March 24, 2015

A Civil Rights Advocate, Teachers Union Leader, and Business Guy Walk Into A Bar…Ten Takeaways From Yesterday’s CCCSO Leg Panel

By Bellwether

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The Council of Chief State School Officers legislative conference is in full swing. Yesterday featured a lively (actually lively, not just by Washington standards) panel on ESEA prospects with Kati Haycock of the Education Trust, Lily Eskelsen Garcia of the NEA, Randi Weingarten of the AFT, and Dane Linn from the Business Roundtable. I moderated the late afternoon conversation and it revealed some important friction points for the sector. Here are ten takeaways:

Bullish on ESEA. Asked a simple yes or no on whether ESEA would be reauthorized during this Congress all four said yes. That means they’re more bullish than the Whiteboard Advisors Education Insider survey and the sense in D.C. overall.

Devil in the details. The unions want more local assessments rather than statewide ones, Garcia in particular spoke up on this issue. But when asked about how that would lead to less testing – given that most of today’s over testing is a state and local issue – neither Weingarten or Garcia had a response. Nor did they have a clear theory of action for whether a local option should be codified in statute or be something that happens via an earned process for states. Weingarten, however, was quick to cite the Goodlatte (VA) amendment in the House on testing as a standard and to say that secretarial authority – as codified in current law – wasn’t sufficient.  The union leaders cited a few promising pilots that are happening now but didn’t have a clear answer on how to scale that. Meanwhile, Haycock made clear that different tests for different students was pretty much a non-starter in her community. Linn spoke up for innovation – but only earned autonomy for states.

Governors under the bus. Not surprisingly CCSSO is not high on the idea of having governors sign off on state Elementary and Secondary Education Act plans in an effort to ensure cohesion and accountability. In some states this happens by default because of governance, but in others chiefs operate with independence. When asked if they’d support that change no panelist spoke up for it. With educational governance conflicts in places like LA, IN, WY, and coming soon in more states this will be a live issue.

Who is the critic anyway? For all the talk about school bashing and politicians bashing schools it was ironic to watch Ed Trust’s Haycock talk about progress over the past few decades while Garcia painted a dystopian picture of the education landscape. It may well be that in their fight to take down reform union leaders poor mouth the schools as much or more than anyone else in the debate.

Testing pressure. Haycock made the point that a lot of the testing pressure is fundamentally unprofessional behavior (and stoked by the unions to gin up opposition) because most of these tests have no consequences for students*. Sounds like an under-explored issue!

Testing opposition. Speaking of under-explored issues it’s amazing (ok, it’s not) how the media has been asleep at the switch about the union role in fomenting opposition to the new PARCC and SBAC Common Core assessments. It’s hard to think of another project with this much public investment at stake that if there were an organized effort to take it down it would not be front page news. It came up during the panel but so far the two-step act where union leaders can act like statesmen in D.C. while raising hell around the country is alive and well.

Data versus anecdotes. The other fascinating thing about the Garcia – Haycock exchange was that Haycock went to data while Garcia focused on anecdotes. The idea that National Assessment of Educational Progress scores are better than they’ve ever been, for instance, is an inconvenient fact for Garcia’s nothing is working in policy narrative. Weingarten pointed out that progress is incremental. That’s a fair point to debate in terms of what’s realistic or possible. However, the idea that there has not been a lot of improvement over two decades is not borne out on the facts and is a disservice to educators.

Know your audience. One attendee observed afterwards, though, that while Garcia’s argument wasn’t going to sway many people at the national policy level it was a great state level argument. That’s a good point. She is the most convincing education union leader to come along in a while. When she says she’d rather be teaching it’s actually believable and you could see yourself plausibly putting your own kid in her elementary classroom (not like these guys, for instance). Stay tuned.

What’s old is new. The old friction about whether federal accountability will create the conditions to address inequities or whether those inequities need to be addressed before having accountability was on full display. Nobody says “opportunity to learn” but that’s the idea, The unions were on one side of that, Haycock and Linn on the other.  The unions made clear they’re fine with a lot of testing so long as it’s not tied to anything consequential. Sounds like testing for testing’s sake?

Everyone thinks we’re good though? At the end I asked about school choice. Choice advocates love this intramural warfare among Democrats – ‘just keep doing what you’re doing’ they say because it’s hard to see dramatically better public schools coming out of this dysfunction and they believe the demand for choice will win out in the end. Yet for all the rhetoric about privatization no one on the panel saw choice as a big threat to public education if the current tenor continues. I don’t agree. As a friend who is a retired heavyweight fighter once told me, the punch that knocks you out is usually the one you don’t see coming. This sector seems pretty self-satisfied and indulgent to me if it doesn’t see big risks coming on the near horizon.

*Update: There are also a legit issues here, around over-testing, capacity of schools, best designs for accountability systems and perverse incentives, or role of choice (interestingly the union enthusiasm for opt-outs doesn’t carry over to parental choice). But those are all being subsumed under a meta-narrative about testing that doesn’t address the more fundamental issues.

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