Why lifting accountability regs will hurt underserved pupils

Why lifting accountability regs will hurt underserved pupils

It may seem like only a wonk would fret about any congressional resolution to void regulations for the Every Student Succeeds Act but, in fact, it may be an enormous educational detriment for close to 37,000,000 students. And, just in case you were wondering, that’s about three quarters of the total public school population.

To understand how we got to this point, we must retrace the circuitous route that has led us to the brink of ESSA implementation. To begin with, for all its faults, No Child Left Behind had at least one redeeming characteristic: it required state and local education agencies to report on the progress of particular pupil groups that heretofore had been essentially ignored–at least from the standpoint of academic achievement.

These subsets included students considered as disadvantaged (based on poverty indicators), English language learners, and students with disabilities. One of the results of the new reporting requirements was that educators became more conscientious about the actual performance of these particular populations. The same sort of accountability was carried forward with the ESSA with the addition of three more subgroups–homeless, foster youth, and dependents in military families.

The law did not, however, determine certain particulars as far as direct implementation is concerned. It did not, for instance, specify the minimum number of young people that would constitute a subgroup (a factor known as the n) when reporting on student performance, or specify that SWD would need to be part of the calculation for school completion rates, or define a host of terms and timelines. These items, and others like them, were left to the regulators.

As is typical with any new law, after passage of the ESSA, the federal agency responsible for administration and oversight–in this case, the U.S. Department of Education–established regulations to make sure the intent of the law was properly applied. Three broad areas were addressed: Accountability and State Plans, Improving the Academic Achievement of the Disadvantaged - Academic Assessments, and Innovative Assessment Demonstration Authority.

Enter a new President and reconfigured congress, reciting, for better or for worse, the state and local control mantra. President Trump immediately issued an executive order suspending all regulations that were not currently in effect from all agencies, including those related to accountability and state planning under the ESSA. However, the other set of education rules relating to academic achievement and innovative projects were still operable because they had passed the deadline for presidential revocation.

The House of Representatives, then, not to be outdone (one is tempted to say in order to “trump” the president) employed a rarely enacted and innocuously entitled law known as the Congressional Review Act to veto all the ESSA regulations formerly put in place under President Obama’s administration. The Senate soon followed suit. The President will certainly sign the final bill.

All of this matters because ESSA, quite rightfully, was put in place to provide the utmost flexibility to states while, on the other hand, the regulations were designed to curb manipulation of the law in order to prevent the erosion of guarantees and protections for the student groups for whom it was designed.

Take three examples:

Without a designated quantifier for the n, education agencies could avoid reporting on the progress measures of particular sub-groups by simply designating that the number of pupils in those populations is too small. It would set back accountability over 20 years–to the days when academic achievement was only relevant with regard to a homogenous set of pupils above the poverty level, ethnically non-diverse, English speaking, and–most decidedly–without disabilities.

As further evidence, with no regulation so specifying, districts and states will no longer need to acknowledge the graduation rates for students with disabilities–a group comprising nine to 16 percent of the student body depending on the region of the country under scrutiny. Overall graduation percentages will become inflated (again, welcome back to the past!) and, more tragically, there will be no incentive to monitor high school completion by one of the groups with the highest attrition rates.

Even something as seemingly unobtrusive as timeline erasure can have a devastating impact for a particular set of pupils in danger of marginalization. Without a regulatory requirement for English proficiency within a specified period–or at least the necessity to account for gains or lack thereof–English learners could be left with insufficient instruction and once again overlooked in gauging a school’s effectiveness.

These are not “doomsday” scenarios. This type of willful neglect was exactly what was taking place throughout the country prior to NCLB and what resulted in Michael Gerson’s artful crafting of the phrase “soft bigotry of low expectations.”

There is little question that local control of educational systems works best and schools are more effective without bulldozing by federal machinery with no regard for the nuances of situational differences. Even so, the U.S. Department of Education (and before that, the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Human Services) has played a crucial role as protector, advocate, and champion for individuals, minorities, and outliers who are difficult to teach but stand to gain immensely from universal schooling.

Recognition of that responsibility dates back to Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Kansas and to the original Elementary Education Act of 1965, the purpose of which was, in part, to “strengthen … educational opportunities.” That obligation is pivotal to upholding our democratic process and should not be hampered by a Congress and President unresponsive to the potential of those young people who have the most to gain from full participation.