New ESEA Continues “Reign of Error”

16 Aug

In September both the house and senate versions of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) are scheduled for a conference committee. Since 1965, title I of this law has provided money to schools with children living in poverty. That provision is beneficial, but it has unfortunately become the lever that congress uses to wrestle control of schools away from local communities and parents. Both proposed versions of this rewrite do exactly that.

The new ESEA should be blown up in conference and any legislator who supports the federalization of public schools should be thrown from office.

Many people I agree with most of the time say about the new ESEA proposal, “It is not perfect but it is an improvement over NCLB and it limits the power of the secretary of education.” That is all true but the proposed law still arrogates unwarranted power to the federal government; putting curricular choice and education theory in the hands of politicians and their patrons.

We already have a generation of teachers that have never seen education without standards and what Peter Greene calls the “Big Test.” This legislation ordering testing and standards will continue the real damage being done to our schools and children.

My title that says the new ESEA continues the “Reign of Error” is a tip of the hat to Diane Ravitch’s latest book. In her book The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Diane recounts her journey from being an architect of standards based education and accountability as Assistant Secretary of Education in the George H. W. Bush administration to her present strong opposition to these ideas.

Diane tells of reviewing 20 years of work materials and coming to a new understanding. On page 13, she says:

“Before long, I found that I was reverting to my once familiar pattern as a friend and supporter of public education. Over time, my doubts about accountability and choice deepened as I saw the negative consequences of their implementation.”

Now, Diane’s old boss, former Secretary of Education, Lamar Alexander, is the chairman of the senate education committee. He is still very much enamored with standards and accountability. His version of the new ESEA states the purpose of title I:

“The purpose of this title is to ensure that all children have a fair, equitable, and significant opportunity to receive a high-quality education that prepares them for postsecondary education or the workforce, without the need for postsecondary remediation, and to close educational achievement gaps.”

Sounds wonderful but then the senators threaten to take away all federal money to schools with children at or below the poverty line unless they adopt the senate’s edicts on education. The house does the same.

Since more than 20% of children in the US live at or below the federal guidelines for poverty, state education budgets will be devastated if they do not comply with federal authority. States became dependent on these monies when it was originally offered in 1965 without the federal mandates about how to teach, what to teach and how to evaluate teaching.

The meat of federal control in the senate version of the new ESEA starts in section 1111. Here, senators transform local school boards into tax collectors who enact authoritarian mandates from federal and state bureaucrats. Parents and educators no longer have significant input into their own school’s policies.

From the senate bill:

Section 1111 paragraph “(B) describes how the State will implement evidence-based strategies for improving student achievement under this title and disseminate that information to local educational agencies.”


(A) IN GENERAL.—Each State shall provide an assurance that the State has adopted challenging academic content standards and aligned academic achievement standards (referred to in this Act as ‘challenging State academic standards’), which achievement standards shall include not less than 3 levels of achievement, that will be used by the State, its local educational agencies, and its schools to carry out this part. A State shall not be required to submit such challenging State academic standards to the Secretary.

(C) SUBJECTS.—The State shall have such standards in mathematics, reading or language arts, and science, and any other subjects as determined by the State, which shall include the same knowledge, skills, and levels of achievement expected of all public school students in the State.”


(A) IN GENERAL.—Each State plan shall demonstrate that the State educational agency, in consultation with local educational agencies, has implemented a set of high-quality statewide academic assessments that—
(i) includes, at a minimum, academic statewide assessments in mathematics, reading or language arts, and science; and”

This language that mandates standardized education held accountable by testing goes on for many pages. Then section 1114 describes mandated intervention strategies for schools that do poorly on the “Big Test.”

The ESEA rewrite in both houses of congress orders a behaviorist approach to education driven by the terrible pedagogical theory known as standards based education. It is a mechanized approach. The problem is that young humans are not mechanisms.

Even if standards were to be adopted they should be adopted by the local communities not amateur educators serving in the United States congress who have the power to impose their will on local communities that they have never seen.

Federal control of schools by forced testing is based on the belief that the “Big Test” accurately identifies learning or teaching. It absolutely does no such thing. The “Big Test” does reflect the condition of the neighborhood from which a school’s students are drawn; however, these conditions completely mask any test derived information about the quality of the school or its teachers.

Jessica Holloway-Libell and Audrey Amrein-Beardsley released a meta-study this July which cites overwhelming evidence that schemes like Value Added Measures (VAM) are completely unsupported by research. It is the latest paper in a long string of papers that show that evaluating schools and teachers by standards based testing is folly. It does not give any information about the quality of education. The “Big Test” is USELESS as a tool to evaluate teacher or school performance.

I recently wrote a response to my congressman, Scott Peters about his involvement in the house version of the ESEA rewrite. I wrote:

“The best school accountability is performed by regional accrediting agencies which send in teams of current educators who spend a week or more evaluating each school. They interview; administrators, teachers, students, non-certified staff and parents. They visit every class room and analyze all school documents including action plans. Finally they give useful feedback with a clear idea of what they expect in the way of improvement going forward.”

The path of success in American education which has led to our great democratic social success and world leadership in: science, mathematics, literature, the arts and economics is local control. If education theories are good they will propagate. If they are bogus theories like accountability and standards which have never been adopted without coercion, they will die a natural death.

Authoritarian models always fail because they eventually adopt bogus theories by compulsion. The US congress cannot succeed as school board of America. Reject the new ESEA and its unwise usurpation of local school governance.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: