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Education Bill

June 15, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: To help us put the education bill into perspective, we turn to Bob Chase, the President of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union; Chester Finn, a former Reagan Administration education official who is president of the Fordham Foundation, an education think tank here in Washington; Lisa Graham Keegan, the Chief Executive Officer of the Education Leaders Council, a nonprofit organization of state officials, and Amy Wilkins of the Education Trust, also a nonprofit education organization.

Well, we still have two very different versions of this bill floating around. Just to stress again that these have to be harmonized before they go to the President, but let’s get your perspectives on what these conference committees have to work with, the overview of the bill.

LISA GRAHAM KEEGAN: Well, I think the most important thing, Ray, is that this has already changed the dialogue. People say, what have these bills done? Obviously, federal legislation doesn’t change American education; it’s a very small portion. But the direction has already changed. Much of the dialogue now centers on how we’re going to make sure that all kids make academic progress every year. And, of course, we have discussion about whether that is being done well or not, but the key point is that the debate by the President and the Congress in my opinion has changed the debate in the states. Now it’s a matter of how and not whether we’re going to know where all kids are when it comes to math and reading.

RAY SUAREZ: So if it does nothing else just setting tone, setting direction is an important goal?

LISA GRAHAM KEEGAN: That is, it is an important goal. It ought to do other things, and it’s going to. There are other goals and still will be after this passes, but that has been a huge difference, and it’s felt in the states. The difference, it’s a different focus out there now.

RAY SUAREZ: Bob Chase, what do you see when you look at the two bills?

BOB CHASE: Well, for the most part I see positive aspects of both bills. There are differences that have to be ironed out. And, obviously there are other issues there that I hope as Congress remains in session that they will address. But for the most part, I think we are seeing a piece of legislation that will help, that will move us forward — that will continue to enable us to bring about the kind of reforms that are necessary. I’m particularly pleased, for example, that there are portions of the bill and dollars being allocated to help those schools that are performing the weakest and need improvement. I’m particularly pleased to see opportunities in there to improve reading programs especially in the early grades.

There are some areas, however, that do need to be looked at very carefully and as the conferees meet and put together a final version of this legislation, hopefully they will be able to iron out those differences and make the final bill a strong piece of legislation.

RAY SUAREZ: Chester Finn, when you compare the House and Senate versions to what President Bush proposed, how do you like the work that has been done on the Hill?

CHESTER FINN: They are badly diminished from what the president proposed. The president proposed the bill I wish they had ended up with. What they’ve ended up is much shrunken in every sense except the dollar sense; in the dollar sense it’s ballooned but in the sense of its likelihood of bringing about change on the ground in American schools and school systems, many of the engines that changed that the president proposed were just shut down by the Congress.

RAY SUAREZ: Like?

CHESTER FINN: Well, two that are important to me I think in the original Bush plan, one was the idea of serious state flexibility. Let states spend their federal dollars as they see fit in return for better results. That was known as charter states in the President’s proposal, and the merest shadow of that idea remains in the Senate bill and not even that in the House bill. The Bush plan also had some serious empowering parents through a couple of school choice mechanisms. One was the pilot voucher program that we just watched on your news segment.

The other was going to be the opportunity for parents of kids stuck in terminally bad public schools to take their dollars to private schools. Both those forms of school choice were eliminated. And basically any empowering parents was eliminated from the legislation, so the only real engine of change that we’re left with, other than the atmospherics that Lisa talked about, which I think are not unimportant, the only engine of change we are left with actually is testing. And we probably will talk a lot about the testing provisions, but that is about all that is left from the original Bush proposal that I thought had hope of bringing about some alterations in American schools.

RAY SUAREZ: Amy Wilkins, you’ve compared the House and Senate versions and found the Senate wanting, why?

AMY WILKINS: I think that the House version when you look at the House version, it’s sort of a more purposeful reform vehicle. It has sort after vision of where it wants schools to go and how it wants schools to get there. For example, the House bill, in talking about how you measure the progress of schools, requires that you look at individual groups of students, that you look at how the black students in school are doing, how the Latino students in a school are doing, how the poor kids in a school are doing, how the disabled kids are doing. Looking at groups separately is the only way we’re going to close the achievement gap.

