On the morning of October 3rd, 2017 the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension committee, also known as H.E.L.P., held a hearing which they titled The Every Student Succeeds Act: Unleashing State Innovation. Based on the title of the hearing, one might expect to get an earful of innovative ideas from education leaders who have proven their worth by exploring the full potential of ESSA and improving school performance by leaps and bounds. When you learn who the panelists are, you immediately question the purpose of the hearing.
Dr. Candice McQueen, Tennessee Commissioner of Education, took over as commissioner in August 2015 replacing the most toxic commissioner Tennessee had ever seen, Kevin Huffman. McQueen inherited a system in shambles after years of implementing failed reforms. Though she has a long work history in education including K-12, both public and private, as well as higher education, she has continued the path of implementing corporate education reforms. It is unclear whether she has actually completed any program established by the Broad Foundation, but she has partnered with them and regularly employs Broad Academy residents. Tennessee has hovered around 43rd in state education rankings for the last ten years.
John White, Louisiana Superintendent of Education, was appointed to his position in January 2012. He is a graduate of the Broad Superintendent’s Academy, and with roughly three years of classroom teaching experience, rose through the ranks of Teach For America. Eventually, he landed position of superintendent for the newly created Recovery School District in New Orleans, and a few short months later, was appointed state superintendent. Driven by the support of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI) who represents oil & gas, refineries, and other large corporations that dominate the economy, White has consistently and persistently created tension and conflict among stakeholders in Louisiana. He is, without a doubt, the state’s most toxic superintendent. Louisiana has bounced around between 47th and 50th in state education rankings for the last ten years.
Christopher Ruszkowski, New Mexico Superintendent of Education, was only appointed to his position a little over a month ago. He was named “acting superintendent” in June 2016 replacing outgoing Hanna Skandera who took a job working for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos. Ruszkowski is a Teach For American alumni, as well as a Broad Academy Fellow. While Skandera was not nearly as toxic as White or Huffman, her years of implementing “education reforms” have kept New Mexico ranked 49th or 50th for the last ten years.
Last but certain not least, Dr. David Steiner was apparently a part of the panel to serve as head cheerleader for the ESSA plans developed by the three education leaders. Steiner not only secured the Race To The Top grant that enabled the creation of EngageNY (later renamed Eureka Math), he was also instrumental in the creation of Relay Graduate School of Education; the first free-standing (not associated with any university) online graduate program offering advanced studies in education.
One might wonder why representatives from three of the historically poorest performing states would be invited to speak to the committee about innovation. I’ll tell you why. It’s because they have successfully implemented reforms that are designed to undermine the public education system, the teaching profession, and enable privatization and do not have the success of students in mind. The three states represented were among the first to submit their new state accountability plans under ESSA. None of them ventured far from the plans developed under No Child Left Behind. What were some of the topics discussed?
- Standards with expectations beyond the cognitive ability of the grade levels in which they are used creating stress and anxiety among young learners who should be enjoying their school experience instead of being pushed to think and learn like an adult.
- Assessments that label students, teachers, and schools as failures when they aren’t able to master the inappropriate standards and do not provide valuable feedback in a timely fashion with detailed information about standards met, or not met.
- Pay systems that reward teachers for high-performance test results in spite of the fact that research has determined that the classroom teacher has approximately 13%-17% influence on student outcomes, and the barriers that lay outside of the four walls of the classroom are far more influential in student success.
- Alternative pathways to teacher certification that not only lessen the stature of the teaching profession, but are also used to fill the ever-growing teacher shortages that have been created by the attacks on the profession and all of the topics listed above.
There is nothing innovative about the approaches taken by these three states. They continue to push through the implementation of reforms to re-calibrate what it means to be successful by labeling what once was good, as not good, then making it virtually impossible to reach the new standard of good. All the while screaming to the Heavens, “See! Our schools really aren’t that good!”
Perhaps, the most illuminating point of the committee hearing was the few minutes that Louisiana Senator, Bill Cassidy popped in. Cassidy said he was in attendance at a conference and couldn’t be there sooner. He didn’t really ask questions. He more importantly got John White to agree that how the system rates his wife’s school, Louisiana Key Academy, is an example of program failure. Why is this important? Cassidy’s wife runs a charter school for students with dyslexia. For two years, under the PARCC exam and Faux-PARCC exam, the school was rated an F. The primary reason for this being that students are successful at La. Key Academy because they receive accommodation and interventions specifically for dyslexia, but when the state assessment is given, they don’t receive them. After two years of receiving an F rating, approximately 80% of the parents excluded their children from the assessment. For a third year, the school received an F rating with no data to justify it, and their charter was threatened.
Not only did White agree on the record that this is a problem, it also opens the door to question the validity of the state assessment when given to Foreign Language immersion students who are taught all year in a foreign language, and then are expected to take the assessment in English. What about ESL students who are not only struggling to learn English, but also to learn a subject presented in a language that is new to them. They are expected to take the assessment in English. If these questions can be raised about the validity of the testing instrument for these groups, how can they be administered across the board with the expectation that all students will master the standards in spite of barriers.