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Thompson: Jack Jennings & the Insider's View of School Reform

One reason why I loved Jack Jennings's Presidents, Congress, and the Public Schools is that it helped me grasp something that always perplexed me. NCLB, unlike Arne Duncan's test and punish agenda, had very little in terms of real sanctions for individuals.  Why didn't the normative education culture of compliance respond in the obvious manner - pocket the extra money and pretend to comply with the law? Why did systems actually impose test-driven accountability and juke the stats, rather than just play the numbers games and claim that they had really taken a pound of flesh out of educators?
Similarly, Jennings helps explain a phrase that became ubiquitous in my world. Our poor district desperately needed federal money, but it didn't dare spend it in the ways that would most benefit poor students. During years before and shortly after NCLB, I'd often hear the statement about Title I money: "Oh, that's just federal money." In other words, individual administrators wouldn't take risks in order to spend those modest funds more effectively; they’d stick with programs that were completely safe.
To his credit, Duncan subsequently spoke about flexibility in spending Title I. I'd cite his promises and suggest approaches focusing on the socio-emotional aspect of learning and invariably hear words of agreement from administrators. After all, our district was 90% low-income, so there was little chance that those researched-based approaches would unfairly benefit affluent kids. Then would come a statement like this: "But, what if some 25-year-old accountant disallowed it?" Often, the other administrators would offer the same few anecdotes about other districts that were burned by federal bureaucrats.
Jennings account of Title I is especially incisive. The ultimate insider with a half century of experience in edu-politics explains how Congress thought it was passing a general aid program with few strings attached. Reports of abuses prompted federal administrators in the 1970s to turn it into a categorical aid program, which led to regulations that could be burdensome. State and local administrators pushed back and gained some relief from the micromanaging. In return, the program became more focused on student achievement, as opposed to investing in the broader welfare of poor children.  
As Presidents, Congress, and the Public Schools unfolded, my big question was addressed. I had been unaware of the long complicated story of how Title I had become more focused on academic accountability.  On the ground in inner city schools, we would have had to have our heads firmly in the sand to miss the justified pressure from the civil rights community to produce concrete metrics of academic growth for poor children of color but I, at least, had missed the parts of the story that Jennings recounts. Systems had been fighting multi-faceted battles over accountability and I’d just been aware of the disputes over test scores. So, even though NCLB’s test score targets seemed so utopian that it appeared unlikely that systems would go to illogical extremes to meet them, an overall foundation had been laid for a serious commitment to test-driven accountability.

Before moving on to NCLB, Jennings reviews the results of the imperfect federal efforts that it sought to replace. The ESEA Act of 1965 had big goals and it was well-funded.  From the mid-1960s to the 1980s, federally funded efforts only produced modest improvements and they did not bring equity.  But, in comparison to post-NCLB results, those gains look pretty impressive, especially since their funding did not increase in order to meet the ambitious goal of closing the Achievement Gap. To produce equity for the most disadvantaged students, who disproportionately were concentrated in high-challenge schools, a far greater investment into their entire learning environment would have been necessary.

I would add some more historical perspective. As Jennings notes, the test scores don't tell us what would have happened if old-fashioned federal aid not been available.  What would have happened to the achievement of poor students in the 1980s as Supply Side economics wiped out their families’ jobs and hopes for a future if Title I hadn’t existed?
Test scores improved in the 1960s and early 1970s. Those gains must also reflect the benefits of the greatest economic boom in world history. By the Reagan years, when it was decided that the stick of standards-based accountability was necessary, good jobs for poor people of color, as well as blue collar factory workers, were disappearing so fast that it looked like much of American society was unraveling.  The hopefulness of Pax Americana prosperity, as well as real progress in civil rights, must have helped improve student outcomes. The despair of jobless, post-industrial inner cities that followed must have compromised the effectiveness of federal education investments. 
Jennings then documents how and why NCLB accountability failed. He bluntly reminds us that "Tests do not a good education make.”  Moreover, “When it came to measuring student progress in school, NCLB got it wrong.” Pulling it all together, Jennings’s analysis of NAEP testing results shows:
It is ironic that from the 1970s to the early 2000s. achievement generally rose and achievement gaps generally narrowed, which would seem to refute the Title I evaluation results used to support the shift to test-driven reform.
He also concludes:
The long-term NAEP results showed gains, especially for Black and Hispanic students, until 2008. A disturbing finding, though, is that since 2008, achievement has not increased for students except for 13-year-olds, nor have achievement gaps narrowed between racial/ethnic groups.
When he turns to the post-2008 era, Jennings is appropriately cautious. Being an advocate, my reading of the evidence is that Arne Duncan and the Billionaires Boys’ Club put NCLB-type testing on steroids. Together, they increased the percentage of educators held personally accountable for bubble-in test score growth from less than 1/4th to nearly 100%. I read the evidence as saying that Duncan and corporate reformers took an awful accountability system and made it worse, probably inflicting the greatest harm on the poorest children of color.
An objective scholar as careful as Jennings might say, however, that it is still too soon to characterize the Duncan record in such a manner. He is judicious in summarizing the evidence in a way that most educators will accept, telling Lyndsey Layton of the Washington Post,  “The record will show these policies brought about minimum improvement. ... “They also did considerable harm.”
Jennings is critical of the reformers’ faith in charters and value-added evaluations, as well as indicating that Common Core was partly undermined by the refusal to listen to teachers’ complaints about testing. But, probably wisely, he is slower to pronounce judgments on policies that are just now being implemented. For instance, he picks his closing words carefully in terms of the quantitative portion of teachers’ evaluations:
My hope, though, is that student test scores will not be used improperly. Policymakers should heed the researchers and test-preparers who stress that tests in current use were not created to be valid in assessing teacher performance for purposes of major decisions such as pay and job retention. 
I've been going back and forth about the last quarter of Presidents, Congress, and the Public Schools where Jennings makes policy recommendations. On one hand, it would be hard to initiate a grand new federal effort until we have some distance from the hubris and the social engineering of the Duncan years. But, who am I to discount suggestions based on Jennings’s decades of experience? I think he has persuaded me but that is a topic for another post. - JT(drjohnthompson)

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