RAY SUAREZ: You mean inside a school system or under the same roof?

AMY WILKINS: Within the same school. You know, what you see even within the same school is big achievement gaps between groups of kids. And unless we look at those kids as separate groups, what happens is schools average the scores together, the mathematical function of averaging is to disguise gaps, to get sort of extremes. And so if we are ever going to close the achievement gap, we really need to look at groups of kids individually within the same school, and the Senate bill just doesn’t do that.

RAY SUAREZ: Testing keeps coming up again and again in a lot of the critiques of this bill. A lot of attention has been paid to the fact that states can choose their own testing regimes. Do you agree with this approach? Does it give you data that is really useful at the end of the process?

LISA GRAHAM KEEGAN: Oh, I think it’s very useful within the state itself, absolutely. But the state in my opinion has to have one standard for all kids. It gets to the issue that Amy is talking about, which is you can’t allow groups of kids to continue to fall behind, which is what is happening all over the United States. Within a state you set a standard and you test for the standard all kids. The bills have proposed that there is sort of a national audit, if you will, or way to sort of look at whether the tests that we are all using are comparable against a standard that is generally accepted. We like that. Most of our states are using what is called a National Assessment of Educational Progress anyway. The country has been using it for 30 years, it’s a solid test.

Many of the congressional folks who stand up and say we doesn’t want a national test, then turn around and use a chart from the NAEP about how the kids are doing, it’s a highly relied upon test. And we think that is a good way to say, look, here is a state test, here is another state test. Let’s give them the NAEP and let’s see are we running pretty close here — because at the end of the day you have to be able to read the same way and do mathematics the same way, regardless of where you are.

RAY SUAREZ: But also at the end of the day even if you are spending similar amounts of money you won’t be able to compare the kids in Chicago to those 95 miles away in Milwaukee.

CHESTER FINN: You won’t because Illinois and Wisconsin will each set up their own test and because the national assessment that Lisa was talking about won’t go to any unit smaller than a whole state. So you will be able to compare Illinois and Wisconsin as a whole, if they both choose to use the NAEP as their audit test. But you wouldn’t be able to compare Chicago and Milwaukee, no, you won’t.

BOB CHASE: If I can — I think there are a couple of things to take into consideration. First of all I think that the testing component is an important component — and although it may surprise some — we are not in any way against the appropriate use of tests to give us the data so we can see how kids are doing and put into place the kinds of programs we need to help young people achieve. What we have to be very careful about, though, is how they are used. An example, right now when we test Title I schools and kids in Title I schools, we can compare what the situation is tests from state to state.

In the state of Texas right now about 1 percent of those in schools that are deemed to be Title I schools have been designated as low performance schools. In the state of Michigan, that percentage is about 77 percent. I point that out not because I think that Michigan’s Title I schools are 77 percent in more trouble than those in Texas, but I point that out because of the discrepancies between the assessments that are being used. So as these are developed we have to be particularly careful that what we are doing — especially since dollars will eventually be tied into the results, that are going to be showing, and what we are doing, is in fact measuring things in appropriate and good ways, so that tests are being used in an appropriate way not being used as a quick fix or an easy solution.

AMY WILKINS: Well, I guess Bob’s point about the difference between the assessments in the state of Texas and Michigan reinforces Lisa’s point about why we need a NAEP – a national standard to compare the tests. Then you can look at the Michigan test and you can look at the Texas test, compare it to NAEP and know what is going on.

BOB CHASE: As long as we understand that the NAPE test may not have been designed to do that. We have to take a look at the appropriate use of NAEP tests or other types of tests that would be used as benchmark, and let’s not just jump and say this one will do what we want it to do to measure the equity involved in that which is being tested or the test results. We have to be very, very careful when we start doing these kinds of things to make sure that we get it right. That is all we are saying. Please let’s take the time to ensure it’s being done right so that we don’t end up creating a situation that is more inequitable or more problematic than that which currently exists.

