Although many education reformers lost interest in President George W. Bush’s school reform proposal as it was de-toothed and diluted during the first half of the year, important decisions still remain to be made as the package is finalized by a Congressional conference committee.
Those decisions will determine whether the President’s proposal is likely to improve America’s lowest-performing schools in time to help this fall’s kindergartners before they would graduate high school in 2014. That far-off date is when some of the Senate bill’s actions to correct failing schools might actually take effect.
Under the House version of the education package, parents whose children attend a failing school would enjoy public school choice options after the first year the school fails to make needed improvement. Under the Senate version, they’d have to wait three years.
The Senate version would require that failing school districts face a state takeover, or conversion to a charter school system, after five years of insufficient improvement. The House version gives districts only three years.
The crux of the difference between the Senate and the House bills is in the consequences of the all-important math and reading tests for elementary school students: how the results will be reported, evaluated, and used, and how quickly subpar results will require decisive action.
One important distinction concerns the clarity with which a school is defined as failing to make sufficient improvement. For individual schools, both the Senate and the House bills define a “failed school” as one that fails to meet its state’s minimum standards for performance on reading and math tests. To avoid the consequences of remaining a failed school, it must make a certain improvement against the gap between its performance and the state’s minimum standard.
Defining “Sufficient” Improvement
The House bill defines a school’s overall improvement as “sufficient” if it closes about 8 percent of that gap per year, the aim being a near-zero gap within 12 years.
The Senate bill also says a school overall would have to close any achievement gap within a decade. But according to The Education Trust, the bill defines the change as follows, using a formula that will be difficult for parents–or even math teachers –to comprehend, let alone apply (see box).
How SBI Measures Change in Performance Gap
Change = (((((X23*100)*Y23) + ((X24*100)*Y24) + ((X25*100)*Y25) + ((X26*100*Y26) + ((X27*100)*Y27) + ((X28*100)*Y28) + ((X29*100)*Y29) + ((X30*100)*Y30))/((X23 + X24 + X25 + X26 + X27 + X28 + X29 + X30)*100)) + ((((Z23*100)*Y23) + ((Z24*100)*Y24) + ((Z25*100)*Y25) + ((Z26*100)*Y26) + ((Z27*100)*Y27) + ((Z28*100)*Y28) + ((Z29*100)*Y29) + ((Z30*100)*Y30))/((Z23 + Z24 + Z25 + Z26 + Z27 + Z28 + Z29 + Z30)*100)))/2
Where X, Y, and Z are test scores in any three consecutive years and 23-30 are different socioeconomic groups
With such confusing–yet limited–annual improvement requirements, it is conceivable under the Senate bill that a school could make only slight improvements for nine years and still not be required to make any substantial changes. Add two years to implement the program and a year to conduct the first tests, and any prospective kindergartner this fall–a member of the high school Class of 2014–could have a diploma or drop out before needed changes are made.
Differences between the two bills over the consequences for failure are not as pronounced, but the House provisions are tougher. The House bill absolutely requires a state takeover of failing individual schools within three years. The Senate version only permits one such “experimental” takeover in the same three-year period per school district. Senators would, in some ways, actually reward failure by giving additional aid to schools initially showing poor test scores.
The timing of rewards and punishments is the most striking difference. Under the House bill, some parents could enjoy benefits as early as 2005–“portability” options for their children within public schools, or after-school programs such as tutoring. Under the Senate bill, such limited school choice would take place no earlier than 2007.
And this is the fastest application of carrots and sticks. It would take two years to replace superintendents and other administrators in failing school districts under the House bill. Under the Senate bill, it would take five years.
“You would tell a child that isn’t doing his or her homework that he’s going to have to go to study hall five or 10 years from now,” was how one college administrator characterized such consequences, emphasizing the need for simplicity and prompt action where incentives are concerned.
Lessons from the States
Experience from the states affirms these lessons. In Florida, children in failing schools in Pensacola were given a voucher to transfer to other public or private schools within two years of the passage of Gov. Jeb Bush’s “A-Plus Program.” More than 100 school districts facing state-declared “failure” in the spring of 2000 and 2001 took note and worked furiously to improve their test scores–and succeeded.
A 2000 Teacher Choice survey of public school teachers in Florida found a majority of the respondents opposing vouchers as a policy but grudgingly admitting the threat of school choice in their district was an important factor in the turnaround.
In Texas, many districts have made significant improvements even without such structural incentives. Those improvements occurred, according to Deputy Secretary of Education William Hansen in a recent interview with Teacher Choice, because many administrators took prompt action. Those administrators included then-Houston Superintendent of Schools and now U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige.
“He went in and promoted people, demoted people, fired and hired principals, retrained others,” Hansen noted of Paige. Giving similar action tools and mandates for Paige and state and district administrators to implement the Bush program may be the key to whether testing makes a difference.
One indication that testing and incentives do matter is the strong reaction of the National Education Association, which recently passed a resolution that would sabotage the President’s reforms by encouraging parents to have their children boycott performance tests.
Larry Parker is senior reporter for Teacher Choice at the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution. His email address is [email protected]..
|A Testing Dilemma for Congress: HR-1 vs. S-1|
|REQUIREMENT||HOUSE BILL (HR-1)||SENATE BILL (S-1)|
|Failing schools must raise scores for all students …||Each year||Within a decade|
|Test scores must be raised for all students by …||8% each year||See formula in article|
|Failing schools must raise test scores for ethnic groups …||Each year||Each year|
|Test scores must be raised for ethnic groups by …||8% each year||1% each year|
|Students at failing individual schools eligible for some school choice within …||1 year||3 years|
|Failing school districts must replace superintendents/other leaders within …||2 years||5 years|
|Failing individual schools must be taken over by state or converted into charter schools within …||3 years||3 years, on experimental basis|
|Failing school districts must be taken over by state within …||3 years||5 years|