Flap in Virginia Shows Reformers’ Fealty to Ideology over Implementation

While I was away on vacation, Andy “Eduwonk” Rotherham took to the pages of the Washington Post to excoriate Virginia for setting “together and unequal” standards as part of its approved ESEA-waiver application. “The state,” Rotherham wrote, “took the stunning step of adopting dramatically different school performance targets based on race, ethnicity and income.” By 2017, Virginia expects 78 percent of white students and 89 percent of Asian students to pass its math tests, “but just 57 percent of black students, 65 percent of Hispanics students, and 59 percent of low-income students.” The solution, Rotherham writes, is for Virginia “to set common targets that assume minority and poor students can pass state tests at the same rate as others.”

I appreciate the intuitive appeal of Rotherham’s argument; it was a similar concern about backing away from NCLB’s lofty goals that led me to attack an earlier set of tweaks way back in 2005. But on this one, Andy’s got it wrong, and Virginia officials have it right. As David Foster, the president of Virginia’s state board of education told the Washington Post’s Lyndsey Layton, “If you just set an arbitrary target without regard for what’s achievable and where they’re starting from, you’re just shooting in the dark. That was the whole problem with No Child Left Behind. It made no sense to say that by an arbitrary year. . . every child everywhere in this vast country would pass every math and reading test. We made a joke of the process that way.”

In other words, No Child Left Behind’s aspirational aims were more effective as rhetoric than as an accountability regime. As Rick Hess has argued persuasively, if the law’s objectives, carrots, and sticks are to actually motivate educators, and not just demoralize them, they must been seen as achievable. So why is it so “stunning” that Virginia wouldn’t expect the achievement gap to evaporate in just five years?

To be sure, even Virginia officials have agreed that the goals put into their ESEA application weren’t ambitious enough; they will come back later this month with more challenging targets for their poor and minority students. That’s fair; groups that are further behind should be expected to make greater progress over time.

But to follow Rotherham’s advice and demand “common targets” is to doom the next phase of NCLB implementation to the same fate as the last: It will fail, because it will lose credibility with the very people expected to make it succeed—the educators.

America’s schools aren’t doing nearly well enough, especially for our neediest children. We need accountability systems that create urgency and push for significant gains every year. Ideological arguments and utopian objectives don’t help.

-Mike Petrilli

This blog entry originally appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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