ECAAnoThanks to a buy off, I mean buy-in, by the teachers’ unions, the Senate now feels ready to push ahead with their Every Child Achieves Act. They have dressed it up pretty with superficial changes meant to make parents happy, but cross dressing this bad boy won’t fool many parents who have not only read the bill, but lived through its predecessor NCLB. We know what double speak sounds like and that prohibition without enforcement is as powerful as Barney Fife with his empty gun in Kandahar. FifeInstead of peeling back federal intrusion, the NCLB replacement bill steps up federal meddling, monitoring and essentially unfunded mandates for expensive testing. Parents know that, once they get a little bit of data, the Department of Education and/or Congress will feel compelled to act on it, like Pavolv’s dog when the bell rang. Parents have good reason to be worried about what programs such data might inspire and, are justified in their continued dissatisfaction with the details in this growing bill given what history has shown.

Alexander and the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions committee have been telling parents that this bill returns control of education to the states and prohibits federal involvement in state education plans. This is supposed to reassure us. Remember that prohibition against the federal government being in any way involved in a national assessment that was included in the General Education Provisions Act? Yeah, that didn’t stop the USDoED from fully funding, to the tune of $330 million, both the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortia and the Partnership for Assessment of College and Career Readiness which developed a national assessment.

Remember the Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment that said no federal program could fund any survey, analysis, or evaluation that reveals information concerning mental and psychological problems potentially embarrassing to the student and his/her family, or sex behavior and attitudes? That didn’t stop the Kevin Jennings of the US Department of Ed from issuing a 10 page memo on October 26, 2010 to all public and private schools and colleges, detailing how they were to support Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (LGBT) behavior or face the loss of federal Title IX funds. The department used a twisted interpretation of Title IX, which forbade harassment based on race, color, national origin, sex, or disability based on federal civil rights laws, to force educators, under threat of prosecution, to “promote” the LGBT lifestyle as being normal. In order to prove that they are teaching effectively they will have to assess whether student’s sexual attitudes match those guidelines. Prohibition means nothing to DC bureaucrats.

Kudzu- an invasive noxious weed that climbs over trees and shrubs so rapidly it kills them by heavy shading.

Does anyone recall any punishment for these violation of prohibitions? Anyone lose their job? Nope. Crickets. It is harder to fire a federal worker than to get rid of kudzu in the south.

So congress will have to forgive the average parent’s distrust of its promises to be helpful and fair. Take Amendment 2159, the Bennet-Reed Family Engagement Amendment, meant to strengthen the family’s involvement in the child’s education. To those inside the beltway I guess this sounds all warm and fuzzy and caring. To those in the real world it sounds more like a page from Orwell’s 1984. The talking points from the Senate say,

  • This amendment reauthorizes the Parental Information and Resource Center (PIRC) program as the Statewide Family Engagement Centers (SFEC) to strengthen family engagement in education through assistance to states, school districts, teachers, and families.
  • These centers will provide states and school districts with the capacity to support effective implementation and enhancement of systemic and effective family engagement policies, programs, and activities that lead to improvements in student development and academic achievement.

See how we need federal centers to give us not only support, but policies and activities which we must do to increase family engagement with a specific goal that is not set by the family, but is instead set by the government, to improve student academic achievement? This will be measured almost entirely by test scores. The way everyone will know if they are meeting the government’s standards is by looking at how students do on the task of testing. This does not look like parental rights or local control. It does not even look like a reasonable means to an end.

If you have read teacher John Holt’s work, you know what success in schools means for the student.

“For children, the central business of school is not learning, whatever this vague word means; it is getting these daily tasks done, or at least out of the way, with a minimum of effort and unpleasantness. Each task is an end in itself. The children don’t care how they dispose of it. If they can get it out of the way by doing it, they will do it; if experience has taught them that this does not work very well, they will tun to other means, illegitimate means, what wholly defeat whatever purpose the task-giver may have had in mind.” “How Children Fail” Holt 1964, p. 24

Consider the example Holt gave (from the 60’s) of how children approach to task of “learning” and think about it in comparison to the promised computer adaptive testing that the education reformers have convinced the folks in DC is the bees knees for getting at student achievement.  Holt describes working with Ruth on math problems. Instead of giving her the answer or showing her how to do it on the board, he tried to “make her think” of the answer by asking a series of questions. Most will recognize the Socratic method at work here. The key difference is that Socrates was not necessarily working towards a predetermined “correct” answer with his students.

Today’s students know there will be a correct answer at the end of the questioning so some of them will, as Ruth did, wait to get to that answer. Each time she couldn’t answer the question Holt broke the concept down further until he practically gave her the answer by eliminating all other possibilities. She did not expend any effort to answer the harder version of the question because she knew an easier one was coming. How long before students figure out that this is how the computer adaptive questions work, getting successively easier until the student can answer a very basic question a move on?

