The Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) recently released a Q&A document about the new NCLB waiver the state got from the U.S. Department of Education. Reading through this document I have many many questions and many many concerns. Though the name of the new education law in Minnesota (and 9 other states as well) may sound nice the provisions leave me with some concerns. This policy is like the bystanders at the scene of an accident who think they are saving the life of someone in a crashed car by moving them out of it when in fact that movement might just be what snaps the victim's neck. I worry this policy will do this to education in our state.
Lets go through some of the statements from the Q& A that I find most bothersome or alarming:
"The Multiple Measurements Rating (MMR) that replaces Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) as the primary measurement of school performance. The MMR looks at a proficiency, growth, achievement gap reduction and graduation rates."
This MMR rating system is still very short of being comprehensive as it only measures schools according to criteria that fall in line with the "All growth is good/Progress" frame of thought. There is nothing in this formula that measures the quality of life within the school walls, how happy students are, how schools impact student self-esteem, or even how well they prepare them for the "real world." What about measuring student retention rates as well as graduation rates? What about measuring attendance rates? What about student and parent satisfaction ratings? No. This MMR still places faith in the almighty bubble and assumes that multiple choice assessment tests measure what we think they do and that they are an equitable tool for measurement.
"Nothing in the assessments themselves will change under the waiver. Nor will the requirements for students to take the assessments change."
Then why did we pursue the waiver? What in blazes does it do for our state? This will do nothing to slow the decline and decay of things people actually value in the schools (the arts, school sports, student projects, community service, etc.). In fact, as we shall see later, it will likely make these things worse for those attending the poorest schools, especially in large districts.
"Nothing in the waiver changes the state's rigorous academic standards in any way. The statewide standards remain in place. What has changed is the way we measure schools' ability to help students meet those standards."These standards are based on a wholly ill-conceived notion in the first place that all students should learn certain things at certain times in exactly the same way. The standards are far less about student learning than they are about restricting what is officially recognized as student learning. But, we are far from a point where we are going to see an end in sight to the standards movement so I never expected an NCLB waiver to shrug off all the excess baggage we have accumulated over the years since A Nation at Risk.
"Using the Minnesota Growth Model, each student is given a growth score based on how their assessment score compares to their predicted assessment score. Predicted scores are generated by looking at the statewide averages for each score from year-to-year."So, according to MDE the equitable way to measure student growth is with a norm-referenced test? This sounds GREAT for those schools serving predominately poor minority students with cultural differences test makers rarely consider when drafting their questions. Not to mention the fact that most child development psychologists will tell you that children tend to make learning gains in spurts. Did anyone consult any experts on learning when this policy was drafted?
"As with the previous NCLB system, all schools, regardless of Title I status, will be measured for accountability. Every school will continue to receive an AYP determination, and every school will now get an MMR as well. However, the new school designations (Reward, Celebration, Focus, Priority and Continuous Improvement) will only apply to Title I schools."So, just like NCLB, the only schools this really affects are those serving poor students. And, to add insult to injury we are going to implement, only for the poor schools, a ranking system that will either punish schools by putting them on an altogether separate list aside from the AYP list (which isn't going away despite the waiver) or punish them with "Rewards" (see Alfie Kohn). Again, this all hinges upon a faith-based assumption that the tests used to make these determinations actually measure what MDE and DOE think they measure. They don't. NCLB has been a kind of witch hunt but this waiver will only throw fuel on those torch flames and give the public more pitch forks to go after teachers and schools.
"The MMR and new accountability designations are directed exclusively at schools. However, districts will continue to receive annual AYP determinations."Here is one of two major problems I have with this waiver. For small districts with only one school for each grade level this won't be a problem but for urban and suburban districts this undoubtedly punishes the students in the poorest schools for an inequity created by the district their schools are in. By relieving districts of responsibility for their lowest-performing schools and placing all accountability on those schools the students who for one reason or another are stuck in those schools are the ones who will be punished. In those large districts teachers with more seniority will likely transfer out of those schools to places where the MMR and AYP police are not going to be riding their coat tails leaving these schools mostly staffed with young, inexperienced teachers (a group with high turnover rate that now has been encouraged by organizations like Teach for America that has now established a presence in these districts). Essentially what this policy will do is ensure that the poorest students in our urban schools will not have access to highly-qualified experienced teachers.
"There will no longer be any mandatory set-asides for staff development."This doesn't sound very much like the NCLB waiver has actual school improvement in mind. Why on Earth, if you are concerned with school improvement for our most needy schools, would you eliminate teacher professional development requirements? Makes no sense.
The other major problem I have with this waiver, and why I think this is bad for students, is that under the new MMR the only students who's scores matter are the ones who have attended the school for one full year. This means that schools have an incentive to pass along students who are under-performing, who are not making the kinds of gains that would improve the school's MMR. When I taught at an alternative school I saw this trend all the time with some of our most at-risk students. They would bounce from school to school (some just to avoid truancy officers but others who were pushed out) and never see the consistency needed to establish meaningful relationships with staff or make a committed connection with their studies. We are going to create incentives for schools to do more of this and not just with "at-risk" students, now all students who are not "progressing" fast enough will be at risk of being pushed out. Minnesota might be able to increase their MMR scores but only by fudging the numbers.
I have seen this strategy done before. Back then they called it the Texas Miracle and then Governor George W. Bush used it to claim on the campaign trail that he was going to become the Education President.