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Conor Williams: No Pressure on States Means No Changes for Underserved Kids

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July 22, 2015

Conor Williams
Conor Williams

Conor P. Williams is a senior researcher in New America’s Education Policy Program and founder of its Dual Language Learners National Work Group. Williams is a former first-grade teacher who holds a Ph.D. in government from Georgetown University, a master’s in science for teachers from Pace University and a B.A. in government and Spanish from Bowdoin College. He has two young children and an extremely patient wife.

Conor P. Williams is a senior researcher in New America’s Education Policy Program and founder of its Dual Language Learners National Work Group. Williams is a former first-grade teacher who holds a Ph.D. in government from Georgetown University, a master’s in science for teachers from Pace University and a B.A. in government and Spanish from Bowdoin College. He has two young children and an extremely patient wife.
Talking Points

Calif. gave districts more money to help needy kids and they spent it on librarians and assistant principals

When feds remove pressure to help poor, ELL kids, states often fall short, bad news for NCLB rewrite

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I am not a cool guy. At all.
Find a trend—any trend—and you can pretty much count on me to miss it. Take my lame taste in music: I mostly listen to old blues and 1990s hip hop. And not in an ironic, counter-cultural trendsetter way, like dudes who craft an identity around drinking cheap beer. No, I listen to Hound Dog Taylor, Ice Cube, and Kool Keith because that's what I listened to in college (years after they were cool, of course) and I've stuck with them.
I've grown comfortable being out of step. It's where I belong. And it's no different as far as education policy trends are concerned.
Right now, the educational current is flowing towards decentralization. Folks are inclined to put the power, pressure, and decision-making as far from Washington as possible. Of course, because I'm irrevocably off-trend, the whole movement away from federal—and even state—accountability seems to me like a violation of a basic principle of governing: If systems — education among them — aren’t required to do new and/or difficult things, they won’t.
This is especially the case where supports and protections for underserved children are concerned. After more than a decade of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and other federal efforts to force or "encourage" states to step up their commitment to equitable educational opportunities for all students, many Americans are ready to back off.
They're tired of tests that check whether students have learned what they're supposed to in each grade. They're tired of federal efforts to pressure states and districts to put their most vulnerable students first. So they argue that progress towards educational equity will be stronger if we just "trust states" or give districts more flexibility or some other local control mantra.
California's been exploring this strategy for a few years now, and it's not going well. We should take that as a warning for the rest of the country, particularly now as Congress rewrites No Child Left Behind in a way that seriously weakens federal oversight of schools.
On political issues ranging from the environment to education, California is often a bellwether for the other 49 states. No surprise, then, that the state was out front when it came to experimenting with dramatic local education control.
For several years now, California has been sending extra resources to school districts and letting them develop local plans for improving educational opportunities for underserved kids. The results have been...predictably unimpressive.
Those districts, given the flexibility to use California’s money as they saw fit, often spent it on stuff that doesn’t actually serve students that need the resources most. For instance, a recent study found that Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) used state funds for underserved children to hire new assistant principals and librarians across the district—including in schools with few kids in need.
When given extra money to support low-income students and/or English language learners, LAUSD’s priorities were clear: “Re-staffing adult positions, rather than any strategy for narrowing achievement gaps,” the study concluded.
In sum, the researchers found "no coherent strategy," "confusion," and "dismay." It’s no surprise, then, that LAUSD is facing a civil rights lawsuit alleging that the district spent many millions of those dollars on special education instead.
There are countless stories like this across the state. Fresno’s schools asked if they could spend money for underserved kids on raises for all teachers in the district (the state says they can, but in most cases probably shouldn’t).
California's experiment in local control isn't just light on accountability. It's light on transparency as well. The state's new education law doesn't "require districts to measure or report their [ELL & low-income student] specific expenditures." So guess what? Most districts no longer "measure or report their [ELL & low-income student] specific expenditures,” the first state analysis of the implementation found.
Decentralized control of education often—if not always—makes it difficult to see whether schools and local education systems are working.
This is why it's so puzzling that  Congress seems determined to rewrite NCLB to give states even broader flexibility to set their own targets for closing achievement gaps between privileged students and their underserved peers. It sends states a pile of federal tax dollars and says, “hey, we trust you to give this to the kids who need it most.”
Which is a pleasant vision with little basis in fact. We've run this experiment for decades in the United States (see, for instance, the title of the third chapter in this 2000 Government Accountability Office report). The greatest hits of decentralized control of public education are things like segregation and huge funding inequities favoring wealthy neighborhoods.
When the federal government sends states money to, say, support English language learners' linguistic and academic development, states send it to districts—where officials use it to buy oscillating fans. When the federal government asks state education agencies to improve how their long-failing districts serve ELLs, they often shirk their responsibilities. The upshot: it's a fantasy to trust states (#TrustStates) to do right by their underserved students without federal pressure.
Near the end of its NCLB debate, the Senate considered an accountability amendment to try and put some of that pressure back. The amendment asked only that states commit to do something to intervene in schools when they chronically underperform their most vulnerable students—low-income and disabled kids, English Language Learners, students of color. It didn't prescribe anything. It only asked them to make some sort of tangible change … and it went down in flames (just 43 votes in support, 42 Democrats and Ohio Republican Rob Portman).
I'm not some reflexively pro-centralization, big government cheerleader, OK? Let me be clear. There are plenty of kludgeocratic, dumb regulations that creep down through federal and state mandates. Top-down accountability can get ugly fast. It works best when setting expectations and imposing (crisp, direct) consequences. Too often, it strays into unwieldy dictates for teachers' or administrators’ daily work. I get that.
But I am an unabashed supporter of transparency and accountability. At a systemic level, there's precious little evidence that states and districts are ready to seize their achievement gaps and make uncomfortable choices about reallocating educational resources to benefit the underserved. Remove the pressure from above, and they quickly find other priorities—like getting extra dollars to schools serving privileged white families.
Federal pressure is neither cool nor popular among the Very Serious People of education these days. Who wants to defend standardized tests? Or the federal Department of Education? No one. Or, rather, no one cool. So hey, sign me up.