Students leave Coach Reyna's classroom after a discussion with Senator José Menéndez. Photo by Scott Ball.

President Barack Obama signed the Every Child Succeeds Act into law on Dec. 10. Aside from the collective gasp at the level bipartisan cooperation on something as politically potent as education reform, the new law has awakened a glimmer of hope for many who have been waiting for relief from the stringent, some would say Draconian, consequences of No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

But right now, it is just that, a glimmer. While the implications of the new law are still being explored, one thing is clear: it puts states back in the driver seat. This is cause for celebration by many, but by no means a clear road map of what the future will hold for struggling schools, especially in Texas.

The Texas State Teachers Association (TSTA) is one of those entities tentatively hoping for the dawn of a new day. Clay Robison with the Teachers Association said the most exciting part of the bill is the possibility of state and district control of how testing is implemented and used.

“It leaves more flexibility to state and local control,” Robison said.

The new law still requires reading and math testing for grades three through eight, but leaves it up to states, and possibly districts, how those test scores are used. One of the main criticisms of NCLB was that standardized testing became a do-or-die wager for schools, leading to an overemphasis on the tests. Schools failing to meet adequate yearly progress (AYP), faced the growing threat of school closure, fired staff, and lost accreditation. Often their survival hung on the schools’ ability implement a series of changes that teachers and administrators knew were not the root cause of their problems.

Starting Monday, this classroom in Edgewood ISD will be filled with young minds. Photo by Matthew Lynde Chesnut.
A classroom in Edgewood ISD. Photo by Matthew Lynde Chesnut. Credit: Matthew Lynde Chesnut for the San Antonio Report

I personally sat on a campus leadership team while a local school struggled through their first year of remediation after failing to meet AYP. Their frustration was palpable as issues like food insecurity, poor health, and lack of parent involvement were ignored in favor of pre-selected issues that could be converted into data for a spreadsheet.

“The goals of No Child Left Behind … were the right ones,” President Obama said. “But in practice, it often fell short.”

Most will agree with the president that the goal of NCLB, closing the achievement gap, was noble. Former President George W. Bush, who signed the bill into law, saw it as a strike against “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” However, over time it became evident that simply raising expectations was not going to solve the root causes of the achievement gap. Instead, it placed immense pressure on schools and districts to create test-passers, while music, art, physical education, and recess faded from the school day.

Even in the classroom, many teachers lamented the rigid structure high-stakes tests imposed on students who needed more time or a different approach to engage subject matter. They worried that curiosity and inquiry were being squelched.

While all of this could be changing, nothing in the new law seems to require specific changes.

In 2011, education secretary Arne Duncan projected that NCLB would soon have a vast majority of the nation’s schools under AYP intervention. In 2013 he made it possible for states to apply for waivers to the federal requirements. President Obama’s Race to the Top initiative offered grants to states proposing education reforms that included teacher evaluation, charter school expansion, adoption of programs like Common Core Standards, new data systems for tracking and evaluating student performance, and plans to turn around low performing schools.

The end result of all of the waivers and grants is that most states have their own unique relationship to NCLB, charter schools, teacher evaluation, and measurement of student subgroups. Eliminating NCLB could look different in each state.

Advocacy groups around the country have expressed concerns about the shift to state control. Historically speaking, minority groups do not fare as well as their white counterparts in every state.

Christina Medrano's class. The best place in SA to become bi-lingual. Photo by Bekah McNeel.
Christina Medrano’s class at Bonham Academy. Photo by Bekah McNeel.

In Texas, which led the country in implementation of standardized testing, the future is unsure. The state is facing a lawsuit brought by hundreds of school districts over inadequate funding. While the Republicans that lead the state are not fans of federal intervention, they’re also not always keen to adopt the kind of reforms that groups like the Teachers Association and the Center for Public Policy Priorities (CPPP) would like to see.

State Rep. Diego Bernal (D-123) has made it a personal priority to visit each of the 50 schools in his district, asking administrators about their biggest challenge. In addition to the usual finance discussion, Bernal has encountered universal agreement on the hindrance posed by high-stakes testing. From affluent suburban schools to inner city schools, the uniformity of their response has surprised him.

“One of the real tragedies in Texas is that we have this environment of high-stakes testing,” Bernal said.

State Representative Diego Bernal (D123) socializes prior to the event. Photo by Scott Ball.
State Representative Diego Bernal (D-123). Photo by Scott Ball.

The tragic element of the policy comes from an inverse relationship of support and performance, Bernal said. When a school fails a test, they have resources and support pulled, replaced by more administrative burdens, like required interventions when a school fails to meet AYP.

Robison said that while they are still sifting through the lengthy bill, the immediate implications seem to remove a huge barrier for advocacy groups. The drive to Austin is shorter than the drive to Washington. It’s one less layer of red tape, and a more equal pairing of advocacy groups and legislative agendas. 

The Teachers Association hopes to increase the attention given to solutions that work. They want to see more community schools to address the root causes of the achievement gap, and better evaluation of students’ and teachers’ performance.

“We hope to be able to convince the state or districts to be able to use other criteria (in student and school evaluation),” said Robison.

Bernal shares his hesitant optimism, because he has seen how high-stakes testing has been a burden to every socio-economic strata. Punitive use of testing started as a way to hold inner city schools accountable for what lawmakers saw as their culpability in the achievement gap, Bernal said. However, as well-resourced districts succumbed to AYP intervention, and pressure mounted on suburban kids to keep the doors open with their test scores, many parents spoke up. The dissatisfaction with “teaching to the test” has become nearly universal, and anxiety over AYP and school closures has grown with it. 

“I have found that public education is a place where urban Democrats and rural Republicans find common ground,” Bernal said.

In a previous interview with The Rivard Report, State Board of Education member Marisa B. Perez said that she suspected dissatisfaction with testing was driving parents to charter schools. Perez herself recently left her job with SAISD and begins work with the IDEA charter network next week.

The hopes for the new law are varied, but they have a common tone. Leaders and advocates hope to see testing used for diagnostic rather than punitive purposes. They want to see teachers free to teach, and schools held accountable to criteria appropriate to their student populations. Mostly, Robison said, the Teachers Association is hoping that the freedom to focus on real solutions and education will restore some sanity to what had become an increasingly unworkable system.

*Top Image: Students at Longfellow MS.  Photo by Scott Ball. 

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Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog, FreeBekah.com, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.