hours or undergraduate coursework required, physical infrastructure, and accreditation. While the academies could be authorized by a state education agency or nonprofit, academies that do not produce effective teachers and leaders could not be reauthorized.

In addition, SASA authorizes a new competitive grant aimed at recruiting and training effective principals to work in low-income schools, particularly priority and focus schools, middle schools that feed into high schools with low graduation rates, and high-poverty rural schools. Modeled on legislation from Senators Bennet and Al Franken (D-MN), districts, states, and/or nonprofits and institutions of higher education could apply, but would need to provide at least a 20 percent match. Unlike the GREAT Act, this proposal would operate more closely with traditional preparation programs. Funds would be used to recruit highly qualified and diverse school leaders, provide principals and aspiring principals training tailored to the skills they need to lead high-needs schools, develop a year-long residency program and provide ongoing coaching, and train principal mentors. Programs would be evaluated on whether participants are placed and remain as principals in high-needs schools and whether student outcomes improve in those schools.

Both are promising approaches to improving principal leadership and effectiveness – an area that has often been overshadowed by teacher quality. And while not explicitly included in the formula-funded academies, states would have to describe how they would coordinate Title II with early education to strengthen the knowledge and skills of educators working with children PreK-3rd. Even better, states, districts, and other groups winning competitive grants must include training for elementary school principals on the benefits of high-quality early education and transitioning children from these settings to elementary schools – we’d like to see this expanded to in-service principal training as well. 

Similar to the principal quality proposal, another competitive grant program – Pathways to Teaching – would support recruitment, selection, preparation, placement, and retention of teachers in high-needs subjects at high-needs schools. Grantees must focus on classroom management, instructional planning, literacy and cognitive development, developing and using assessments, and a clinical experience at a high-needs school, with ongoing mentoring. Sound familiar? Both the Obama administration’s reauthorization blueprint and Harkin’s last reauthorization attempt included a similar provision. The Teacher Incentive Fund (TIF) would also receive permanent authorization in SASA and award grants to offer merit pay or bonuses for highly effective teachers in high-needs school and to improve teacher evaluations, compensation plans, and human capital systems.

While there is a lot to like in the new Title II plan, the prospects for SASA moving beyond a partisan Committee vote are slim. Stay tuned to both Ed Money Watch and Early Ed Watch for continuing coverage of both Senate proposals as we edge toward Tuesday’s markup.

First Look: Sen. Harkin’s Strengthening America’s Schools Act

June 5, 2013
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Yesterday, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, released yet another attempt to reauthorize No Child Left Behind: the Strengthening America’s Schools Act of 2013 (SASA). NCLB, due for a Congressional rewrite since 2007, has few remaining fans. But all previous reauthorization bills, including a bipartisan effort from Sen. Harkin and Mike Enzi (R-WY) last Congress, have failed miserably. While every Democratic Senator on the Committee signed off on the new draft legislation, Harkin could not sway key Republicans. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), the Ranking Member on the Committee, plans to offer his own reauthorization legislation later this week, with partisan bills also expected from the House Education and Workforce Committee later this month.

Given the partisan nature of the Harkin bill and Congress in general, the odds for a successful reauthorization are more dismal than ever. Insiders agree: the latest Whiteboard Advisors tracking survey found that 87 percent of edu-insiders believe reauthorization will occur after January 2015. Add 37 states and Washington, D.C. with NCLB waivers into the mix, and there is little real pressure from the administration or from state and local policymakers to rewrite the law – especially a bill that would increase the role of the federal government and take away some of the flexibility states received in their waiver plans (more on that below).

Harkin’s bill is scheduled for a Committee markup next Tuesday. In the meantime, here are some of the key provisions we’re watching within Title I – the bill’s largest program – as well as areas for excitement and concern. Education Week, New York Times, and Huffington Post also offer excellent recaps of the proposed legislation.

Timeline and Interaction with NCLB Waivers

States, regardless of waiver status, must immediately begin implementing college- and career-ready assessments and reporting disaggregated student achievement data for any subgroup larger than 16 students. Otherwise, there is a two-year transition period to establish a baseline for performance targets and to identify schools for improvement based on the accountability provisions in SASA. This is a no-brainer: any reauthorization at this point cannot dismantle states’ NCLB flexibility overnight.

What’s far more interesting, however, is that Sen. Harkin is borrowing some ideas from the Department when it comes to waivers. Under SASA, state Title I plans become the new NCLB waivers – subject to Department-approval, including peer review, every four years. Any significant changes to standards, assessments, performance targets, or accountability would fall under the review and revision process. 

What’s brilliant (and quite welcome for education policy wonks) is that this provision eliminates the possibility that the next federal education law gets trapped in reauthorization limbo like NCLB. And it gives Congress more oversight over the renewal/waiver process, since it’s authorized explicitly in the law. Another welcome provision is that the bill requires states’ plans to include how they are improving access to full-day kindergarten if they fund it and to report the distribution of effective teachers – data currently unavailable to most parents, researchers, and policymakers.