Do either of these methods make students “critical thinkers?” Can teachers make kids develop the  higher order thinking skills (HOTS) so desired by Congress and the ed reformers that these tests are supposed to measure? Not likely, at least not without serious manipulation of the child and no one is stopping to consider whether such manipulation is appropriate or even moral.

For example, the National Assessment for Educational Progress, a program of the USDoED will begin assessing “grit” in 2017, even though there is no consensus on the validity of such measurement, the need for it, or what might be done if the scores for it turn out to be very low.  Mike Rose of the UCLA Graduate School of Education, wrote in the Washington Post that grit may not be that desirable in all circumstances. “Perseverance and determination as represented in the grit questionnaires could suggest a lack of flexibility, tunnel vision, an inability to learn from mistakes.” Government’s tendency to jump on whatever education fad is marketed most heavily to them at the moment, could cause the widespread implementation of programs to promote “grit” which actually hurt our children rather than help them. However, once they go to the trouble and expense to collect data to guide policy, we are pretty much guaranteed that government is going to develop policy based on whatever it thinks the data say.

Emmet McGroarty of the American Principles Project wrote this about HOTS as used in ECAA.

Under ECAA, states will have to adopt and implement very specific types of assessments: those that measure “higher order thinking skills” using “Universal Design for Learning” Sec. 1111(b)(2)(B)(vi) and (xiii). This may sound good until you realize what those phrases mean.

Higher order thinking skills (“HOTS”) have little to do with factual, academic knowledge of a subject. Instead, they include supposedly critical, reflective, and creative thinking and “are activated when individuals encounter unfamiliar problems, uncertainties, questions, or dilemmas.” Universal Design for Learning (“UDL”) means, in its most modern, cutting-edge form, embedding into computerized programs sophisticated assessment tools that actually map and analyze a child’s brain function. These tools will be able to measure a student’s non-cognitive attributes and mindsets, such as whether he is easily bored or frustrated. Whether he actually knows the material is secondary.

This is what ECAA requires of state assessments – psychological profiling of students.”

Alexander and the HELP committee have been telling parents that this bill returns control of education to the states and prohibits federal involvement in state education plans. The testing included in the bill tell a different story. Federal money will be tied to these “enormously expensive and problem-prone assessment systems”(McGroarty)  and states will invest whatever they have to to make sure they get their federal money. No one will do a cost benefit analysis of this system to determine whether the millions the state and local districts invest will be worth the federal money in the long run. There is no proof that we can make the Ruth’s of the world think differently about the tests or perform better when the system tells her to. And none of this sounds very much like state control.

Washington is still very out of touch with the field. Alexander stated that the testing required in the bill will only take “two hours a year.” That’s like thinking that your vacation travel will only take the actual time the plane is in the sky and not the time booking the flight, packing the luggage, getting to the airport and through security, waiting for mechanical and weather delays and getting your luggage at the other end. I guess since their jobs are no longer tied to student scores, AFT and NEA are fine with letting the Senate believe this gross under estimation of the time impact of mandated assessment.

Alexander sticks to his talking points that the bill does not require “specific” standards or assessments and strips the USDoED of the power to force states to adopt them. We already know that prohibition means as much to Arne Duncan as it did to Al Capone. However, the way ECAA is structured, Arne won’t have to do much dictating of specific standards. States will have little choice but to adopt narrowly defined similar standards and assessments.

McGroarty wrote, “For one thing, the Race to the Top and NCLB waiver programs have already coerced colleges and universities into agreeing to accept Common-Core-trained students without remediation. ECAA requires standards that align with these college entrance requirements. So guess which standards states will stick with?” Even states whose legislatures have rejected Common Core will be stuck with CC-like standards because of this.

The HELP Committee has made superficial efforts to respond to grassroots criticism. Because of grassroots pressure to protect parental rights to opt out of all the testing, language was added that only nominally does this. However, additional qualifying language strips any meaning from the conciliatory language. “Nothing in this part shall be construed as preempting a State or local law regarding the decision of a parent or guardian to not have the parent or guardian’s child participate [in the federally mandated assessments].” In effect, while the federal government cannot directly punish parents or students for opting out of testing, the bill makes the states and LEA’s play the enforcer by punishing them financially if too many parents exercise this right.  States or localities would have to have a law affirmatively protecting the right to opt out, which few do.

Nationally, the grassroots is being called on to put the heat on the Senate today, to not pass ECAA. Call your senator and tell them we don’t want more NCLB failed policies. We know what local control looks like and this ain’t it. You cannot tinker your way to success in education when you are thousands of miles away from the point of implementation. That’s like trying to hit a specific spot on the moon with a laser pointer. Accountability is a two way street that means there are consequences for bureaucrats who do not follow the law, not just for the recipients of federal monies.



Anne Gassel

Anne has been writing on MEW since 2012 and has been a citizen lobbyist on Common Core since 2013. Some day she would like to see a national Hippocratic oath for educators “I will remember that there is an art to teaching as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy and understanding are sometimes more important than policy or what the data say. My first priority is to do no harm to the children entrusted to my temporary care.”

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