Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

Blogs, Letters & Testimonials

January 8, 2014

By Charles Barone, DFER Policy Director

I had the privilege of being intricately involved in the entire legislative process leading up to the signing of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) twelve years ago as top education advisor to ranking House Education and Workforce Committee member George Miller (D-CA). Rep. Miller was one of four principal legislators involved in shepherding the bill to passage, the others being Senate HELP Committee Chair Edward Kennedy (D-MA), ranking Senate HELP Committee member Judd Gregg (R-NH), and House Education Committee Chairman John Boehner (R-OH).

I’m proud to have been involved in the passage of this landmark legislation. I not only had the fortunate experience of participating directly in developing groundbreaking education policies. I also got an inside view of the very same legislative process envisioned by our Founding Fathers two centuries prior.

No law is perfect. But on balance, I think NCLB did several important things to advance the underlying mission of the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which was to improve the quality of education offered to historically disadvantaged groups of students.

Even its detractors concede that NCLB deserves great credit for shining a spotlight on schools in which students are not learning to their utmost potential, particularly through its requirement that student achievement data be disaggregated i.e., broken out for historically disadvantaged subgroups of students according to race, ethnicity, family income, English language proficiency, and disability. What’s less well known is that, as straightforward and reasonable as this requirement sounds, it faced a great deal of political opposition in the years leading up to NCLB, including from those who now hail it as a great advance.

A data disaggregation provision was actually inserted in the 1994 ESEA reauthorization. I attended a meeting on the Hill after passage of the 1994 rewrite in which the Clinton Administration was discussing whether or not to require states to disaggregate through regulations based on the new law. Some Congressional staff, supported by civil rights groups, urged the Administration to require subgroup reporting. But a still-prominent testing “expert” was brought in to argue against the requirement. The “expert” argued that disaggregation would result in unreliable data because in many cases the number of children in certain subgroups would be too small.

I could hardly believe what I was hearing from this so-called expert. There was an easy way to safeguard data from being unreliable based on sample size that is known to anyone who’s taken a stats 101 course: disaggregate up (from classroom to school or school to district) until you get a statistically reliable number of poor, black, Hispanic, (fill-in the-blank), students.

What’s most upsetting is—as an “expert” in the field—the consultant, whose salary was paid in part by federal dollars, knew this was the case but testified otherwise. At the time I tried to speak-up, but I was just a new legislative aide, recruited from academia. Neither of those factors worked in my favor. I felt like the kid in the Emperor‘s New Clothes.

Later, in speaking with the testing expert, the person made clear to me their problem was not technical. Rather, she just did not believe in comparing the performance of disadvantaged students to the general population. The “expert” didn’t think trying to equalize outcomes was a viable strategy and believed it would reflect badly on our public schools. So wholeheartedly and fervently did the “expert” – and many others both in academia and in K-12 education – believe this that they were not even willing to let everyone else – parents, policymakers, taxpayers – examine the differences for themselves and reach their own conclusions.

The desire to get at how good a job schools are doing in educating historically disadvantaged groups of students in exchange for federal funds goes back to the debates around the original ESEA of 1965. I highly recommend reading about the history of ESEA and the issue of evaluation in a thorough report by Milbrey McLaughlin (1974) wherein you will see Senator Robert Kennedy, among others, argue vociferously for a system of evaluation and testing (yes, Kennedy used that word) to gauge how well students are learning.

We see the same dynamics today as we come to more clearly understand the effect of USDOE-granted waivers on state accountability systems. Yes, states still must report disaggregated data. Yes, they must have accountability systems that set a goal of narrowing achievement gaps. But through the use of such measures as “super subgroups,” the extent to which schools will be evaluated based on the performance of each and every at-risk subgroup is in doubt and thus so is the transparency that NCLB brought to the policy process.

What does it mean, for example, that a school in Virginia is measured according to the performance of a super subgroup composed of students with disabilities, English Language Learners, and economically disadvantaged students? If one is a parent of a student with a disability under that system, can that parent trust that the school is adequately serving such children? Or might they reasonably suspect that the low performance of students with disabilities is being masked just enough to escape scrutiny by higher levels of performance for ELL’s or for students from low-income families?

As Anne Hyslop from the New America Foundation reported in a recent paper, the schools identified as in need of improvement using super subgroups under waivers differ from those identified based on the performance of each subgroup under pre-waivers NCLB. Moreover, the types of schools being so identified differ from state to state. In short, what we’re getting from state accountability systems is much less transparent than it was before and may not be tied to subgroup performance in a way that makes sense from a policy perspective.

History shows that each step toward transparency in education policy is met by countermeasures that make things murkier. As one Department of Health, Education, and Welfare evaluator said back when the original ESEA law was being designed, “If evaluation were a natural disease of bureaucracy, we would have caught it long ago.” Advocates, researchers, and policymakers need to be vigilant and redouble their efforts to ensure education policy in each of the 50 states embodies the principles of transparency and objectivity envisioned under the law since its very inception.

Charles Barone has more than 25 years of experience in education service, research, policy, and advocacy. Prior to joining Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) full-time in January of 2009, Barone worked for five years as an independent consultant on education policy and advocacy. His clients, in addition to DFER, included the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights, the Education Trust, The Education Sector, and the National Academy of Sciences. Read more here.