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Revolutionaries Lead Way to School Reform

Education leaders convene in Denver

In 1995, a group of state school revolutionaries met in a restaurant in Vermont to discuss how to effectively revamp public education. They had at least three areas of concern that the education establishment was not willing to hear about: choice, innovation, and accountability. No one inside their organizations wanted to discuss those ideas at the time, so the revolutionaries were gathering to discuss them among themselves.

The birth of the Education Leaders Council followed that Vermont dinner meeting. The result was the beginning of an organization that in September 2002 brought more than 400 state school superintendents, teachers, policymakers, education analysts, and consultants to Denver.

Reform, choice, and accountability are no longer items on the wish list of a few education malcontents. Supported in its inception by then-governor of Pennsylvania Tom Ridge, ELC today boasts among its supporters Rod Paige, U.S. secretary of education, John Boehner of the U.S. House, Eugene Hickock, U.S. under-secretary of education, E. D. Hirsch of the Core Knowledge Foundation, and numerous leaders in the education policy and research community. The ELC board includes 10 state chiefs representing 30 percent of the nation’s K-12 enrollment.

“No excuses” beliefs

The ELC is an advocacy group that describes itself as an action tank, not a think tank. It has a no-excuses philosophy that the leadership translates into practices.

Public education at ELC means “the delivery of the highest possible academic and social achievement for all students.” The aim of K-12 education is to prepare students for a full range of post-high school choices, a preparation that starts with great teachers and proper instruction. School choice, of whatever type, is the right of parents.

The education marketplace, according to ELC, can deliver the beneficial effects of choice to students, provided that rigorous standards, reliable annual assessments, and public access to results are available. Finally, successful education strategies depend upon excellent teachers. Teacher potential can only be realized within a professional atmosphere that supports excellence and innovation.

Rethinking outdated assumptions

From Good Intentions to Results: Transforming Federal Education Policy, a Winter 2000 ELC policy/position paper, outlined features that appear in the final version of the No Child Left Behind Act. The ELC proposal for education reform included high expectations for every child, focusing on students and families instead of systems, districts, or schools, empowering parents, and promoting local control.

In testimony given in September 2002 before the Senate committee on health, education, labor, and pensions, William J. Moloney, Colorado commissioner of education and chairman of the board of ELC, talked about the need to achieve balance in education policy. Strict insistence on unambiguous goals should be balanced with flexibility in implementation under No Child Left Behind, Moloney said. The hearing, on “Successful Implementation of Title I–State and Community Perspectives,“ gathered information from state education leaders on the condition of the states in light of No Child Left Behind.

As of mid-September, Moloney reported that Colorado’s 178 districts were in 178 different places, despite that fact that Colorado is closer to the goals of the new law than many other states. “We are very proud that Colorado districts were among those recognized last week in a White House ceremony by President Bush and members of Congress.” “Nonetheless, [We] must know that this great task is no sure thing, “Maloney said. Scepticism harbored by large segments of the population, particularly those of poverty and color cannot be dismissed, Moloney said. “America cannot afford such an ebbing of confidence in our public school system,” he said, speaking of frustrations and failures that cannot wait for reforms sometime in the distant future.

The Coalition to Close the Achievement Gap, founded in Colorado in 2000, is built upon the model of Ron Edmond’s Effective School Movement. Colorado adopted the position that American education cannot be founded upon two different systems, one with high expectations for fortunate children, and a second, for poor and minority children, with low or no expectations. The coalition describes the situation as more than just a crisis –– calling it a state of national emergency. Commitment to change, according to the coalition, is a challenge as well as a moral imperative.

By describing these problems in urgent terms, organizations such as the Colorado Coalition hope to turn up the volume on possible solutions, especially where they may involve breaking some old molds. A premier innovation effort of ELC is called Following the Leaders, which offers support to states undertaking rapid implementation of No Child Left Behind.

Measurement with NAEP

The role of the National Assessment of Educational Progress under No Child Left Behind was one of the central themes of the Denver conference. Roy Truby, executive director of the national governing board that sets policy for the NAEP, described the changing role of the exam throughout its history.

The NAEP test, also known as the “nation’s report card,” has been in use in U.S. education since the 1960s. The first- generation NAEP was designed, Trudy said, as a survey that would indicate how well our students were learning.

The push for national measurement was inspired by an alarming realization in the early 60s that the United States might not be a pre-eminent intellectual power, especially in the sciences. Despite this, early NAEP results had few policy repercussions.

A second and third generation of NAEP exams arose after 1988. Following the Alexander-James report recommendations of 1990, state NAEPs, achievement goals, and mandates for reform were put in place. The post-2000 NAEP extended the scope of the test’s earlier role to a new prominence in education. That expanded role aims to incorporate freedom and flexibility for families, stressing prevention rather than remediation.

NAEP will surely play a large part in the future of accountability under No Child Left Behind, Trudy said. Compatibility issues will likely lead to revision of the test as well, and the governing board recognizes the need for improvement both in the test and in its reporting strategy.

The next rounds of NAEP, in 2003 and 2005, will be scrutinized more closely than ever before in key areas of measurement and accountability.

Accountability that works

The ELC panel discussion on accountability systems that work was chaired by Chester Finn, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.

Finn, whose organization supports research and action projects in education reform at the K-12 level, spoke on accountability criteria for states.

Finn said five criteria are required for good state accountability: report cards for individual schools, a school rating system, rewards for successful schools, the threat of sanctions for schools that don’t meet standards, and the use of sanctions against schools that fail to correct their problems.

The Fordham Foundation study also looked at standards, creating a rating system based upon a combination of components. Seventeen states met at least three of the criteria, making them strong states in the study. The remaining 33 states met fewer than three criteria.

Similar criteria were advanced by panelists Lynn Olson of Education Week, Lisa Keegan of the ELC, and Theodor Rebarber of Accountability Works. Areas of concern for the schools will become, in part, how to mesh federal and state accountability systems over the course of the coming years. A large part of this discussion will focus on the states’ definitions of adequate yearly progress.

About half of states are still defining AYP. The remaining half have defined AYP for their state, but have not created the needed subaggregates, or have subaggregates that don’t represent 100 percent of the student population.

All participants in the panels agreed that flexibility and choice are imperatives, but they don’t yet know what is the best accountability system for states under the new federal law.

Palasek is assistant editor of Carolina Journal.