Quick and Dirty: The RPM Take on A Blueprint for Reform

Last Updated: March 27, 2010

This article appeared in the March 2010 Rural Policy Matters.

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Earlier this month the Obama administration released A Blueprint for Reform, announcing the kinds of changes it will seek in the re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), currently known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

The document purports to be a new direction for ESEA, the primary federal legislation governing K–12 public education. ESEA’s Title I programs are also the primary funding stream for addressing the educational needs of disadvantaged students.

But for our money, Blueprint looks an awful lot like NCLB. Only more so.

Most of the ‘more so’ requirements were revealed in the Race to the Top (RTT) grant program: more support for charter schools, more emphasis on testing (RTT and Blueprint both require states to rate teachers according to the test score “growth” of their students), and a lot more gathering and publishing of student data.

Blueprint continues NCLB’s requirement that schools that don’t make sufficient progress improving student test scores in English/Language Arts, math, and science will be re-constituted.

There are, however, some shifts in emphasis. While NCLB requires 100% of students to be “proficient” on state tests by 2014; Blueprint sets the goal that all students will graduate college and career ready by 2020, with intermediate test score and graduation rate targets to be determined. College and career readiness is not yet defined.

NCLB abolished local standards and assessments by requiring statewide tests and curriculum standards as a threshold for receiving Title I funding. Blueprint goes a step further by pushing states to participate in regional or national collaboratives to develop common standards and assessments. Although Blueprint carefully steers clear of “national test” or “national standards” language and does allow for states to work with their state university system in the development of new college/career ready standards, it’s no real matter: beginning in 2015, only states that implement standards common to “a significant number of states” will be eligible for formula grants related to assessments.

Of particular concern to us are new provisions related to teachers. Blueprint would require states to rate teachers and principals in at least three categories of “effectiveness,” according to the test scores of their students. Teachers that get more “growth” would be deemed more effective. Blueprint doesn’t define growth, but its teacher programs match those in RTT, which defines effective teachers as those whose students made at least one year’s progress on tests. Because student test scores are so heavily influenced by family income, we think this rating system will wind up punishing teachers who work with students with the most learning challenges and will give even greater hiring advantages to well-resourced districts serving affluent children of well-educated parents, students who are likely to score well no matter what their teachers do. That’s a travesty and a perversion of the intent of ESEA.

Blueprint mentions rural schools more often than is usual in such federal documents. But only one provision would address a real circumstance of rural schools. That provision would give schools in the Rural Low-Income Schools (RLIS) program “teacher quality flexibility,” a little extra time for teachers of multiple subjects to become Highly Qualified in all the subjects they teach. Schools in the Small, Rural School Achievement (SRSA) program already have this flexibility. But even this tiny nod to intra-rural fairness seems moot in the face of the new effectiveness requirements for teachers. There is almost nothing in Blueprint that addresses the real needs of high-poverty rural schools, and the programs outlined are clearly designed for high poverty urban schools where circumstances and resources are very different from those found in most rural areas. Nothing in the document does much to make up for considerable hardships placed on these schools by the new requirements.

Blueprint is silent on the most problematic federal funding issue for rural schools: “number weighting” in the Title I formulas. Since 2002 Title I funding for disadvantaged students has been distributed through formulas that send more money per eligible child to large, often affluent, districts than to smaller poorer districts. That change in the formulas has shifted hundreds of millions of dollars of critical funding from smaller poorer districts to larger, less poor districts.

True to indications we’ve already seen from this administration, there is a lot more emphasis on competitive grants. Put another way, there would be less money, at least as a percentage, going to schools based on the need level of their students and more going on the basis of how well the district writes grants to implement federally sanctioned or, even more egregiously, federally mandated programs. There is a link at the end of this article to a that breaks down Blueprint’s proposed grants by whether they will be awarded on a formula or competitive basis.

The document indicates that Title I grants for high poverty districts will continue to be funded on a formula basis, although neither the amount of funding nor makeup of the formulas is addressed.

Blueprint does mention the need for resource equity among schools and districts. Descriptions of several programs and grant projects emphasize serving high need schools. The document acknowledges that students most at-risk for academic failure live in “communities with insufficient capacity to address full range of their needs.” And, Blueprint asserts that “over time, districts will be required to ensure that their high-poverty schools receive state and local funding levels (for personnel and relevant nonpersonnel expenditures) comparable to those received by their low-poverty schools. …States will be asked to measure and report on resource disparities and develop a plan to tackle them.”

But there are no provisions to enforce any district or state level equity efforts.

As a matter of emphasis, we feel compelled to point out that equity of opportunity is the reason ESEA/Title I was established. It’s a sad day when equity has to be inserted as a goal for the legislation. Even sadder when those calls for equity are as weak as these.

Want more details? See RPM’s take on Blueprint for Reform’s provisions for Student Data here; Teachers here; Rural Schools here; Reward/Challenge schools and districts here; ELL here; and Chart of Formula/Competitive grants here.

Read more from the March 2010 Rural Policy Matters.