Flap in Virginia Shows Reformers’ Fealty to Ideology over Implementation

By 09/04/2012

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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.

Comment on this article
  • Victor says:

    Interesting. I’ve never heard an educator say, “The goal is too high.” Though I suppose, according to this article, many have. I am in school and will become an educator next year. I sincerely hope that I never feel this way. I hope lofty goals motivate me and don’t demoralize me. I plan to teach in just the sort of school addressed in this article–a majority of minority students. Marva Collins went to a black urban school and had 5th graders reading Emerson…talk about a lofty goal. Have any of you read Emerson? I’m glad she didn’t think the bar was too high. I have a feeling her students feel the same way. I agree that we shouldn’t try to set nation-wide standards, but to me it’s an argument for decentralization, not lowering standards based on race. Standards should be set locally based on culture and community. Yes, raise the bar slowly, but do they really think it’s a race problem? Do they really think it’s an economic problem? It’s culture guys–culture. There is a difference. I am currently doing a practicum in a rural school where the average income is far lower than the national average. The culture of the students, however, is drug free, alcohol free, with traditional married parents, religious values and a strong work ethic. The kids exceed expectations. It has nothing to do with money, nothing to do with race. The problem is cultural. Until the powers that be live up to this fact, they’ll continue to make the same mistakes in their attempts to close the gaps.

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