Academic Standards

Under SASA, states would have to adopt college- and career-ready academic content standards in reading, math, and science by January 2015. States would also need to adopt achievement standards in all three subjects and, unlike previous bills, demonstrate that they are aligned with credit-bearing academic coursework, without need for remediation, in the state’s public colleges and universities. Without alignment to actual postsecondary standards, states’ new K-12 standards would be college- and career-ready in name-only. While the draft bill could go further, this is a move in the right direction.

The proposed legislation also weighs in on the growing backlash to the Common Core standards. SASA reiterates that the Department of Education cannot “mandate, direct, or control a State’s college and career ready academic content.” Finally, Sen. Harkin would require any state that uses Title I funds for early childhood education to develop early learning guidelines for preschool programs and early grade standards for students in grades K-3. These standards would be required to address multiple domains of learning, including social-emotional development and approaches to learning (ability to persist at a challenging task, work with others, make decisions) and align with the state’s college- and career-ready standards. While this could help encourage states to address the specific needs of its youngest students and how they learn best, it should be a requirement for all states, though, and not just those who use their Title I dollars for preschool programs.

Assessments

Not a lot has changed as far as the NCLB testing schedule, but SASA would require states to administer college- and career-ready assessments by the 2015-16 school year – with assessments subject to a technical review by the Department. This provision has big implications for both the Common Core consortia and other competitors, like ACT. And Bellwether’s Andy Smarick recently revealed that the Department is also revising its review process, so this issue will emerge regardless of an NCLB reauthorization.

Another big change in the Harkin bill is that assessments must measure whether students are performing on grade level, as well as identify the specific grade level at which the student is performing. In other words, states would be allowed to administer computer-adaptive tests that adjust to students’ abilities, using items at the 4th or 5th grade level for advanced 3rd grade students and simpler items aligned to 1st or 2nd grade standards for those that are below-grade level. By allowing states to accurately measure students’ abilities, teachers would have much better information to help students improve and stay on target to postsecondary readiness. Given the importance of grade-level reading and a growing number of states that retain students based on it, this provision is sorely needed.

School Accountability

Like the administration’s NCLB waivers, Harkin’s proposal for accountability includes aggregate and disaggregated measures of student achievement and growth and establishes annual targets for school performance. But unlike the waivers, SASA defines what sufficient academic growth is: a rate of growth by which students would be performing at grade level within three years or by the end of a grade span (like high school). Given that some states’ waivers include growth models that don’t actually measure individual student growth, a better definition is overdue. However, states would also be allowed to submit alternative growth models to the Department for approval, so any sub-par models in the waivers could, theoretically, still be used.

Annual targets can also be carried over from states’ NCLB waivers or approved by the Department anew. States on the latter track would set goals, based on 2014-15 data, which aim for all schools to be performing similarly to schools at the 90th percentile over a “reasonable” amount of time and expect greater progress for lower-performing subgroups. Alternatively, these states could submit an “equally ambitious” set of goals for Department approval. On their face, these targets sound even more rigorous than those in states’ waivers. However, it’s hard to judge how difficult these targets would be without greater clarity on what, exactly, “reasonable” and “equally ambitious” mean. Notably, states’ goals cannot recognize a GED or other equivalency as a high school diploma, and super-subgroups would be eliminated in any new goals states develop.

But the most important – and welcome – change between SASA and states' waivers is that these targets actually matter beyond school report cards. As research shows, serious interventions – or the threat of them – could be the difference between schools improving or stagnating. Harkin’s bill would require state accountability systems to identify and intervene in focus and priority schools, along with schools failing to meet the same performance goals for two consecutive years. The Harkin bill is also more explicit about what happens to focus and priority schools if they do not improve than most state waivers: focus schools become priority schools after six years, while priority schools are subject to state takeover, restart, or closure if they are re-identified as a priority school after three years.

Too Much of a Good Thing

Sen. Harkin’s bill suffers in two areas: defining school improvement strategies and school report cards. In defining what schools must do to improve and what school data must be reported to parents, every Democratic Senator’s favored approach or data point appears to be included, leaving a jumbled mess of burdens and requirements for states, districts, and schools.

School improvement strategies – in addition to the specific provisions of the transformation, turnaround, whole school reform, restart, and closure models – must include over 15 common elements, from professional development, to improving coordination and access to early learning, to data-driven instruction, to positive behavioral interventions and supports. While these are all important factors to consider (and New America has written about the need to include preschool and the early grades in school turnaround), it’s a vague and inordinately long list to tackle in three years, especially if state and district capacity for school improvement is lacking.

SASA’s treatment of school report cards is even worse. After stating that school report cards must be “concise” and “easy to understand,” the draft bill includes over twenty data points that must be reported for all schools (NCLB required less than five). But there are actually far more than twenty – it could be hundreds. That is because nearly every data point must be reported by grade and all must be disaggregated by subgroup, and then cross-tabulated between subgroups. This data should be publically available. But does it all need to be reported in one place, where it could easily overwhelm parents and families? Ironically, despite all the data that must be included, there are still missing pieces – particularly enrollment in full-day and half-day kindergarten and chronic absenteeism.

There is a lot more (believe it or not) in the legislation, so New America will continue to cover the Strengthening America’s Schools Act on and the markup on Ed Money Watch and Early Ed Watch in the days ahead. Stay tuned.

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