Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Arne Duncan to Washington State, "No Waiver for You!"

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's decision to rescind the NCLB waiver from Washington state is an act of such monumental stupidity that it would be laughable, if it did not have the potential for such a negative impact on children, parents and teachers. Arne is in a snit because the Washington state legislature failed to pass a law tying teacher evaluation to standardized test scores, one of the conditions of this waiver.

Let's back up a little to gain a full appreciation of this ludicrous action. Everyone with any knowledge of the Bush era No Child Left Behind law knows that the goals laid out in that law were impossible to meet. The law requires schools to meet "adequate yearly progress" (AYP) toward proficiency in language arts and math as measured by standardized tests for a variety of student sub-groups including minority students, special education students and English language learners. The percentage of students required to meet AYP steadily increased across ten years and is 100% for 2014.

Obviously, a target of 100% proficiency was and is pie in the sky. No one could reach it and everyone knew it, including the crafters of the law who said the goals were "aspirational." That is why so many states were anxious to jump at Duncan's 2012 offer of a waiver from this pernicious law when he offered it to them, along with a financial sweetener of stimulus money. The waiver, however, came with some Duncan favored education reform requirements. Namely, adoption of rigorous standards (read Common Core), measurement of the standards using standardized tests (read PARCC and SBAC) and evaluating teachers based on the student scores on those standardized tests.

Washington State has carried out a number of these required reforms, but the legislature balked when it came to tying teacher evaluations to students test scores. Whatever the reasons for the legislature's refusal to act on this aspect of the Duncan waiver bribe, they should be applauded, not punished. Evaluating teachers using student standardized test scores, popularly known as value-added measures, or VAMs, has been shown to be highly problematic in study after study. For a compendium of reasons that VAMs are voodoo statistics please see Amrein Beardsley's indispensable blog article from Vamboozled! here.

The loss of the waiver has some real implications for the children and teachers of Washington. As Valerie Strauss has reported in The Answer Sheet here, virtually all of Washington's schools will be labeled as failing under this law. What can happen to a failing school under NCLB? Well, besides being labeled as "failing" the school could be required to extend the instructional day, adopt a new curriculum, fire its entire staff, be shut down, be turned into a charter school, or be turned over to a for-profit outside operator.

And why is Washington state facing these disastrous consequences? Because Arne Duncan had a hissy fit over the failure to enact a favorite part of his policy. A part of his policy that has been shown, at the very least, to be problematic and very, very probably will fail to produce reliable data or improved teaching and learning. In fact, it will likely be another reform measure that damages teachers and children, because the numbers cannot be trusted. Skilled teachers will either walk away from teaching because of VAM madness or will sue if any real consequences are inflicted on them with this flawed methodology. The suits have already begun in Tennessee.

So this is what passes for educational leadership in the current Department of Education. Duncan offers bribes to states to allow them to get out from under NCLB, a law that he has acknowledged and everyone knows is fatally flawed. He uses those bribes like a Hulk Hogan hammerlock on states to get them to accept his concept of reform, no matter how flawed and then he punishes them for recognizing the flaws and acting more slowly than he wants. When I was in second grade and I pitched a fit in school because someone else got the Burnt Sienna crayon I wanted, I was sent to the office for a good talking to by the principal. I could only hope that Arne gets sent to the Oval Office for a good talking to himself. False hope though. Arne is already threatening other states with a loss of waiver.

For more on Arne's letter to Washington state, see Peter Greene's delightful analysis here.