Obama serious about using Federal Funds to drive up school standards

Charters seen as key drivers for change


In the States the law known as “No Child Left Behind” is the primary law governing the federal government’s role in education.

The Obama administration has proposed  a sweeping overhaul , calling for broad changes in how schools are judged to be succeeding or failing, as well as for the elimination of the law’s 2014 deadline for bringing every American child to academic proficiency.

The new measures include encouraging schools to compete for Federal funds.  Obama wants charter schools to play a key  role in driving up standards.   First passed during the Johnson administration as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, it was rebranded as part of its last major overhaul in 2001, when Democrats joined with President Bush to make its focus the use of standardized test scores in schools, particularly those serving minority students. The  Law seeks to  close  the achievement gap between minority and white students and to encourage teacher quality. Succsesive administrations have been frustrated by how difficult it has been to improve outcomes and, for the richest nation,  the States performs relatively  poorly in international league tables despite being a world leader in Higher Education.

Currently the education law requires the nation’s 98,000 public schools to make “adequate yearly progress” as measured by student test scores. Schools that miss their targets in reading and maths must offer students the opportunity to transfer to other schools and free after-school tutoring. Schools that repeatedly miss targets face harsher sanctions, which can include staff dismissals and closings. All students are required to be proficient by 2014.   Educators have complained loudly in the eight years since the law was signed that it was branding tens of thousands of schools as failing but not forcing them to change.

The current law calls for every state to set standards in reading and maths, and for every student to be proficient at those subjects by 2014. Students in grades 3 through 8 are tested yearly, and reports are issued as to whether schools are making “adequate yearly progress” toward that goal. The scores of groups including for instance minorities, disabled and non-English speaking students, are broken out separately. Schools that fail to make the required annual progress, whether overall or for subgroups, face a mounting scale of sanctions, from being required to provide tutoring to students in poor-performing schools to the threat of state takeovers or the shutting down of individual schools.

The current system issues the equivalent of a pass-fail report card (the UK is currently introducing school report cards, loosely modelled on the US version) for every school each year. However administration officials say that the current evaluation fails to differentiate among chaotic schools in chronic failure, schools that are helping low-scoring students improve and high-performing suburban schools that nonetheless appear to be neglecting some low-scoring students.

Instead, under the administration’s proposals, a new accountability system would divide schools into more categories, offering recognition to those that are succeeding and providing large new amounts of money to help improve or close failing schools.

The administration has already made its mark on education through Race to the Top, a federal grant programme in which 40 states are competing for $4 billion in education money included in last year’s federal stimulus bill.

The competition has also encouraged states to open the door to more charter schools which receive public money but are run by independent groups. The Tories supply side reform proposals here  are heavily influenced by the Charter school model in particular the Knowledge is Power programme, a not for profit chain of  smallish schools that works closely with parentss, delivers personalised learning and is not shy about extending the school day to aid pastoral care.

Obama is keen for states to lift the cap on the number of charter schools allowed.   The education law has been praised on the one hand for focusing attention on achievement gaps, but it has also generated significant opposition, especially from educators and unions, who contend that it sets impossible goals for students and schools and humiliates students and educators when they fall short. The law has, to date, labelled some 30,000 schools as “in need of improvement,” a euphemism for failing, but states and districts have done little to change them.  The Federal system in which responsibility for education is highly devolved has always made centrally driven initiatives  problematic but the Obama administration is determined to drive this through and sees charter schools as important drivers for change.



Helpful, but no panacea? Select Committee cautious about cards


The Government sees Report Cards as an important element in the future accountability framework for schools.  The school report card, announced by the Secretary of State in October 2008, inspired by New York schools report cards, will be introduced from 2011, and a two year pilot started in autumn 2009.  It is intended partly to answer criticisms of the narrow evidence base of the current Achievement and Attainment Tables, and the Department stated that it “will provide our key statement on the outcomes we expect from schools, and the balance of priorities between them, ensuring more intelligent accountability across schools’ full range of responsibilities.   The school report card will be published annually, with the results of more recent Ofsted inspections being incorporated when they are available. DCSF will compile and publish the school report card nationally and will provide an electronic copy to schools for them to publish locally. It will set out the key outcomes expected of schools, to include pupil attainment, progress and wellbeing; reducing the impact of disadvantage; parents’ and pupils’ perceptions of the school and the support they receive; and, possibly, partnership working. The progression measure will be contextualised in order to account for schools with differing intakes.

The DCSF Select Committee though has its concerns and issues several warnings about school report cards. While it believes the broader evidence base proposed for the school report card is a step in the right direction it  warns  the Government that it should not make claims for the school report card which do not stand up to scrutiny. The Committee does not believe that  it  will ever constitute a definitive view of a school’s performance but it might, if properly constructed, be a useful tool in assessing a broader range of aspects of a school’s performance than is possible at present.

The Committee released its report on School Accountability in January this year.

First, it says that while report cards assess a broader range of aspects of school performance than performance tables they cannot be the basis for a definitive judgment of overall performance. In the Committee’s view school report cards will never constitute a definitive view of a school’s performance and the school report card should not purport to give a balanced view of a school’s overall performance. It says that the Government should make clear on the face of the school report card that its contents should only be considered as a partial picture of the work of a school.

Second, it notes concerns about the lack of evidence to support school report cards. Professor Peter Tymms of Durham University told the Committee that it was not possible to know for sure what effect the report card had in New York, because there was no way of making an evidence-based assessment. He said that many reforms and changes had been introduced simultaneously in New York and this made it impossible to draw causal links between a single initiative and an outcome or set of outcomes.

Third, it expresses concern about the complexity of information being presented to parents. It says that during the Committee’s visit to New York, it was told that the report card used there was considered too complex for many parents to understand.

Fourth, it notes widespread concerns about using an overall score or grade for a school’s performance. The report says that the Committee was struck by the weight of evidence against assessing schools by an overall score or grade as is done in New York. It states that a school report card can be a full account of a school’s performance, yet the inclusion of an overall score suggests that it is.

Fifth, it expresses serious concerns about using student well-being indicators such as attendance, exclusions, post-16 progression, the amount of sport provided, and the uptake of school lunches as part of the assessment of school performance in report cards. It questions the extent to which such indicators can really be accurate, based as they are on a limited set of loosely-related quantitative data and problematic survey evidence. It notes that academic research on school effectiveness is lacking in the field of student well-being and wider outcomes beyond assessment results. Consequently, it says that in the absence of robust, independent research evidence, the Government should exercise great caution in widening the accountability system beyond test scores.

Sixth, the Committee warns that there are inherent methodological problems in using survey evidence, such as parent and student satisfaction surveys, in assessments of school performance. It has concerns about the validity of conclusions drawn from unrepresentative samples of parents and students. It says that it is unacceptable that schools with the most challenging intakes might suffer skewed performance scores because of a low response rate to surveys for the purposes of the school report card.

However, the Committee chose not to make a final judgment about school report cards because it was in the pilot stage of development. However, it did say that the school report card requires a considerable amount of work before it is suitable for use as a fundamental part of the English school accountability system. It urged the Government to take account of the concerns raised about the proposal.