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Group Pushes Broader Approach for Helping Kids — But Can it Build a Broad Coalition?

By Matt Barnum | March 7, 2016

In 2008, during the heat of the presidential campaign, two groups released separate — many said competing — plans for improving public education. The Education Equality Project demanded high standards, tough accountability measures based on test scores, and an expansion of charter schools. The Broader, Bolder Approach to Education, by contrast, called for greater investment in out-of-school factors such as student health and nutrition; the group also backed expansion of pre-k and de-emphasized test scores.
Just one person signed on to both visions: the CEO of Chicago Public Schools at the time, Arne Duncan, who a year later would be named Secretary of Education. “The debate over either/or is a phony debate,” said Duncan in 2008. “It should be both/and, and we should push as hard as we can on both fronts.”
Duncan’s friend, Illinois’ then-junior senator and presidential candidate Barack Obama, also indicated that he supported both approaches.
As Education Secretary, Duncan used his signature initiative, Race to the Top, to help push test-based accountability and charter schools. He also backed pre-K expansion and argued for equitable school funding. Broader, Bolder was generally critical of his tenure, releasing a report arguing that Race to the Top was unsuccessful, and another claiming that reform-style policies in Chicago, Washington, D.C., and New York had failed1.
The Education Equality Project is now defunct (its old website redirects to another education group, Stand For Children). But the Broader, Bolder Approach relaunched last week, its organizers sensing an opportunity to influence the education debate as the country chooses a new president.
“The goal of the relaunch … is to put forth and help develop a policy framework that can effectively mitigate those impacts [of poverty],” said Elaine Weiss, the group’s national coordinator.
“There has clearly been a policy focus over the past decade, even two decades, to sort of accept the status quo as it is, but hope that we can help a minority of kids beat the odds,” Weiss said. Her coalition’s goal is “to help change the odds for all kids” and engage policymakers at all levels of government in doing so.
The group’s co-chairs bring intellectual heft and education experience. They include Helen Ladd, a Duke professor; Pedro Noguera, a UCLA professor; Paul Reville, Massachusetts’ former secretary of education; and Joshua Starr, the former superintendent of schools for Montgomery County, Maryland.
Broader, Bolder’s agenda includes proposals backed by years of research such as funding equity, school integration, and pre-K, that policymakers would do well to engage. Other features of its approach, however — including skepticism of test-based teacher evaluation — seem to ignore recent research and risk alienating reform groups that might otherwise be allies.
A focus outside and inside schools
Reformers often cite studies showing that teachers are the most important in-school factor affecting student achievement, but Weiss points out that that same body of evidence suggests that out-of-school factors — broadly defined and including the effects of poverty — far outweigh the impacts of schools. As one review of the research found, variation in factors outside school control outweighed school effects by about three to one. To Weiss the obvious takeaway is that education policy should focus on both.
Broader, Bolder wants to reduce out-of-school deficits that diminish a student’s learning ability in school — hence its emphasis on improving student health and nutrition, for instance.
“It would be super helpful if more state and districts made sure that every single kid had breakfast, so that a teacher isn’t struggling against 50 kids, 30 kids who are just wondering when lunch is going to happen,” Weiss said.
Research on whether free breakfast programs or in-school health centers improve students academic outcomes is mixed but mostly positive; either way, initiatives to keep children healthy seem worthwhile in their own right.
Broader, Bolder does not ignore how schools affect student learning. The group recommends implementing equitable funding systems, expanding pre-K, and integrating schools by race and class — all of which have strong bodies of research suggesting that these reforms can improve student outcomes.
Opposition to aspects of “reform”
In some ways, however, Broader, Bolder is defined not just by what it’s for, but by what it’s against.
There is no love lost for Arne Duncan, for instance. “He just didn’t listen to educators … and frankly blamed them for a lot of things,” Weiss said, citing Duncan’s push to evaluate teachers based partially on student test scores. “Duncan put out Race to the Top, which was kind of crazy — the idea that you would close achievement gaps … with that small amount of money and using a policy strategy not well designed to do that.”
Weiss said that Broader, Bolder doesn’t take a position on specifics of teacher evaluation but added that “we have not seen any good evidence that it is valid to use test scores in individual teacher evaluations.” She pointed to a speech laying out problems with value-added measures, which are statistical estimates of teachers’ impact on student test scores2.
These sorts of claims — also included in an op-ed Weiss recently published — will likely make it challenging for Broader, Bolder to find common ground with groups that support test-based teacher evaluation and Arne Duncan’s legacy.
Moreover there is evidence that value-added measures have at least some degree of validity and reliability. A landmark study found that value-added measures were correlated with teachers’ impacts on long-run student outcomes, such as adult income. There is a vigorous scholarly debate about the use of these measures, but crucially, most of the complaints about value-added can be applied with almost equal force to other measures of teacher quality, including classroom observations3.
Meanwhile, a pair of studies have found that Washington, D.C.’s tough teacher evaluation system — which includes test scores — likely had positive effects on student achievement. Weiss responded to this research in an email: “Given all the purportedly very effective teachers hired in high-poverty schools, and given the assumption that these teachers are raising test scores, how did those schools continue to have NAEP proficiency rates in the single digits in 2015, years after [D.C.’s teacher evaluation system] and a full two years after the last year of data this study employed?”
Other studies have shown similar results, though. One study showed that New York City’s teacher tenure system, which considers test scores, likely improved teacher quality; another New York City study found that giving principals teachers’ value-added data led to small increases in student test scores. Research in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools showed that using test scores can help improve decisions about which teachers to lay off when budgetary cuts are necessary.
Short on specifics
Broader, Bolder is critical of current teacher and school accountability systems.
For instance on teacher quality, the group says, “A Broader, Bolder Approach to Education prioritizes developing a strong, experienced corps of professional educators while supporting the dismissal of the small minority of weak ones. … And it works to build an education system that makes teaching and leading in high-needs schools attractive and meaningful.”
What that means in practice is not entirely clear. When asked about specific policies Weiss discussed efforts to improve students’ health to help teachers do their job. She also pointed to peer assistance and review systems, in which master teachers evaluate colleagues.
On school accountability, the group wants a more holistic approach that uses assessments that “capture a wide range of measures of student well-being to reliably track student progress toward readiness for college, careers, and civic engagement.” Broader, Bolder mentions school inspections conducted by “master teachers and leaders”; “opportunity dashboards” that measures inputs of school quality like breadth of curriculum; and “project- and proficiency-based assessments.”
In a February blog post, Charlie Barone of Democrats for Education Reform criticized the lack of specificity in the proposals: “[Broader, Bolder’s] approach to accountability is roughly the same as that of  2016 Republican Presidential candidates who want to ‘repeal and replace’ Obamacare: They’ve beaten up on the program for eight years, but still haven’t come up with any substantive alternatives.”
Weiss disputed Barone’s characterization, pointing out that the group has highlighted approaches, like England’s school inspection system, that ought to be considered. “This is a very complex issue, and as we can see from the real disasters wrought over the last decade, one that we need to take a big step back from and put much more thought into before jumping in and declaring that something works,” she said.
The silence of the reformers
Aside from Barone’s blog post, Weiss said that the relaunched Broader, Bolder has received  little reaction — positive or negative — from reform groups or their leaders.
“What’s been frustrating about this whole ‘two camps’ thing is — it’s ridiculous — we are all in this because we care very much about kids doing better … The fact that we’ve been dividing and maybe conquering is awful. Kids cannot afford this,” Weiss said.
“Our advisory board and signatories include a number of folks who have consulted [the Eli and Edythe] Broad and other foundations that may not agree with us on many items, so we are more than open to self-proclaimed reformers,” she added.
In other ways, though, some of Broader, Bolder’s rhetoric undermines the idea of finding common ground. For instance, in a piece for Answer Sheet, a Washington Post education blog, Weiss claimed that “self-proclaimed reformers…were quick to dismiss the impacts of poverty.”
Digs like that, skepticism about charter schools, and claims that Arne Duncan “blamed teachers” by tying test scores to teacher evaluation, are unlikely to help build a coalition that includes reform groups — even those that may agree with many aspect of Broader, Bolder’s agenda. That’s a shame because, as Duncan pointed out eight years ago, there’s no real conflict between Broader, Bolder’s positive agenda and policies backed by reformers.
In that sense, although the group has laudably pushed a broader approach for helping low-income kids, it’s not clear if it can build a broader coalition to make that happen.
Footnotes:

1. This second report led to sharp criticism from researcher Steve Glazerman, who coined the term “misNAEPery” to describe what he saw as the report’s misuse of NAEP data. Elaine Weiss, co-author of the report, responded to that criticism here. (return to the story)

2. The lecture actually doesn’t rule out the use of value-added in teacher evaluation, but cautions that they ought to be used carefully and should not have fixed or dispositive weights. Its author, Stanford Professor Edward H. Haertel says, “So, in conclusion, VAMs may have a modest place in teacher evaluation systems, but only as an adjunct to other information.” Haertel also acknowledges that there is “compelling empirical evidence that teacher VAM scores are capturing some important elements of teaching quality.” (return to story)

3. Two exceptions to this point are the face validity of the measure — teachers and principals tend to have greater confidence in classroom-based observations — and the lack of actionable ways for teachers to improve using value-added scores. On the other hand, value-added may have certain advantages over other measures of performance. For instance, policymakers know more about the strength and limitations of value-added as opposed to other measures of teacher quality; moreover, researchers have found that value-added is associated with long-term student outcomes. (return to story)

 

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