CHESTER FINN: There is nothing if not time built in this legislation. This legislation contemplates roughly a 17-year timeline between the first year that the states have to have tests in place and the year when the kids have to have been brought up to standard.

BOB CHASE: I think that is stretching a little bit.

CHESTER FINN: Add 5 and 12 years, I get 17, Bob. What do you get?

BOB CHASE: I don’t have the legislation right in front of me to give the exact number of years, but you and I know it calls for two years then two years down the line. It is much, it will be brought into play much more reasonably than 17 years.

CHESTER FINN: I wish that were true. I read the Senate bill on the drive out here. The first year in which any test results are required under this bill is the school year 2005-2006. Which is five years from now. Then a 12-year clock starts to tick for kids making progress toward the state standards. At the end of 12 more years the state is supposed to have reached its expectations for all of its students.

BOB CHASE: You and I know all along the way that are measurements that have to be made and progress has to be continued to be made, that we are not talking about nothing being done for a period of 12 or 17 years.

RAY SUAREZ: But I think that is an important point, because we are talking not about individual kids who will be in third grade and five years later be taking tests as 8th graders. We are talking about bringing up schools and systems and districts and all these other things along with that, aren’t we?

LISA GRAHAM KEEGAN: No.

RAY SUAREZ: When we talk about a bill with a life as long as this one?

LISA GRAHAM KEEGAN: Perhaps, but we are talking in the interim about real live individual kids now. This conversation gets so esoteric and we start talking about process. Let’s talk about children. Back in the gym the kids, these tests are not for new standards. Everybody is saying we need to get a chance to be moving this in slowly. They ask children to read and to do foundational mathematics. This is not asking all the kids to understand Calculus or high-level function — reading Voltaire so we can have commentary. This is very simplistic stuff. And what the tests are doing is telling us a very painful truth. Our organization is a little bit more urgent about this and it isn’t a federal law that’s going to make people urgent. It will be the leadership in the school itself, but I don’t think that — we can talk about being very careful about the use of tests. It is very important. But we also know enough right now. We ought not pretend that we need ten years of piloting this because 12 years is a lifetime of schooling.

BOB CHASE: Lisa I don’t think anyone is saying we need that length of time. What I’m saying we need to proceed in a reasoned and careful way. That does not mean it has to take ten years. It means we have to be smart about how we go about doing that. I pointed out the difference between the obviously the rigors of the test in Texas and in Michigan as an example of what have can happen if we are not careful in how we use tests and what we do with them. These tests are going to have some rather high stakes implications. I’m not saying that they shouldn’t. But I’m saying they are going to have that so what we need to do is be smart on how we design them, how we implement them to make sure that while they are rigorous, they’re at the same time fair and look at a whole host of other things in addition to tests as it relates to how students will do.

AMY WILKINS: Bob makes a good point. There is a timeline in here which is troubling. The bill says that after one year of troubled test scores that you then go into school improvement. Most of the researchers are saying that you really need a fuller picture of schools and you really need to look at least two years of school data; the second troubling part of the timeline in this bill is you that have one year of technical assistance before the sanctions kick in. We really believe that you probably need a longer period of technical assistance to turn schools around. In this bill there is a rush to sanctions.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, let me get a quick response from Chester Finn.

CHESTER FINN: There are all kinds of technical problems for the Conference Committee to try to work out over the next few months. But the big problem with this bill is it’s going to take forever before any kid in any school in America is going to feel any effects of this legislation – a very, very long time.

BOB CHASE: I couldn’t disagree with you more. We see an improvement already. I can point out to you the situation in Edgewood, Texas, where we went in there and working with our local there with the parents, with the community groups, with the school district, with everybody there actually — a place where in fact there had been eight or nine schools who were identified by the state as low performance schools. And we turned it around within a couple or three years. No there are no low performance schools there. The dropout rate has dropped dramatically. So now it’s 6 percent rather than somewhere around 20 or so.

CHESTER FINN: You are not the federal government.

RAY SUAREZ: I’m going to call an end to it there with the hope that when we see the final shape of this bill we can talk more about this. Guests, thank you all.